War on Terror

President Trump Escalates Wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Maybe Afghanistan Too

A U.S. airstrike in Mosul could have caused the largest civilian casualties since the start of the Iraq War.


White House

U.S. military officials are investigating an airstrike in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city which has been mostly occupied by ISIS since June 2014. Iraqis have said up to 200 civilians could've been killed in the strike, and an initial review by the U.S. military found that "scores" of civilians were killed after a building hit by U.S. airstrikes collapsed a few days later, as The New York Times reports. U.S. investigators are now trying to find out whether the airstrike caused the building to collapse or whether ISIS may have detonated an explosive there instead.

The New York Times also reports that according to at least one Iraqi officer there had been "a noticeable relaxing of the coalition's rules of engagement" since President Trump took office. "Before, Iraqi officers were highly critical of the Obama administration's rules, saying that many requests for airstrikes were denied because of the risk that civilians would be hurt," The Times continued. "Now, the officer said, it has become much easier to call in airstrikes."

The Trump administration has rejected such suggestions. While Trump has asked commanders in January to look at relaxing restrictions on airstrikes, military officials say that has not happened yet. "We go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people," Defense Secretary James Mattis said at a Pentagon press conference, according to The Washington Post. "The same cannot be said for our adversaries and that is up to you to sort out." The Post reports that according to Airwars, a monitoring group based in the United Kingdom, the frequency of alleged civilian deaths in U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria has surpassed civilian deaths there linked to Russian strikes.

The Mosul strike comes as the U.S. is increasing troop levels in Iraq, and Syria, as part of the campaign against ISIS. The Military Times reports that an unknown number of U.S. combat troops have been ordered into northern Iraq, likely to participate in the ongoing effort to secure Mosul from ISIS. The U.S. is also sending more troops into Syria, with at least 500 being sent to take part in the attack on Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital, something Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) wrote happened without any official notification. "President Trump has been busy dramatically expanding the American troop presence inside Syria," Murphy wrote in an op-ed for the Hartford Courant. "And virtually no one in Washington has noticed. Americans have a right to know what Trump is planning and whether this will lead to an Iraq-style occupation of Syria for years to come."

The Trump administration has already signaled it will keep U.S. troops in Iraq after the campaign against ISIS is over. "The military power of the coalition will remain where this fraudulent caliphate has existed in order to set the conditions for a full recovery from the tyranny of ISIS," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said even as there is no end in sight for the war against ISIS. ISIS, in any case, is a successor organization to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which gained a foothold in that country only because of the 2003 U.S. invasion. The overall Al-Qaeda network traces its roots back to terrorist organizations around back in the 1990s. The September 11th attacks, which neither Al-Qaeda nor any other Islamist terrorist group has been able to come anywhere close to since, gave the group new life by dragging the U.S. and its allies into protracted conflicts around the Muslim world that have only served to increase the number of safe havens for such terrorist groups.

In Afghanistan, which was one of the only safe havens for Islamist terror groups before 9/11 but is now one of many, Gen. John Nicholson, is continuing to push for additional troops in Afghanistan, telling The Sunday Times that the U.S. and Europe need to send 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan. "Failure here would embolden terrorists globally," Nicholson said, ignoring that the last decade-plus of failures there has already done so. The U.S. would have been best off leaving Afghanistan after largely destroying the Al-Qaeda network there in the early 2000s. Nicholson's push for what essentially amounts to more nation-building cuts against Trump's campaign rhetoric against nation-building, but fits into Trump's campaign and presidential rhetoric about escalating the war on terror.

The Trump administration has its eyes on Yemen as well, where it has already conducted more airstrikes in the first third of the year than the U.S. had in all of 2016. Mattis has requested that the White House lift restrictions on U.S. military support for the Saud-led coalition in the Yemen civil war, writing to the national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, that "limited support" would help combat a "common threat." Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war that erupted two years ago when Houthi rebels alleged to be backed by Iran overthrew the U.S.-backed authoritarian government. Since then, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the U.S. had previously spent years bombing, has benefited from Saudi Arabia's air campaign, filling the void created by Saudi bombing. The Trump administration has already ramped up its counterterrorism operations in Yemen—U.S. involvement in the actual civil war itself is no guarantee Al-Qaeda won't continue to be a benefactor of the now two-year-old war. The Trump administration is "reviewing" its overall Yemen policy, and that process is supposed to be completed next month.

A bipartisan effort to get Congress to vote on specific authorizations for the use of military force against ISIS as well as against Yemen, meanwhile, has gotten nowhere, despite Trump's openness on the campaign trail for just such an authorization. Congress' failure over the last decade to either specifically authorize ongoing U.S. military campaigns (let alone actually declaring a war as prescribed in the Constitution) or to defund them has accelerated the accumulation of military power in the executive branch at the expense of the legislative branch's constitutional role. That process, in turn, has made it easier for political inertia to lead to ever-more military quagmires. Like Obama, Trump will keep pushing the envelope on executive military power. Congress is running out of time to push back.