More civilian Airstrike Deaths under Trump than in 8 years of Obama

By Steven Feldstein | (The Conversation) | – –

When President Donald Trump took office in January, it was unclear whether the bombast from his campaign would translate into an aggressive new strategy against terrorism. At campaign rallies he pledged to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State. He openly mused about killing the families of terrorists, a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits violence against noncombatants.

Ten months into his presidency, a clearer picture is emerging. The data indicate several alarming trends.

According to research from the nonprofit monitoring group Airwars, the first seven months of the Trump administration have already resulted in more civilian deaths than under the entirety of the Obama administration. Airwars reports that under Obama’s leadership, the fight against IS led to approximately 2,300 to 3,400 civilian deaths. Through the first seven months of the Trump administration, they estimate that coalition air strikes have killed between 2,800 and 4,500 civilians.

Researchers also point to another stunning trend – the “frequent killing of entire families in likely coalition airstrikes.” In May, for example, such actions led to the deaths of at least 57 women and 52 children in Iraq and Syria.

The vast increase in civilian deaths is not limited to the anti-IS campaign. In Afghanistan, the U.N. reports a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in the first six months of 2017 compared to the first half of 2016.

The key question is: Why? Are these increases due to a change in leadership?

Delegating war to the military

Experts offer several explanations.

One holds that Trump’s “total authorization” for the military to run wars in Afghanistan and against IS has loosened Obama-era restrictions and increased military commanders’ risk tolerance. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations notes: “Those closer to the fight are more likely to call in lethal force and are less likely to follow a value-based approach.”

In other words, an intense focus on destroying IS elements may be overriding the competing priority of protecting civilians. Because Trump has scaled back civilian oversight and delegated authority to colonels rather than one-star generals, the likely result is higher casualties.

Urban battlefield?

A second explanation points to the changing nature of the counter-IS campaign. The Pentagon contends that the rise in casualties is “attributable to the change in location” of battlefield operations towards more densely populated urban environments like Mosul and Raqqa.

This is a partial truth. While urban warfare has increased, Trump’s team has substantially escalated air strikes and bombings. According to CENTCOM data, the military has already used 20 percent more missiles and bombs in combined air operations in 2017 than in all of 2016. One notable airstrike in March, for example, killed 105 Iraqi civilians when U.S. forces dropped a 500-pound bomb in order to take out two snipers in Mosul. In fact, a Human Rights Watch analysis of bomb craters in West Mosul estimates that U.S. coalition forces are routinely using larger and less precise bombs – weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds – than in prior operations. Finally, the urban battlefield explanation also does not account for increased civilian deaths in Afghanistan from airstrikes, where the environment has remained static for several years.

Pressure from the president

A third explanation of higher civilian casualties is that aggressive rhetoric from the president is inadvertently pressuring the military to take more risks and to deprioritize protecting civilians.

As former Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski observes: “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment.” Words matter, especially coming from the commander-in-chief. In the face of such aggressive rhetoric, it should not come as a surprise that military officers feel encouraged – if not indirectly pressured – to take greater risks.

Unfortunately, the increased trend of civilian casualties is unlikely to diminish. In fact, signs abound that the White House is developing a new set of policies and procedures that will authorize more sweeping discretion to the military. In September, The New York Times reported that White House officials were proposing two major rules changes. First, they would expand the scope of “kill missions” and allow for the targeting of lower-level terrorists in addition to high value targets. Second – and more notably – they would suspend high-level vetting of potential drone attacks and raids.

These changes represent a sharp about-face. The Obama administration carefully crafted a deliberate set of rules guiding the use of force. In 2013, Obama released the Presidential Policy Guidance for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets (PPG), which created specific rules for determining when the use of force against terrorists was legally justified.

Then, in 2016, Obama issued an executive order on civilian harm that established heightened standards to minimize civilian casualties from military actions, and required the public release of information pertaining to strikes against terrorist targets.

While the latest actions from the Trump administration stop short of reversing Obama-era restraints, they are unsettling steps in the opposite direction. For example, it appears for now that the White House will preserve the “near certainty” standard, which requires commanders to have near certainty that a potential strike will not impact civilians. But this could change over time.

One senior official quoted in The New York Times article bluntly asserts that the latest changes are intended to make much of the “bureaucracy” created by the Obama administration rules “disappear.” As the White House dissolves the existing bureaucracy and relinquishes civilian oversight, Trump is embarking on a slippery slope that will potentially lead to major diminutions of civilian protection.

