A stepped-up air campaign against the Al-Shabaab terror group in Somalia would be complicated by the famine and drought crisis sweeping the Horn of Africa, the head of U.S. Africa Command said Monday.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who has requested more "flexibility" from the White House to attack the al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabaab, said AfriCom would have to coordinate closely with relief agencies to avoid hitting civilians on the move in search of food and water.
"We need to have good communications," Waldhauser said at a breakfast with defense writers. "You need to be very, very careful in terms of certainty" before approving strikes by manned or unmanned aircraft.
The drought in Somalia, where locals report that it has rained only twice in the last two years, is threatening three million lives in a nation of 10-12 million that has been wracked by civil and tribal warfare for decades, according to the United Nations.
Earlier this month, Stephen O'Brien, the U.N. under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, told the Security Council that more than 20 million people in four countries -- Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria -- are facing starvation and famine.
Without coordinated global efforts, he warned, "people will simply starve to death" and "many more will suffer and die from disease."
In Somalia, the U.S. military is prepared to assist aid agencies in relief efforts but has not yet been asked to do so, Waldhauser said Monday and in a separate briefing to the Pentagon last Friday.
Waldhauser's "flexibility" request would give field commanders more leeway to approve airstrikes without going through the White House National Security Council, but "we are not going to turn Somalia into a free-fire zone," he said.
The White House has yet to sign off on his request, Waldhauser said.
Over the weekend, Kenyan forces from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) attacked two Al-Shabaab bases in the southern Somali region of Jubaland, and killed at least 31 militants, the Kenyan military said Monday.
"Ground troops were supported by attack helicopters and artillery fire," the Kenya Defense Forces said in a statement. Waldhauser said he could not immediately confirm whether U.S. forces backed the Kenyan attack.
Newly installed Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a dual U.S.-Somali citizen who was formerly commissioner of the Buffalo, N.Y., Municipal Housing Authority, has pledged to rout Al-Shabaab while also calling on members of the group to surrender.
At his inauguration in February, Mohamed said, "To those who work with al-Qaida, Al-Shabaab and IS [Islamic State], your time is finished. You have been misled, destroyed property and killed many Somalis. Come and we shall give you good life."
The U.S. has had a fraught relationship with Somalia since the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 led to civil war and famine, triggering a humanitarian intervention by U.S. forces to support aid deliveries. In October 1993, 18 U.S. troops were killed in the "Black Hawk Down" incident.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.