Elusive Rewards of the Expanding U.S. “Shadow Wars”

Neha Ansari

Any optimism that the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab had been permanently subdued was brutally disabused in mid-January, when an armed assault on an upscale city block in Nairobi left at least 21 people dead. The tragedy should once again raise questions about the United States’ implicit theory of victory underlying its heavy and increasing use of drone strikes in counterterrorism operations in Somalia and beyond.

During the first year of the Donald J. Trump administration, the number of U.S. drone operations in Somalia increased by 150 percent, from 14 strikes in 2016 to 35 in 2017. This rise continued in 2018, as the Trump administration expanded military intervention via unmanned systems in undeclared warzones in East Africa and the Middle East, relaxing rules of military engagement and restoring powers to the CIA to conduct secret drone operations, which the Obama administration had scaled back.

At least 47 airstrikes were conducted by the U.S. military in Somalia in 2018, according to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), of which six were recorded as drone strikes by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. According to independent estimates, perhaps as many as a majority of the airstrikes were conducted by drones, although no U.S. government body has published a breakdown based on delivery platforms. AFRICOM has recently begun using the vaguer term “precision strikes” to describe all aerial kinetic action, providing no other details. Meanwhile, drone strikes conducted by the CIA in Somalia continue to go undisclosed, even as news reports highlight the intelligence agency’s increased involvement in what has been dubbed America’s “shadow war.” And this shadow war is and has been steadily expanding.

With the restoration of the CIA’s covert drone authorities, in conjunction with the expansion of the U.S. military’s use of drones, Somalia, Yemen, and possibly even Libya will have to brace themselves for more strikes. These undeclared warzones, among others, are areas that the Trump administration has been trying to designate as “temporary areas of active hostility” since 2017. This designation under executive branch policy would allow the generals to conduct operations in these areas without a sign-off from the White House—a departure from former president Barack Obama’s guidance under which military actions, particularly drone strikes, in undeclared battlefields had to be approved by the White House. A reclassification would grant U.S. military commanders the same autonomy to launch raids and military campaigns as they possess in active warzones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It is unclear whether this autonomy has been handed over; however, the uptick in U.S. strikes, particularly via drones, suggest that the White House remains determined to move in this direction.

A conspicuous example is the expansion of the drone program in Somalia. The air and drone operations there primarily target Al-Shabaab, a self-declared Al-Qaeda affiliate that seeks to establish its own brand of Shariah or Islamic law in Somalia. AFRICOM states that 300 Al-Shabaab militants were killed last year in the increased number of airstrikes—or rather, “precision strikes.”

What has curiously gone unexplained, however, is the justification for the uptick in drone strikes targeting Al-Shabaab, which has, during the last few years, been forced to retreat from cities, and has been limited to a few rural areas of the country. A decade ago, the group controlled large swaths of territory in Somalia, including some of its capital, Mogadishu. But not anymore, mostly due to successful ground operations led by an African Union coalition. Moreover, the U.S. State Department reports that in addition to losing territory, the terrorist group’s recruitment numbers have waned while defection rates have increased. Nevertheless, the number of U.S. airstrikes, including drone operations, continues to rise in the country.

Despite the expansion of America’s drone campaign in Somalia and the increasing death toll of Al-Shabaab militants, there is limited evidence that the continuing military intervention has been a success. The aerial campaign may have killed some of Al-Shabaab’s leadership, but it has not prevented or deterred the group from conducting attacks in Somalia or in neighboring Kenya. Just three weeks after AFRICOM touted the figure of 300 Al-Shabaab militants killed, the terrorist organization claimed responsibility for the deadly 19-hour siege of a hotel compound popular with foreign tourists and expats.

Meanwhile, just across the Gulf of Aden, the expansion of America’s shadow war is also playing out in Yemen. The estimated number of drone strikes in Yemen rose from 34 in 2016 to at least 120 during the following year—a staggering 250 percent spike. U.S. airstrikes, along with drone strikes, are targeting members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and preemptively preventing ISIS from gaining ground in Yemen, according to Russell Travers, the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Even though the number of confirmed drone strikes in Yemen in 2018 dropped to 36, the Trump administration’s amalgamated figure of authorized drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan was recorded at 238—much higher than the peaks of the Obama administration’s surge in drone operations. Moreover, according to the Daily Beast, Air Force budget documents show a 63 percent increase in purchases of Hellfire missiles in President Trump’s 2017 budget and another 20 percent increase in the most recent budget request. In recent years, Hellfire missiles have been primarily expended in arming Predator and Reaper drones.

The United States is expanding the already sprawling web of its “shadow wars” at the same time as it seeks to withdraw active combat troops from Iraq and Syria. This mix of policy decisions could be indicative of an Obama-inspired light footprint strategy, in which the U.S. military presence—particularly in undeclared warzones—primarily comprises special forces backed by unmanned combat and surveillance systems. Such an approach to military intervention most likely reflects the military prowess that new autonomous, stealth, and precision technologies offer. With machines and robots fighting its wars, the United States can ensure its soldiers never endanger themselves. However, with no fear and certainty of technological superiority, the United States could increasingly find itself fighting “shadow wars” in undeclared warzones, against groups that do not want to target the United States, creating new crises that could last for decades.

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