The current battle to take the Syrian city of Raqqa is emblematic of the stakes at hand. The U.S. is leading a punishing air war to soften IS defenses. In August, U.S. forces dropped 5,775 bombs and missiles onto the city. For context, this represented 10 times more munitions than the U.S. used for the whole of Afghanistan in the same month and year. The resulting civilian toll has been gruesome. At least 433 civilians likely died in Raqqa due to the August bombings, more than double the previous month’s total. Since the assault on Raqqa commenced on June 6, more than 1,000 civilians have been reported killed.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cautions that the intense bombardment has left civilians caught between IS’s monstrosities and the fierce battle to defeat it. Zeid insists that “civilians must not be sacrificed for the sake of rapid military victories.”

The ConversationTrump would be wise to heed this warning. Even as U.S. forces continue to turn the tide on IS, the trail of destruction left in the campaign’s wake is unsettling. The specter of massive civilian casualties will remain a rallying point for new terrorist organizations long after anti-IS operations conclude.

Steven Feldstein, Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs & Associate Professor, School of Public Service, Boise State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

PBS NewsHour from last week: “Battle to retake Raqqa inches toward conclusion”

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8 Responses

  1. Rather than refer to the Q2 report, here is the Q3 UNAMA report:

    link to unama.unmissions.org

    “Civilian casualties attributed to Pro-Government Forces reduced by 19 per cent to 1,578 civilian casualties (560 deaths and 1,018 injured), over half of which occurred during ground fighting.
    . . .
    During the first nine months of 2017, the mission documented 466 civilian casualties (205 deaths and 261
    injured), a 52 per cent increase in civilian casualties from air strikes compared to the same period in 2016.
    . . . .
    “The mission attributed 38 per cent of all civilian casualties from air strikes to international military forces.”

    In other words 62% of all civilian casualties caused by air strikes in Afghanistan were made by the Afghan Air Force (AAF). 38% were caused by all international air forces combined. The increase in civilian casualties caused by air strikes relate to all air strikes from all parties.

    The above report is also conflating air strikes by the Iraqi Air Force with air strikes by international air forces.

    Would it be imperialist for the US to pressure other sovereign countries to change their air strikes?

    However, with respect to Syria, there is great uncertainty about civilian casualties. This merits closer examination. While airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to be CAS in support of local ground military forces, more of the strikes in Syria are non CAS; which risks higher casualties.

    • Wow, you must still believe that the South Vietnamese Air Force was a sovereign operation wholly autonomous from the Pentagon… even though they literally took American warplanes and painted the white bars yellow, loaded up with American bombs, carried out American target lists, and then collected paychecks composed of US tax dollars.

      Every civilian killed by the Saigon air force was killed by the United States of America, because the very existence of the country of South Vietnam was a CIA concoction and a violation of the Geneva Accords. We own it. We killed over a million Vietnamese.

      • What does the Republic of Vietnam Air Force, VNAF, have to do with the AAF, IqAF, Jordanian Air Force, Egyptian Air Force, Libyan Air Force, UAE air force, Qatar Air Force, Turkish Air Force….

        +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

        Over 2 million Americans are proud patriotic Vietnamese Americans. The vast majority of whom had ancestors who supported South Vietnam. Please don’t insult the VNAF in front of them, or in Westminster, Orange County, or in San Jose, CA. The VNAF were among the highest quality, most professional, most patriotic air forces the world has ever seen. Many of the heroes who served in the VNAF and their descendants are now American. I have read many books and articles by VNAF veterans.

        America made plenty of mistakes in South East Asia. Those mistakes are not the fault of the valiant heroic VNAF.

        There is no way the ARVN and VNAF would have ever been defeated if the US hadn’t cut off aid. The ARVN and VNAF are not responsible for America’s mistakes and America’s inadequacies. Americans don’t get to transfer America’s blame to the ARVN and VNAF.

        Attacking the VNAF for buying American aircraft is extremely low. Air-forces all over the world buy foreign aircraft. Heck America buys a lot of foreign military equipment too. Why don’t you attack America?

