The Trump administration is exploring how to dismantle or bypass Obama-era constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks, commando raids and other counterterrorism missions outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations.
Already, President Trump has granted a Pentagon request to declare parts of three provinces of Yemen to be an “area of active hostilities” where looser battlefield rules apply. That opened the door to a Special Operations raid in late January in which several civilians were killed, as well as to the largest-ever series of American airstrikes targeting Yemen-based Qaeda militants, starting nearly two weeks ago, the officials said.
Mr. Trump is also expected to sign off soon on a similar Pentagon proposal to designate parts of Somalia to be another such battlefield-style zone for 180 days, removing constraints on airstrikes and raids targeting people suspected of being militants with the Qaeda-linked group the Shabab, they said.
Inside the White House, the temporary suspension of the limits for parts of Yemen and Somalia is seen as a test run while the government considers whether to more broadly rescind or relax the Obama-era rules, said the officials, who described the internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity.
When you combine the two stories together you are beginning to see the outlines of a much more robust war against terrorism in the Middle East, Africa, and Southwest Asia. The change in CIA rules is going to expand the strike area and the increasing of designated “areas of active hostilities” is going to result in more strikes, more raids, and, inevitably, casualties.
In a sign of mounting concern over the government’s policy review, more than three dozen members of America’s national security establishment have urged Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to maintain the thrust of the Obama-era principles for counterterrorism missions, saying strict standards should be maintained for using force outside traditional war zones.
The former officials, in a letter sent on Sunday to Mr. Mattis, warned that “even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries — whether or not legally permitted — can cause significant strategic setbacks,” increasing violence from militant groups or prompting partners and allies to reduce collaboration with the United States.
Indeed, immediately after the Special Operations raid on Jan. 29, Yemeni officials suspended further commando missions, pending an assessment of what went wrong, although they later backtracked.
The letter’s 37 signatories included John E. McLaughlin, who was the acting C.I.A. director for President George W. Bush; Lisa O. Monaco, President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security and counterterrorism adviser; and Matthew G. Olsen, who served as a national security official in the Bush Justice Department and as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the Obama administration.
This is the kind of self defeating reasoning that has created the current mess. How, I ask you, would things be worse if we had pursued a more aggressive strategy? The problem is that the people in this region are probably never going to like America. That isn’t important. What is important is that they fear and respect us. That latter component is what has been excised from US foreign policy in the region since 2009. Now they hate us and the think we’re chumps. As a result our diplomacy can’t gain traction and ultimately we are forced to kill many more people than we would have otherwise.
The gut check for Trump, for Mattis, and for the affected military commanders will come the first time a disaster strikes that results in a wrong target attacked or in significant American losses like the Extortion 17 disaster.