Lack of transparency over looser rules of engagement is hallmark of administration, writes Julian Borger
The escalating air war in Somalia is part of a global pattern of an ever broader and unfettered use of air power that has it roots in the Obama administration but which has been spurred on and expanded under Donald Trump.
In the first year of his presidency, Trump has gone out of his way to claim creditfor the defeats inflicted on Islamic State, attributing it to his loosening of constraints on his generals.
“I totally changed rules of engagement. I totally changed our military,” the president said in October.
It is difficult to separate fact from exaggeration and hubris in Trump’s claim. The preference for air power and drones against enemies far beyond the battlefields ofAfghanistan, Syria and Iraq is not new. The Obama administration did seek to mitigate the cost in civilian lives from such stand-off and remote-control weapons, by maintaining political control over operations from the White House. But in the last weeks of the outgoing administration, some of those curbs were lifted.
Iraqi soldiers suffered terrible casualties fighting Isis in east Mosul, and their commanders complained it took too long for the US-led coalition to assist them from above. The rules were consequently relaxed to allow more junior officers on the battlefield to call instant air support. They stayed that way as the battle forthe Isis redoubt in west Mosul got under way in February 2017. After its fall, it was the turn of Raqqa, the Isis stronghold in Syria.
Trump inherited those looser rules and claimed to relax them further, urging his generals to intensify the onslaught on Isis and al-Qaida. According to statistics compiled by the Airwars watchdog group, there were nearly 50% more coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2017 compared with the previous year. Civilian deaths rose by 215%. The coalition, almost all US planes, dropped 20,000 bombs on Raqqa. By the end of the five-month campaign, 80% of the city was declared uninhabitable by the UN, and 1,800 civilians are thought to have been killed. Airwars estimates 1,400 of those deaths were caused by coalition air and artillery bombardment.
“We had always expected the highest proportion of civilian casualties to occur in that stage in the war and that’s exactly what happened,” said Chris Woods, the head of Airwars. “Even if we had had a Clinton presidency we would doubtless have had higher civilian casualties in that last stage of the war simply because Raqqa and Mosul were under assault. What we still don’t fully understand is how many more civilians were harmed as a result of fairly significant changes that theTrump administration says it put in place.”
Woods said the US military had not fully explained how it altered the rules of engagement. But what certainly changed was the command tone. The defence secretary, James Mattis, and other officials started calling the campaign against Isis a “war of annihilation” and that is how it was conducted, even in densely packed cities, where the average munition used was a huge 500lb bomb.
Trump also widened the war. To get around those restrictions the Obama administration placed on operations outside battle zones, the Trump administration declared regions of Yemen and Somalia to be areas of “active hostilities”. As a result, there were more US strikes on Yemen in 2017 than in the four previous years combined, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) found.
The use of drones has been part of the global expansion of the anti-Isis campaign. It is another trend started under Obama and extended by Trump, but in ways and on a scale that the administration has not made clear.
“Reportedly this administration has made changes, but it has not acknowledged so publicly. So that’s a big step backwards in terms of transparency,” said Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch.
“Drones are used more frequently among the tools that are causing those civilian casualties but it is difficult to assess the scale of those casualties and whether they are lawful or not without information about the targeted killings actions.”
The increased reliance on drones, the spread of the counter-terror battle to remote new areas, where reporting is minimal or non-existent, combined with looser rules of engagement and a gung-ho command tone, threaten to combine to create an increasingly indiscriminate, increasingly opaque, global war in which civilians are likely to account for an ever larger share of the victims.