        “collected paychecks composed of US tax dollars.” Many countries all over the world have accepted massive foreign aid over the last 6,000 years. There is “NOTHING” wrong with that. America didn’t win America’s freedom. France, Spain, the Netherlands, Marathas, Tipu Sultan all attacked England simultaneous to the US revolutionary war 1775-1783. Their blood and treasure won America’s independence for America. Even in 1775, France provided 90% of gunpowder to American revolutionaries free of cost. The US military was created by foreigners, paid for by foreigners, advised, trained and led by foreigners. Foreigners wrote the US Army War Manual, the first version of the Uniform Code of Military Conduct and most of the early documents from the 1770s.

        The USSR would have been overrun by Germany in WWII without massive US foreign aid. Do you consider the USSR to be a “CIA concoction?”

        It is precisely this American mentalities that drives global anti Americanism and the “Ugly American” stereotype.

        South Vietnam was not a violation of the Geneva Accords. China decided to divide Indochina into 4 countries. Ask China why China did that at Geneva. The Soviets also wanted 4 countries. Vietnam, North Vietnam and South Vietnam never existed as independent countries before 1954. All were invented by China, and supported by the USSR. The Americans in Geneva were naive green boy-scouts who didn’t understand what was going on.

        This said, South Vietnam became a real nation after 1954 with strong nationalism. Just as Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam did. The US never controlled the ARVN or VNAF. They were always fiercely patriotic, independent, nationalist institutions; deeply respected by the South Vietnamese people. The ARVN and VNAF always did their own thing. Sadly some foreign combat units didn’t coordinate well with or respect the ARVN and VNAF. This is mostly their fault…

        Other countries are not controlled by America. They have their own greatness, agency, power and objectives. Americans often greatly exaggerate American power and influence in the world. . .

        • Anan, you’re welcome to your opinion but I had to take out some ad hominems which should be avoided.

          Large numbers of Vietnamese-Americans are actually from the Chinese-Viet middle and business classes.

          significant numbers of ARVN personnel appear to have been double agents who believed in a united Vietnam.

  2. “Large numbers of Vietnamese-Americans are actually from the Chinese-Viet middle and business classes.” This is very true. There are many Chinese Vietnamese in America.

    All the Vietnamese Americans I have asked (Chinese Vietnamese included) were from South Vietnamese. But of course anecdotes are not the same as aggregate data. I guess that after the death of Lê Duẩn (that is the wikipedia spelling, the name sounds totally different) in 1986, some Vietnamese might have come from the Northern part too. The South Vietnamese won the Vietnam war in the long run and now dominate Vietnam economically and culturally. Many former South Vietnamese leaders were welcomed back to Vietnam and treated with great respect and love, including former PM Ky in 2004. Former PM Ky and many South Vietnamese have called on their compatriots to forgive Jane Fonda and other Americans who were disrespectful to South Vietnam and the ARVN in the 1960s and 1970s. Today Vietnam is more pro business, free market, pro globalization, pro Wall Street than South Vietnam ever was. Very pro American, pro South Korean, pro Australian, pro Thailand, pro Japanese too. Hard as it might be for Americans to believe, now some retired NVA take pride in the valor and achievements of the former ARVN; and some retired ARVN take pride in the valor and achievements of the former NVA.

    Maybe I have had the company of too many Vietnamese Americans to be fully objective about this topic. If you have any documentation about ARVN double agents, please e-mail it. The NVA and North Vietnam had many spies; but they likely represented a very small percentage of ARVN officers and NCOs. Most of these didn’t like the North or NVA but liked getting bribed. Some pretended to be South Vietnamese patriots to join the ARVN and penetrate from the inside.

    The ARVN was institutionally a deeply anti communist organization based on all the books, articles and accounts I have read and heard. The largest cause of anti Americanism among South Vietnamese was the widely believed conspiracy theory that America was in bed with the communists. And yes, even senior officers and NCOs in the ARVN were suspicious about this.

    The South Vietnamese never understood Americans. Retired General Ky (wrote two books) and other South Vietnamese who wrote books have said as much. This led to a lot of misunderstandings, resentment and anger. To get a hint of this, read books and articles written by several former ARVN advisors, including the late General Norman Schwarzkopf, advisor to the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade (later Airborne Division) in 1965 and 1966. Schwarzkopf himself was resentful of conventional American military formations and State Department officials; channeling the perspective and resentment of the ARVN.

    The ARVN had 10 elite high quality divisions+elite VNAF+elite Republic of Vietnam Navy. The ARVN also had 17 shabby divisions. There is a world of difference between the perspective of advisors who served with the elite ARVN; and conventional American military units who were often deeply disrespectful to the ARVN. US State Department officials were much worse than the conventional US Army. And American civilians . . . the less said the better.

