A Change in Tactics, or a Shift in Values?

Recent weeks have seen a disturbing increase in the number of civilian casualties resulting from U.S. or U.S.-led airstrikes, drone attacks and commando raids in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In late January, a Special Operations raid in Yemen (approved by Trump over dinner) resulted in the death of several civilians, including children, and one of our own Navy SEALs.

On March 16, a U.S. airstrike in Syria targeting al Qaeda operatives reportedly killed more than 60 civilians in a mosque complex.

The next day, U.S. airstrikes on Mosul are said to have killed more than 200 civilians, “which would stand as the largest U.S.-caused civilian casualty event since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A few days later, at least 30 civilians were reportedly killed in an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition in a rural area of Raqqa Province, Syria.

All these tragedies are under investigation by the U.S. military, in particular the Mosul incident where the Pentagon believes that the Islamic State may have had a role in the explosion that may have killed as many as 240 people by deliberately placing the civilians in danger.

The rising number of civilian casualties is raising alarms in many quarters.

“Airwars,” a nonprofit organization that monitors and assesses reports of civilian deaths in Iraq, estimates that at least 1,353 civilians have been killed by US-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq.

Allegations of civilian casualties in [Iraq and Syria] from American-led airstrikes have increased so much in recent months that, for the first time, the number of coalition strikes affecting civilians has surpassed those carried out by Russia in Syria, according to Airwars….

And such a rising number comes amid indications that the pace and intensity of attacks and airstrikes has picked up dramatically since Trump assumed the presidency in January.

Foreign Policy reports that while under president Obama’s two terms one targeted drone strike was approved every 5.4 days, Trump, during his 68 days in office, has approved one drone strike or Special Operations Forces raid every 1.8 days.

Foreign Policy again:

The level of violence of late has been staggering. Recent Air Force statistics show that U.S. and allied planes dropped more than 7,000 bombs on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria over the first two months of this year, by far the most of any two-month stretch since the ISIS war began more than two and a half years ago.

Finally, The Times:

So far this month, the United States has also launched more than 49 strikes across Yemen, most of them during one five-day period, according to data gathered by the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. That is more strikes than the United States had carried out during any other complete year on record.

Indeed, the numbers and statistics paint a disturbing picture.

The question thus arises as to whether there has been a shift in policy, emphasis or tactics under the new administration, especially when it comes to removing constraints on our military on how it wages war.

After coming into office, Trump “granted a Pentagon request to declare parts of three provinces in Yemen as an 'area of active hostilities,' giving commanders greater flexibility to strike.” A few days later we had the flawed Special Operations raid in that country.

Even more recently, according to the New York Times, "Trump has relaxed some of the [Obama administration] rules for preventing civilian casualties when the American military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia…”

Under the new rules, “commanders may strike people thought to be Shabab fighters based only on that status, without any reason to think that the individual target poses a particular and specific threat to Americans” and, The Times says, “In addition, some civilian bystander deaths would be permitted if deemed necessary and proportionate."

Is the way we wage war changing under a president who “has vowed to intensify the fight against extremists abroad, and whose budgetary and rhetorical priorities have indicated a military-first approach even as he has proposed cuts in diplomatic spending”?

Has it changed in comparison to the previous administration that “often spent weeks or even months deliberating certain raids and airstrikes out of concern for American service members and civilians — and often to the frustration of commanders and American allies”?

Let us be clear. There were civilian casualties of war during the Obama administration. There was also plenty of criticism over such tragedies, especially when caused by armed drones.

But one cannot ignore the sorrow and regret expressed by the then commander-in-chief when weighing those “heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives”

Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Equally so, one cannot ignore the words of presidential candidate Trump in response to a question about avoiding civilian causalities:

We’re fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.


American military officials, although given more authority to call in airstrikes, say there have been no changes to its rules of engagement that lessen the risk for civilians and that greater civilian casualties are due to more intense operations against ISIS and the Islamic State’s increased us of civilians as human shields and deliberately placing them in harm’s way.

Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, told a news conference on Tuesday, “The death of innocent civilians in war is a terrible tragedy that weighs heavily on all of us…We set the highest standards for protecting civilians, and our dedication, diligence and discipline in prosecuting our combat operations, while protecting civilians, is without precedence in the history of warfare.”

I have no doubt that those venerable military core values will prevail over and outlast the fleeting ones of a petulant civilian leadership.

Lead photo: DoD

Concluding sentence edited for clarity.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.