President Trump’s ‘Military First’ Policy
EDITORIAL | 26.09.2017 | WORLD / Americas

President Trump’s ‘Military First’ Policy

According to The New York Times, the Trump administration is preparing to dismantle key Obama-era limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefields. The changes would lay the groundwork for possible counterterrorism missions in countries where Islamic militants are active but the United States has not previously tried to kill or capture them. The reduction of restrictions would apply to commando raids and drone strikes outside of conventional battlefields. However, the new plan would still require higher-level approval to start conducting strikes or raids in new countries under “country plans” that would be reviewed every 12 months.

The president’s top national security advisers have proposed relaxing two rules. First, the targets of kill missions by the military and the CIA, now generally limited to high-level militants deemed to pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, would be expanded to include foot-soldier jihadists with no special skills or leadership roles. And second, proposed drone attacks and raids would no longer undergo high-level vetting. The only remaining constraint is a requirement of “near certainty” that no civilian bystanders will be killed. The vetting process to approve proposed strikes would also be significantly reduced and removed in some instances. A cabinet-level committee has already approved the proposed rules, and they have been sent to the White House for the President's signature.

The CIA is also seeking to gain approval to carry out its own covert drone strikes in active war-zones, such as Iraq and Syria, where the so-called law of war standard applies, which tolerates civilian casualties as long as the targets are military and the collateral damage is "proportional" to the military benefit. Unlike the military, the CIA is authorized to strike covertly without any acknowledgment. The agency’s operations are conducted in almost complete secrecy, with little congressional oversight and almost no public discussion.

The change in policy is likely to see a drastic escalation in the use of drones and commandoes. Earlier this year, Donald Trump agreed to a Pentagon request to exempt large swaths of Yemen and Somalia from the 2013 rules by declaring them to be “areas of active hostilities,” temporarily bringing them under less restrictive war-zone rule. In August, the president outlined his new Afghanistan strategy, praising the liberalization of the already heavy use of drones by the United States. Central to his address was the promise to lift restrictions on military operations and "expand authority for American forces." According to him, “The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms.” Trump reaffirmed this mission in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, vowing to crush "loser" terrorists. "The United States and our allies are working together throughout the Middle East to crush the loser terrorists and stop the re-emergence of safe havens they use to launch attacks on all of our people," he said.

The plan, in effect, would deepen American military involvement in nations considered to be beyond combat zones, such as the Philippines and Nigeria, and allow the Pentagon and the CIA to target individuals outside war zones or the “areas outside of active hostilities”, without any due process. It does not seem that the new rules will impose any meaningful geographic or temporal constraints. Actually, the administration claims extraordinary powers to kill people anywhere in the world. The Pentagon reported in April that more than 350 civilians were killed as a result of US drone airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from August 2014 to March 2017.

Some aspects of the problem are kept away from public discourse. America has regularly used armed drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere for a decade and a half. Without an international framework governing the use of drones, the United States is setting a dangerous precedent for other nations. America does not have monopoly on unmanned aerial vehicles. There is a great chance the technology will be used against the US quite soon. As the know-how becomes more widely accessible, it is only a matter of time before non-state actors acquire it. So as in case of weapons of mass destruction, there is a proliferation problem that needs to be urgently addressed internationally before the Pandora’s Box is open.

Drone attacks run against the principle of proportionality concerning unintentional civilian casualties in war. They violate Article 2 of the Geneva Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War by disregarding the human rights of the innocent civilians killed in the strikes. Furthermore, the US drone tactics conflict with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits «arbitrary» killing even during an armed conflict. The executions of innocent human beings without trials constitute war crimes. The Geneva Conventions specify that when someone’s status is not clear, they should be classified as a civilian. Article 50 of Additional Protocol I, which dates to 1977 and was ratified by 174 countries, says that “in case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.”

Conducting drone strikes in a country against its will could be seen as an act of war. Under international law, initiating the use of force in another country is legitimate only within a narrow range of circumstances, one of which is a need to quickly defend against an imminent threat. It’s hard to imagine Syrian pro-government forces as an imminent threat to the continental United States but they were hit in June by US aerial vehicles near At Tanf in the eastern part of the country.

In 2016, the US Special forces (SOF) conducted missions in 138 countries – roughly 70 percent of the nations on the planet. The legality of these operations is also questioned. In July, Special Operations Command chief Army General, Raymond Thomas, said US SOF deployment in Syria violated international law. The general acknowledged that American forces are fighting in a sovereign Syria, where they will likely “have no ability to stay” if that presence is questioned “in terms of international law.”

There are also legal challenges on the home front. The argument is put forward saying the US law gives the government broad wiggle room to pursue al Qaeda and its affiliates wherever they may be. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, adopted right after the Sept. 11, 2001, says the president is authorized to use force against the planners of the attacks and those who harbor them. The abovementioned resolution authorized attacks on those who carried out the 9/11 attacks and those who harbored them, it does not cover mere supporters of such groups and associated forces.

Civilian deaths from drone strikes have fueled anti-American sentiments to hinder US security cooperation with foreign governments. They also fomented anger among local populations in the countries like Pakistan to create problems for keeping supply routes open to Afghanistan. The result could be alienating local populations handing recruitment card to terrorist groups.

The process of giving more freedom to military commanders on the spot is gaining momentum under President Trump. The administration is considering a military proposal that would designate various undeclared battlefields worldwide to be “temporary areas of active hostility,” giving commanders same latitude to launch actions as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Allowing lower-level commanders to make airstrike decisions in densely populated areas can result in more civilian deaths. The US military is still investigating several bombings in Mosul in mid-March that witnesses said killed at least 100 people.

The policy marks a stark about-face from Trump's campaign declarations that the US can no longer afford to be the world's policeman. The president promised his voters that he would stick to non-interventionist military policy. While advocating caution and non-interventionism in foreign policy, Trump labelled Hillary Clinton a ‘trigger happy’ warmonger on the campaign trail.

During the first eight months in office, the number of US troops stationed overseas has been ramped up since Trump's inauguration, along with an increased frequency of raids in particular trouble spots. Donald Trump has ratcheted up operations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. The US is poised to become more engaged in Libya. Donald Trump has taken a decision to expand the operations in Afghanistan. The president has recently made threats of US military action Venezuela and North Korea.

Wherever you look, there is a mission creep. More warfighting powers have been shifted to the Pentagon. The commander-in-chief has been doing his best to increase the US military involvement in the most fundamental breach of trust for his Rust Belt supporters that swung away from the Democrats to pull off Trump’s election victory. “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” said Steve Bannon, former White House senior adviser, as he was leaving his position last month. The probability of US involvement in a large military conflict that has no relation to the US national security has increased. The world has become less safe.

If history is any guide, being the world’s policeman does not pay. To the contrary, it could one day cost the nation dearly. But the lesson of Vietnam appears to be forgotten today. At the end of FY 2017 the total government debt in the United States, including federal, state, and local, is expected to be $23.4 trillion. Despite this fact, the country continues to overstretch its military, increase the burden of military expenditure and adopt an aggressive military posture balancing on the brink of getting plunged into a quagmire of another costly long lasting military adventure.

Tags: CIA  Pentagon  Trump