What to make of the sudden jump in "collateral damage" – i.e., the piling up of dead civilians in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan, thanks to U.S. airstrikes? Do the out-of-the-blue missile attacks against a Syrian air base last Thursday and this week's deployment of a 21,600-pound, never-before-used "mother of all bombs" in Afghanistan signal that the White House has given the green light for what Donald Trump promised in 2016 – "I would bomb the shit out of ISIS" – with little regard for innocents caught in the blasts?
Based on the results of a lengthy string of attacks, beginning just days after Trump took office in January, it sure looks that way.
Despite his bomb-ISIS outbursts, Trump ran a neo-isolationist electoral campaign, repeatedly slamming Hillary Clinton for her vote in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thus, his startling bout of muscle-flexing is a sharp departure from his America First posturing. The dropping of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) in eastern Afghanistan, in the remote hills of Achin District in Nangarhar Province, unleashed a weapon of staggering power, one widely described as the largest non-nuclear explosive device in the entire American arsenal. "The after-effect, the shock wave, not only has physical effects but psychological effects," Col. Cedric Leighton (Ret.), told CNN.
"This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as a testing ground for new and dangerous weapons," former Afghan President Hamid Karzai wrote in a series of tweets.
The MOAB is, perhaps, the perfect weapon to symbolize Trump's braggadocio and love for superlatives. More worryingly, however, the MOAB bombing, the Syria strike, and a wave of intense airstrikes from the Horn of Africa to South Asia seem to signal a president dazzled by his generals. Since taking office, it appears that Trump's fallen under the spell of Secretary of Defense Jim "Mad Dog" Mattis and General H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, giving them unprecedented decision-making power to utilize the might of the U.S. armed forces with little or no White House oversight.
"What I do is I authorize my military," Trump said following the MOAB blast, according to the Military Times. "We have the greatest military in the world, and they've done the job, as usual. We have given them total authorization, and that's what they're doing." In other words, unlike President Obama, who micromanaged war, Trump has told the generals, Go do your thing. Total authorization.
"Frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately," added Trump, noting the break with Obama's more cautious approach. "If you look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what has happened over the last eight years, you'll see there is a tremendous difference."
Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international affairs in the Obama administration, told The New York Times this week that "Trump has ceded responsibilities to his military commanders, and it appears he's paying little attention to operational details."
Making matters ever more concerning, Trump has reportedly returned authority for unrestricted drone warfare to the CIA. Earlier, Obama had ordered control over drones to be centralized under the Pentagon, which operates under stricter oversight. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, last month Trump reversed that order.
The new policies have raised alarm in several quarters.
Back in early March, several dozen former U.S. national security officials, many of whom worked for the Obama administration, sent an urgent letter to Mattis. In it, they expressed concern that President Trump was considering a plan to ease restrictions on the Pentagon's so-called "rules of engagement," potentially making it easier for counterterrorism officers to launch attacks will less concern about civilian casualties.
A lengthy memorandum attached to the letter – signed by top officials from the White House, the Defense Department, the CIA, the National Security Council, the Department of Justice and other agencies – warned Mattis not to take any action that could trigger a spike in civilian deaths, warning "even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths, whether or not legally permitted, can cause significant strategic setbacks."
Translated: Kill innocent men, women and children, and you create a fresh crop of angry recruits for terrorist organizations, while pissing off the local population and alienating our allies and the governments of countries where we're fighting.
And, although many thousands of civilians have been killed by American and allied forces in the eruption of wars across the Middle East and South Asia since 9/11, there are troubling reports that the Trump administration is going to make things a lot uglier. Last month, The Times reported that the White House "is exploring how to dismantle or bypass Obama-era constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks, commando raids and other counterterrorism missions." Starting with Yemen and Somalia, where U.S. airstrikes targeting Al Qaeda and Al Shabab cells are routine, the Trump administration made plans to declare parts of those countries free-fire zones, the paper reported. Just five days after his inauguration, at the same dinner with Secretary of Defense Mattis at which the new president approved a deadly raid by U.S. Special Forces into Yemen, Trump also approved loosened rules over airstrikes in a manner that could increase civilian casualties.
