Wednesday, August 23, 2017

In a commentary in the Toronto Star, SJD student and Vanier Scholar Haim Abraham analyzes the potential consequences of US President Trump's statements on the war in Afghanistan ("Expect more civilian deaths with Trump’s new combat rules," August 22, 2017).

Read the full commentary on the Toronto Star website, or below.

Expect more civilian deaths with Trump’s new combat rules

By Haim Abraham

August 22, 2017

On Monday night, President Donald Trump addressed the nation, presenting his policy regarding the involvement of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and South Asia. If the content of his speech reflects a real change in military doctrine, civilians in the region have a reason to be afraid.

Trump’s arguments were based on the logic that Afghanistan and South Asia are harbouring terrorist, who pose a direct threat to the United States and could potentially gain access to nuclear weapons. This claim allegedly gives a just cause for the U.S. to engage in belligerent activities against terrorist organizations, as, according to Trump, they are a real and immanent threat, not only to the U.S., but to other countries as well.

He also stressed that the U.S. should act, and has authority to act, to ensure victory over these terrorists, while the responsibility for running Afghanistan properly in the aftermath of this war on terror lies fully on the Afghan people.

As Trump framed it: “We are not nation building; we are killing terrorists.” The subtext of this sentence is that “if in the process of killing terrorists we demolish your country, then we have no obligation to help you rebuild it.”

Trump’s final point was that the victory of the U.S. forces over terrorist organizations is going to be total, using all means necessary. Trump said he ordered U.S. forces be provided with the essential tools for waging battle, while changing the rules of engagement that prevented achieving total and swift victory. This aspect of Trump’s speech should give pause, as the U.S. is notorious for its use of drones and airstrikes.

For example, on March 17, the United States Air Force dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building in Mosul, Iraq to take out two Daesh snipers. But instead of only collapsing the roof and killing the snipers, the entire building was demolished and a nearby building was damaged as well. The reason for this unexpected consequence: explosive materials the snipers placed in the building. The result was one of the worst civilian casualty events in decades, with at least 105 Iraqi civilians killed.

Relaxing the rules of engagement and providing U.S. forces with tools for “swift and total victory” might suggest we will see an increase in targeted killings by drones. As drones are unmanned, using them to combat terrorist reduces the risk U.S. forces are exposed to. However, it increases the risks to the civilian population. As the incident in Mosul demonstrates, intelligence is sometimes partial and inaccuracies could lead to large-scale catastrophes.

A mechanism called roof-knocking has been used by U.S. forces to minimize the risks involved in such strikes by allowing civilians to escape conflict zones. When terrorist are hiding in civilian buildings, a small bomb that does not cause any severe structural damage is dropped on the roof. This “roof-knocking” informs individuals near the building that it is about to be attacked, giving them time to evacuate.

Another mechanism used is dispersing flyers or sending text messages to all individuals who might be in harm’s way, so they have time to flee. Both these methods help civilians leave conflict zones before combat takes place.

However, from Trump’s speech it seems the use of these methods will decrease. Trump said, “It is counterproductive to announce when we are going to attack … I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

The element of surprise is in the interest of U.S. forces. Without having prior knowledge regarding where and when they will strike, enemy forces cannot prepare a defence or a preventative strike of their own. Yet, civilians are going to be less able to flee conflict zones, as they will have no knowledge that they are about to be in one.

So if Trump is going to follow his speech, we are likely to see a war that aims to achieve total annihilation of terrorist organizations, done with less restrictions on use of force, and with little consideration of the state of the nation after a U.S. attack.

He is putting America first, and by doing so setting a dangerous precedent about how wars could be fought; one that other countries might be tempted to follow, leaving civilians in conflict areas even less protected than they are today.