Amid steady criticism and cutting exposes of its increasing civilian body count in Somalia, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) committed itself earlier this month to producing quarterly reports in which it revisits past strikes and weighs evidence brought forth in support of claims that civilians were killed or injured in those strikes. With the first report published on Monday, the command has admitted to just two more civilian deaths and three injuries amid 91 evaluated strikes.
“While we follow very precise and rigorous standards, in instances where we fail to meet our expectations, we will admit the mistake,” AFRICOM commander US Army Gen. Stephen Townsend said in the report. “Regrettably two civilians were killed and three others injured in a February 2019 airstrike. We have the highest respect for our Somali friends, and we are deeply sorry this occurred.”
According to AFRICOM, between February 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, the command carried out 91 airstrikes in Somalia and Libya. The report notes AFRICOM received 70 allegations about 27 separate possible civilian casualty incidents, totaling roughly 90 alleged civilian casualties. The report notes that while a firm decision has been reached on 20 of the alleged incidents, seven are still under review. Only one was substantiated.
‘A Welcome Glimmer of Transparency’
“This first regular public report acknowledging AFRICOM’s role in civilian casualties is a welcome glimmer of transparency in more than a decade of deadly military operations that until now have been shrouded in secrecy,” Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for Eastern Africa, said in a Monday news release.
“Now there must be accountability and reparation for the victims and their families – the US military has still neither contacted nor offered reparation to the families of any of the civilians it has admitted to killing.”
Magango noted that the report “leaves out dozens of strikes by only looking at the period after 1 February 2019,” which goes against AFRICOM’s previous promise “to review all of its operations in Somalia.”
“It’s a positive step for AFRICOM to give bereaved Somali families the opportunity to self-report civilian casualties via its website. However, this will not serve the vast majority of impacted civilians who live in remote areas where smartphones are banned and internet access is poor. Alternative means should be made available, including through establishing a mechanism in Mogadishu to allow clan elders or elected representatives to speak on behalf of civilians whose loved ones have been killed by US air strikes,” Magango said.
Townsend seemed to preempt Amnesty’s response, offering up a defense in the report that questioned the efficacy of the NGO’s mission.
“There is no secret air or shadow war as some allege,” said Townsend. “How can there be when the whole world knows we are assisting Somalia in their fight against al-Shabaab terrorists? When we publically announce every single airstrike we conduct? When we publically admit to our mistakes? Unlike al-Shabaab we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties, and that is not changing on my watch.”
Lowered Standards Toughen Task
In March 2019, Amnesty blew the Pentagon’s undeclared war wide open with the report “The Hidden US War in Somalia,” which documented five incidents between October 2018 and February 2019 in which a total of 14 civilians were killed and eight more injured - a time period in which AFRICOM had boasted that “no AFRICOM airstrike resulted in any civilian casualty or injury.”
Subsequent reports have continued to allege civilian casualties caused by US airstrikes, which Sputnik has reported receive much less scrutiny than they once did. Relaxations in the rules of engagement under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) by the Trump administration eliminated consideration for possible civilian casualties prior to authorizing a strike.
Previously, Pentagon standards required a “near certainty” of the target's presence, as well as the absence of potential civilian casualties, but since 2017 have only required a "reasonable certainty" of the presence of al-Shabaab fighters - civilian casualties never enter the equation, making the AFRICOM review’s task all the harder.
Airstrike Tempo Picks Up
In 2019, the US carried out 63 strikes in Somalia - more than in any previous year. However, AFRICOM has set such a rapid pace for 2020 that it’s likely to far exceed previous years. In the first four months of 2020 alone, there have already been 39 airstrikes in the country - more than during the entirety of Barack Obama’s presidency, in which the command launched 36 such airstrikes, The Intercept noted.
Townsend told Voice of America the increased tempo is because “the threat is higher” after al-Shabaab mounted an attack on the Manda Bay airfield just across the border in Kenya in January, which killed three Americans. According to the AFRICOM chief, al-Shabaab, which is closely affiliated with al-Qaeda, “poses a significant threat to American interests in the region.”
However, the step-up comes amid a tug-of-war between US commands over service members as the Pentagon attempts to shift tens of thousands of troops toward theaters more important for confronting Russia and China, instead of keeping them scattered around the globe, engaged in various counter-terrorism operations. AFRICOM hosts roughly 6,000 US troops.