    It is okay for Americans not to want to help the South Vietnamese fight a war with North Vietnam, the USSR and China. But Americans can advocate for that position while being respectful of South Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese Government, ARVN and VNAF.

    • Yeah we only gave 500,000 troops and trillions of dollars and nearly 60,000 KIA. Vietnamese nationalism was stronger. I lived through it.

      • North Vietnamese were nationalist. South Vietnamese were also nationalist.

        NVA was almost completely dependent on the Chinese and Soviets; both of which bankrupted themselves by aiding North Vietnam. The later collapse of China and the USSR was partly because of the burden of supporting North Vietnam. The Chinese/Soviet FID effort actually tried to create very high end independent NVA capabilities. About 130,000 Chinese troops were based in North Vietnam for close to a decade. The Soviets had a large FID presence too. More Soviet troops were in North Vietnam than US troops were in South Vietnam in 1965, for example.

        The US opposed a strong independent ARVN and VNAF. I could write a 50 page heavily referenced article referring to the many ways the US did this. There are books written by military advisors to the ARVN which describe how the US opposed a strong ARVN/VNAF and declassified documents from DoD and the US government that say as much.

        The ARVN and VNAF leadership lobbied to launch an offensive over the DMV into North Vietnam (and create the equivalent of the Viet Cong in North Vietnam with disaffected North Vietnamese). The ARVN and VNAF also lobbied to attack the NVA in Laos and Cambodia. LBJ and Nixon were scared that the ARVN/VNAF would attack Chinese/Soviet troops in North Vietnam, precipitating WWIII.

        As a result the US deliberately prevented the VNAF and ARVN from acquiring high end armaments (fixed wing aircraft, ground attack missiles, high end artillery, high end tanks, SAM dismantling capability, signals) and capabilities until 1972.

        Another example would be how the inflation adjusted average salary of an ARVN soldier dropped 1965 to 1972 (when the US was in theory helping the ARVN); of course ARVN salaries collapsed after 1972.

        Yet another example is how the training and advising effort for the ARVN was massively under resourced. Most of the best officers and NCOs in theatre were used to command conventional US military units in South East Asia versus the advisory/training effort. LBJ refused to send quality US officers/NCOs based in Japan, South Korea (this I understand since 320,000 South Koreans fought in South Vietnam), Europe, Panama, Continental US. LBJ also refused to send the officers and NCOs from the US National Guard. Nixon also refused the MACV advisor “ask.”

        MACV was left with a fraction of its senior US cadre “ask” to train and advise the ARVN. Plus there were several unwise operational and tactical policies (not developing long term relationships between individual US soldiers/US military units and specific ARVN counterparts).

        The US purposely did not train the VNAF and ARVN on high end maintenance and technical skills to keep them dependent on the US (so they didn’t launch offensive operations opposed by the US). When US maintenance technicians and engineers were abruptly and unexpectedly removed, the results were predictable.

        The US was always focused on results over the next few months and as a result discouraged long term ARVN capacity development (which takes years to show results). However, the ROI from long term capacity development is much higher than from short term capacity development. As a result ARVN only received a fraction of the capacity their budget should have given them. Specifically the ARVN officers/NCOs were not developed through training seats. This is because training seats cost money and because it means removing many of the best ARVN officers/NCOs from the fight at any given time for training (which significantly disrupts short term military operations).

        I have many critiques of the South Koreans (who maintained about 50,000 troops in South Vietnam for 7 1/2 years) and Australians (largest Australian war in Australian history other than WWII; about 8 K troops for 7 years plus massive military/economic aid) too; but then this comment would get too long.

        With respect to nationalism, the ARVN had a lot of nationalism and esperit de corps. The ARVN did most of the fighting and the dying; usually with almost no American press coverage. ARVN throughout the war led security in South Vietnamese population centers with little US assistance. The ARVN also conducted a lot of the toughest fighting against the NVA in their AOs throughout the war with little American coverage or American appreciation (since Americans weren’t fighting). From 1969, when Nixon ordered Abrams to lower US casualties; the war was almost entirely between conventional ARVN and conventional NVA units. Albeit the ARVN had American advisors and combat enablers.

        • This discussion is by now sufficiently off topic that I’m closing it. However, you lost that one and your explanation of why does not hold water. That you’re still fighting for the long-disappeared ‘South Vietnam’ explains why you’re so into our current lost causes.

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