President Donald Trump is perhaps the most disengaged war president America has ever seen. His administration recently made it so that generals can take action without a direct Oval Office review. Yet, after the results of the first military operation under this president, some fear the military is rolling back provisions meant to keep civilians from becoming collateral damage.
As we reported, the raid conducted in Yemen during the early hours of January 29 killed 30 civilians, 10 children (including one American), and Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens. Since then, the Intercept sent a reporter to the village that was attacked in order to report from the ground about the aftermath. In speaking with both U.S. officials and locals.
Although some details about the mission remain unclear, the account that has emerged suggests the Trump White House is breaking with Obama administration policies that were intended to limit civilian casualties. The change — if permanent — would increase the likelihood of civilian deaths in so-called capture or kill missions like the January 29 raid.
In response to The Intercept’s findings, Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, called for a full investigation into the raid, including the legal basis for the operation, the adequacy of intelligence beforehand, what precautions were taken, and why any precautions failed.
“Each new revelation about this tragic operation is grievous and shocking,” Shamsi said. “Even in recognized armed conflict, there are rules to safeguard against the killings of civilians, and even under the Obama administration’s imperfect lethal force policy, which to the best of our knowledge remains in effect, there are constraints that should have prevented or at least minimized civilian deaths.”
In any other administration, it wouldn’t really be a valid question that the U.S. is actively seeking to harm civilians. Yet, President Trump promised on the campaign trail that he would do just that.
A year ago this week, both Senator Ted Cruz and then-candidate Trump publicly advocated for killing the families of terrorists and being less concerned with civilian casualties that come as a result of the sort of long-distance airstrikes that became the primary mode of engagement in the terror war.
To be clear, the Obama administration’s prosecution of the wars until about 2015 were responsible for the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians*. Yet, at no point during this fight, did the president, the Pentagon, or the White House suggest that killing civilians or families of terrorists (when they would strike a wedding or other gathering where high-value targets were president) was preferable to not.
Starting in the first six months of 2015, the Obama administration carried out a number of airstrikes that were successful and limited collateral damage. Only just after seemingly figuring it out, in comes a president who wants to change that policy. At the end of March 2016, at one of his rallies, the would-be president called the Geneva Conventions a “problem” to be overcome rather than a set of rules meant to be adhered to.
Given this attitude, those who want to keep civilian casualties low are perhaps heartened by the hands-off approach the president is taking. However, it’s equally fair to question how committed the military is to avoiding collateral damage.
During the Iraq War in 2005, a number of high-ranking Army officials in Northern Iraq lamented the rules of engagement (that sought to prevent civilian casualties) as oppressive. It’s possible that, despite full knowledge that collateral damage is bad, military leaders will be more aggressive in choosing and carrying out missions.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
*Author’s Note: Consistent estimates are difficult to come by, however there is little question that these airstrikes killed far fewer civilians than a ground invasion would have.