President Trump Has Abandoned The Duties Of Commander-in-Chief
The US Military. It’s the most powerful tactical force on planet Earth. A power that has been instrumental in the downfall of the vilest of dictators, but has also committed some vile acts of its own. It’s a competent apparatus, but one that can get carried away when left without sufficient civilian oversight. That’s where the President comes in.
The President is supposed to be the steady hand that guides our global military strategy. Weighing the diplomatic counsel of the Department of State and the military counsel of the Department of Defense, the President provides a holistic perspective finding the proper balance between diplomacy and force. But with an understaffed State Department and a president who doesn’t concern himself with the details of strategy, we’re left with yet another vacancy in the Trump administration: The role of Commander-in-Chief.
200 civilians killed in an air strike in Mosul, Iraq. The largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat dropped in Afghanistan. Under normal circumstances, these moves would’ve been authorized by the Commander-in-Chief…But we are far past normal aren’t we. President Trump has essentially abdicated this role, delegating virtually all of his duties as Commander-in-Chief to the Department of Defense and lower level commanders. This has resulted in an increase in mistakes resulting in sky-rocketing civilian deaths.
This week, the Pentagon made an announcement that President Trump is granting Secretary of Defense James Mattis full authority over troop levels in Afghanistan (now reportedly deploying 4,000 additional troops). In April, Mattis was also given this same authority in Syria and Iraq. This is a stark reversal from the Obama and Bush administrations, who wanted full control over the Force Management Level System. The White House had full control over the the troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Some would argue that control over troop deployment would be better in the hands of Mattis than Trump, but given the fact that the Pentagon is understaffed this raises concerns. Only 5 of the 53 top jobs at the Pentagon have been filled and with a State Department that is in no better shape, one would hope the civilian oversight of the White House would provide the policy context from which to make these military decisions. President Trump has proven that he does not want to concern himself with such matters.
Mattis himself is a man of great competence, but without top jobs filled, decisions have been made at the lower levels of command. And this is where we begin to see some problems.
In April, the US dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat on Afghanistan. The strike took out at least 94 ISIS fighters and was a show of force to North Korea, who at the time was prepping for another nuclear test. Whether you approve of the strike or not, there is an important component that needs to be addressed. President Trump didn’t order the strike. In fact. he wasn’t even aware of it until after the fact.
President Trump would not specify if he ordered it directly but he stressed the flexibility he’s given the US military. He told reporters:
“What I do is I authorize my military. We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”
Total authorization. This statement was corroborated by a Fox News report that revealed the decision to use this unprecedented weapon was made unilaterally by Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander on the ground. The largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat was ordered without the approval of the Commander-in-Chief. The White House has been taking a “hands off” approach to strategy, allowing the military to handle the details. This is in stark contrast to the way the Obama administration handled military matters. Buzzfeed News reports:
The manner in which the deployments — the first known of conventional forces to Syria — was undertaken marked a stark contrast to the Obama administration. Then, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the war against ISIS, had to get sign-off from the White House about the precise number of troops and weapons he wanted to use. With the current deployment, the Trump administration has just left it to him to determine what he needs in Syria. That is, it appears the administration signed off on the ground combat missions but so far has left the details of how to carry out that mission — including those details the Obama White House demanded — to the commander.
Now, decisions that were previously made higher up in the chain of command are beginning to be made at the lower ranks, leading to more mistakes. This is also tied to the understaffed State Department and lack of diplomatic input. This overall shift in strategy is one we should not ignore, as it’s led to more civilian deaths.
A Surge In Reports Of Civilian Fatalities Under President Trump
The stock market wasn’t the only thing that surged when President Trump took office. According to the UK civilian monitoring group Airwars, there has been a significant increase in reports of civilian fatalities at the hands of US-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since Trump has taken office. In March alone, the US allegedly killed almost 1,000 civilians, surpassing Russia’s civilian death toll for the first time. This was three times the amount the Obama administration killed in his final month in office.
“Currently, for March, we’re tracking more than 100 alleged [civilian casualty] events for the Coalition so far, and around 50 alleged incidents from Russia this month. That’s been the consistent pattern since January. By all accounts, Coalition strikes have been killing more civilians than Russian strikes. That trend is continuing” — Airwars
On Mar 17th, up to 200 civilians were killed in a US-led coalition airstrike in Mosul, Iraq that was targeting just 2 ISIS snipers. The US detailed that they launched a 500-pound bomb containing 192 pounds of explosive material aimed at the roof where the ISIS snipers were located. It collapsed the structure, resulting in those civilian fatalities.
This trend seems to have continued. UN war crime investigators have reported that airstrikes in the operation to retake Raqqa in Syria (ISIS’ de facto capital), which started last week, has already led to at least 300 civilian fatalities in the city. Along with airstrikes, the US led coalition is dropping white phosphorous on Mosul and Raqqa, which can burn people to the bone on contact. Using that substance in crowded cities is risky.
Human Rights Watch, an American-founded international human rights advocacy group, has advised caution in the use of white phosphorous and urged for more precautions to be made in general to avoid civilian deaths. Now, it’s important to note that these are all “reported” fatalities. The US has claimed that the coalition is only responsible for 484 civilian deaths since Operation Inherent Resolve began in June 15, 2014 (the operation to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria). To counter that, Airwars on other hand cites a minimum estimate of 3,680 civilian fatalities…
This rise in civilian deaths can be partially attributed to the US’ new “accelerated” focus on “annihilating” ISIS fighters. It appears that minimizing civilian casualties is a lot lower on the Pentagon’s priority list…
When a US coalition has a month where it kills more civilians in Syria than Russia, you know there’s a problem. The US insists the rules of engagement have not changed, but the increased number of deaths tell a different story.
As we look to the future, and await Secretary Mattis’ strategy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, saving civilian lives should be at the forefront of strategy. Not only should the preservation of civilian life be a top priority for humanitarian reason, it poses a strategic benefit as well. If the US military grows brutally careless in their approach to the Middle East, it will only further perpetuate extremism. And then, we will continue down an endless cycle of entanglements in the region.
As President Trump and the White House back away from the duties of Commander-in-Chief, we move forward without a much needed check on the most powerful force on the planet. We’ll see how this plays out, but so far it looks like we can expect more of the same.
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