President Donald Trump is considering delegating more authority to the Defense Department to conduct anti-terrorist operations overseas, which at the moment require the White House approval. The commanders have the authority to take their own decisions only in declared war zones, but not outside. They must go all the way up to the president to launch a drone strike or a raid by a Special Operations team in the countries hit by crisis, like Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
According to the Guardian, Donald Trump’s administration is considering a military proposal that would designate various undeclared battlefields worldwide to be «temporary areas of active hostility». If approved, the measure would give military commanders the same latitude to launch strikes, raids and campaigns against enemy forces for up to six months that they possess in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
No top level mission by mission approval will be required anymore. The authority could be pre-delegated to Defense Secretary James Mattis on extremely sensitive operations like hostage rescues. It could be pushed down all the way down to the head of the Joint Special Operations Command for raids or drone strikes against pre-approved targets. If a high-value target is spotted, a force can move into action. It will waste no time waiting for a permission. It’ll be enough to keep the national security structures informed.
The threshold for ensuring the safety of civilians will be lowered from a «near certainty» that civilians would not be harmed to «reasonable certainty», similar to the standard on official battlefields.
The US military has greatly intensified its operations in Yemen recently. The Defense Department considers al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) the terror organization's most capable franchise. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has been steeped in US drone strike data for years, writes the «most US strikes in Yemen in one year was 47 in 2012; Trump has authorized at least 24 in just 40 days». And that comes out to about one drone strike every 1.6 days—versus the Obama average of one every 5.4 days. During President Obama’s two terms in office, he approved 542 such targeted strikes in 2,920 days—one every 5.4 days. From his inauguration through today, President Trump had approved at least 36 drone strikes or raids in 45 days—one every 1.25 days. These include three drone strikes in Yemen on January 20, 21, and 22; the January 28 Navy SEAL raid in Yemen; one reported strike in Pakistan on March 1; more than thirty strikes in Yemen on March 2 and 3; and at least one more on March 6.
According to Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, «Make no mistake, while we talk a lot about ISIS, AQAP is the organization that has more American blood on its hands. It is a deadly terrorist organization that has proven itself to be very effective in targeting and killing Americans». «We are working to stop them from that», Davis said on March 2, adding that the strikes were «part of a larger plan» aimed at disrupting the terrorist group.
The Trump administration plans to pursue wider military involvement in Somalia. It believes the current strategies, including drone attacks, are not enough. Recommendations by the Pentagon sent to the White House would allow US Special Forces to increase assistance to the Somali National Army and give the US military greater flexibility to launch more pre-emptive air strikes. General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of US Africa Command, described Somalia as «our most perplexing challenge». Currently there are about 50 American commandos rotating in and out of the country to advise and assist the local troops. The US already has military bases in Somalia, although it has not publicly acknowledged them. They are often used for drone attacks against al-Shabab targets. One of the largest bases is at Baledogle airfield, a former Somali air force base in Lower Shabelle region where US military experts also train Somali forces.
The new authorities could result in an increase in the number of US forces in Somalia. The African Union is planning to pull out its 20,000 peacekeeping forces in Somalia in 2020. Observers say Somali troops are unprepared to fight the extremist threat on their own.
The situations in the crisis-hit countries should be addressed internationally. US increased military involvement is not a solution as history shows. On March 13, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the situation in Yemen in a statement. «It is our firm belief that the Yemeni conflict cannot be resolved by military means», it reads. Russia calls for an immediate cessation of all hostilities.
Instead of unilateral military actions, the US could gain more by making a deal with Russia. Both countries could launch a diplomatic peace initiative. It makes sense. Media rarely highlight the unique role Russia can play to end the conflict. It’s worth mentioning that from the very start of the conflict in Yemen Moscow has never taken sides.
It has maintained relations with Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Unlike practically all other pertinent actors, except Oman, Moscow enjoys the relationship of trust with ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from the presidency in 2012, and the Houthis, the movement the ex-president is allied to, which currently controls the Yemeni capital and large parts of the country, especially in the north. Last year, Ali Abdullah Saleh even asked Russia for a military intervention, talking of reactivating old Yemeni agreements with the Soviet Union and offering «all the facilities» of Yemen’s bases, ports and airports to Russia.
Even after President Hadi moved to Saudi Arabia and the hot phase of the conflict started, Russia maintained its diplomatic presence in Sana. Representatives of various Yemeni political forces: Ansar Allah, the General People’s Congress, the Southern Movement, the Yemeni Socialist Party and many others have visited Moscow since the crisis erupted. Moscow has taken an active part in the diplomatic efforts of the Group of 18 Ambassadors to Yemen. It all makes Russia a perfect mediator – the only one able to find solution to the problem.
Somalia is another potential area of cooperation. On March 13, an oil tanker was hijacked by suspected pirates off the coast of the country – the first such hijacking in the region since 2012. For years, Russia, NATO, and the EU naval task forces carrying out the counter-piracy mission of the coast of Somalia. There is experience of taking joint actions to fight the common enemy. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast of the Indian Ocean is a common problem for many countries that should be tackled internationally.
The benefits of taking joint efforts addressing common problems are evident but Washington appears to act differently. Neither Russia, nor Iran, two key countries in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), have been invited to the US-hosted two-day anti-terrorist meeting of 68 countries starting March 22. The fight against the IS and other terrorist groups can be discussed in any format but it’s impossible to defeat them without Russia. It is confirmed by the fact that Russia, the US and Turkey held an urgent meeting at the level of chiefs of general staffs on March 7 to address the cooperation in the fight against terrorists in Syria and elsewhere. Much has been said about the need to cooperate on Libya. It’s not the Middle East only. The US will have to cooperate with Russia on Afghanistan even if it greatly increases its military presence there.
Nobody else but Donald Trump said in his remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that the last 15 years of US military action in the Middle East has been an almost incomprehensible waste of money – six trillion dollars – and that after all that US war and meddling the region was actually in worse shape than before we started. The president is right. Expanding the authority of military commanders alone is not a solution to the problem. Cooperation with other influential actors pursuing the common goal is the only effective way to have the mission accomplished.