For its part, the Trump administration has denied that it has ordered any shift in the war's rules of engagement. But, reality is opaque, since the rules of engagement are classified. Meanwhile, a string of lethal incidents tells another story. A sample:
—The January 29th Yemen raid, during which one U.S. Special Forces member was killed – and which the White House described as a "huge success" – left 14 civilians dead, including nine children, according to Human Rights Watch.
—On February 10th, U.S. airstrikes in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, reportedly killed at least 22 civilians, including women and children.
—On March 16th, a U.S. airstrike in the Al-Jadida district of Mosul, Iraq, struck a building in which numerous civilians were huddled, collapsing it and killing as many as 200. A local official, Bassma Basim, told Al Jazeera that "more than 500" Iraqis died in airstrikes that week alone.
—That same day, 46 civilians died when a U.S. airstrike hit a mosque in Al Jinah, Syria, between Aleppo and the rebel stronghold of Idlib, an attack that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called a "massacre."
—Five days later, on March 21st, outside Raqqa, Syria, the stronghold and capital of the Islamic State, another U.S. airstrike left 30 dead, after hitting a school in the town of Mansoura. "Coalition warplanes carried out 19 airstrikes [in the area] ... an unusually high number for a single day," reported The New York Times.
In all, in March alone, as many as 3,471 civilians died in Syria and Iraq in U.S. and coalition airstrikes, according to Airwars, a nonprofit that monitors the war against ISIS. Per the group, "Across both Iraq and Syria, Airwars researchers tracked a record 166 incidents of concern allegedly involving coalition warplanes – a 67 percent increase from the 99 events tracked in February. A massive total of 1,782 to 3,471 civilian non-combatants were alleged killed in these March events – numbers not seen from foreign strikes since the worst of Russia's brutal air campaign in 2016."
The point isn't that the Obama administration's War on Terror (which Obama stopped referring to as such) didn't kill and maim many civilians. Back in 2015, an extended aerial attack on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, left 42 dead, including doctors and patients. And just last November, U.S. and Afghan troops engaged in a firefight with the Taliban in northern Kunduz that killed 33 civilians. In 2016, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, civilian deaths in Afghanistan hit an all-time high, with 3,498 killed, including 923 children – an insufficiently covered story, to say the least. Most of those deaths resulted from attacks by the Taliban, but a quarter were caused by pro-government forces, and 250 by U.S. and Afghan airstrikes. "The killing and maiming of thousands of Afghan civilians is deeply harrowing and largely preventable," said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, in February.
And civilian casualties were rising, too, in the last months of Obama's presidency, as the United States planned parallel attacks on the two urban strongholds of ISIS, Raqqa and Mosul.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, the site of another obscure and often overlooked war, Saudi air attacks supported by the United States left an exceedingly bloody trail of dead innocents, including bombings of schools and hospitals, plus especially deadly airstrikes that killed 131 civilians attending a wedding and another that slaughtered 140 people at a Yemeni funeral.
Yet Obama, especially after 2013, seemed to realize that the awesome power of Predator and Reaper drones and other aircraft needed to be reined in, and to his credit he issued orders seeking to limit civilian casualties. According to many reports since then, some in the military chain of command chafed under those rules. Now, under Trump, they may be feeling that the handcuffs are off.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that under President Trump, the number of civilian casualties is heading skyward.
The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), a Washington-based nonprofit, issued a warning this week about the increase in civilian deaths. "[W]hen determining whether and how to use military force, the government of the United States and its partners in the international community must consider second- and third-order consequences of their actions including the potential for additional harm to civilians, and how that harm may be prevented or mitigated," the group said.
"The level of human suffering over the past six years in Syria is not only profoundly tragic, it is a stain on human history," said Federico Borello, CIVIC's executive director. "Condemnation is not enough; real action is needed by governments and the UN Security Council to hold those responsible accountable, to put pressure on the warring parties to end the bloodshed, and to end the assault on civilians."
Yet there's little indication, yet, that anyone is being held accountable. "It is no surprise that the Trump administration would cast the removal of President Barack Obama's constraints as lawful," wrote Gabor Rona, head of the Law and Armed Conflict Project at the Cardozo Law Institute on Holocaust and Human Rights. "Bottom line: Look for ever more death and destruction against civilians and the inevitable blowback that sends us into a downward spiral of violence, all accompanied by an increasingly robust offer of 'alternative facts' on civilian casualties."