President Donald Trump´s bid to fight the war on terror has new implications for US airstrike counter-terrorism strategies. Earlier this month the US-led coalition fuelled controversy with the attack on Mosul, which was deemed the deadliest attack on civilians yet, and consequently prompted a halt in the offensive carried out by the Iraqi government. Under the Trump administration, the use of airstrikes has increased dramatically, especially in areas in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The apparent changing policy in the tactical use of airstrikes is deeply concerning and holds significant implications for international peace and security.
Micah Zenko, the drone expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, framed the severity of the situation with the statistics that under the entirety of the Obama administration there was one airstrike launched every 5.4 days, in contrast to the Trump administration where there is an airstrike or raid every 1.25 days. In May 2013, President Obama released the “playbook” which outlined the provisions for remote killing. It stated that no airstrike can occur outside of a war zone unless there is an imminent threat to the US and further emphasizing that there must be “near-certainty” that no civilians would be harmed. The recent declaration of areas of Yemen and Somalia as “areas of active hostilities” is currently providing the US more scope to launch airstrikes, as this is consistent with the provisions of a declared war zone.
The increased authorization of airstrikes demonstrates a shift in the US administration´s policy regarding targeted killing, with an apparently relaxed approach to restrictions on counter-terrorism efforts. White house Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, commented that “philosophically the President has made it very clear that he wants to give the commanders on the ground much more flexibility to execute their mission.” In practical terms, this translates to an increase in the military budget and removing the bureaucracy from decisions to launch airstrikes. Decision-making responsibility is thereby transferred to generals in the Oval Office, rather than it being a matter for approval from the White house. There has been further speculation about Trump’s expressed interest in returning airstrike authority to the CIA. Obama limited this area of conduct in the interest of transparency; it remains unclear whether a return to this decision would inevitably mean that there would be no obligation to disclose information about the number of attacks launched and civilian casualties.
The expressed policy shift holds multiple implications and areas for concern. The increased use of airstrikes may cause further radicalization and sustain the war on terror, rather than contain the threat. Terror organization, Al-Qaeda, has been known to capitalize on drone strikes by directly visiting the families of those affected by Western airstrikes and using propaganda techniques to fuel animosity towards their own governments and the actions of the international community. Furthermore, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a stark warning that “the limits of war as we know it could virtually dissolve. At stake is no less than the global framework that protects life and preserves peace and international security”. Tracking the accountability of civilian deaths will become more problematic and there is a profound worry that approved procedures will not be followed. Whilst Trump´s hard-line approach is ultimately to tackle the war on terror, a shift in policy regarding targeted killing will allow for the ease of launching airstrikes and consequently, less emphasis on the devastating consequences that may occur as a result.
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