The head of U.S. Africa Command said Friday that the White House is considering his request for more "flexibility" on the rules of engagement to attack Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, but "we are not going to turn Somalia into a free-fire zone."
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser confirmed that a small contingent of U.S. troops is still in Libya to call in airstrikes, adding that a Russian ground presence in North Africa is contributing to instability and political turmoil.
At a Pentagon news conference, Waldhauser said he is seeking "a little bit more flexibility" to "allow us to process targets in a more rapid fashion" by giving combatant commanders the authority to order strikes by drones and manned aircraft rather than going to the top of the chain of command.
He said the White House is considering but has not yet approved the request for more relaxed rules of engagement against the al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabaab group, which has been trying to bring down the new government of Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a dual Somali and U.S. citizen who holds a masters degree in political science from the University of Buffalo.
Waldhauser said he had "no problem" with the rules of engagement under the Obama administration but felt the time has come to "power-down the decision making" to meet the Al- Shabaab threat.
He stressed that the increased flexibility on calling airstrikes would not lessen the commitment of U.S. forces to avoid civilian casualties. The order to strike will not be given unless "we know exactly who we are attacking on the ground," Waldhauser said.
Al-Shabaab was blamed for a suicide bombing that blew a hole in a jetliner last year, forcing it to make an emergency landing in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. Officials have cited the incident in recent days as an example of a laptop-borne bomb after the U.S. barred computers and tablets from the cabins of some incoming flights from overseas. The bomber was the only person killed in the explosion on the jetliner.
Waldhauser confirmed the U.S. has a small troop presence in Libya -- a carryover from the U.S. Special Forces that assisted in airstrikes in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli in the retaking of the port of Sirte from fighters who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Waldhauser said the strength and influence of ISIS have greatly diminished since the massive airstrikes in Libya in January by B-2 Spirit stealth bombers flying from the U.S. He estimated that the ISIS fighters now number between 100 and 200.
Waldhauser also said he is concerned by the growing Russian influence in northern Africa. He would not confirm that Russia had set up a base in western Egypt to influence events in Libya but said "there are Russians on the ground in the area."
"They are on the ground, they are trying to influence the action," Waldhauser said. "We watch what they do with great concern."
Moscow recently hosted GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and former Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen and leader of a faction opposed to Sarraj.
"Those two individuals are going to have to get together and come to some kind of accommodation" to end Libya's civil war, Waldhauser said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.