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 for avoiding civilian casualties, officials said.
WASHINGTON — 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 Donald 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 U.S. airstrikes targeting Yemen-based Qaida extremists, starting nearly two weeks ago, the officials said.
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 extremists with the al-Qaida-linked group Al 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.
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The move to open the throttle on using military force — and accept a greater risk of civilian casualties — in troubled parts of the Muslim world comes as the Trump administration is also trying to significantly increase military spending and slash foreign aid and State Department budgets.
The proposal to cut soft-power budgets, however, is meeting with stiff resistance from some senior Republicans on Capitol Hill, as well as from top active-duty and retired generals and admirals, who fear perpetual conflicts if the root causes of instability and terrorism are not addressed.
In a sign of mounting concern over the government’s policy review, more than three dozen members of the United States’ 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 Sunday to 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 extremist 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 McLaughlin, who was acting CIA director for President George W. Bush; Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s homeland- security and counterterrorism adviser; and Matthew Olsen, who served as a national-security official in the Bush Justice Department and as director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the Obama administration.
Obama imposed the civilian-protection rules in May 2013 as part of an effort to recalibrate counterterrorism operations after he had overseen a steep increase in military and CIA drone strikes in places like Yemen and tribal Pakistan.
Critics, including inside the government, worried that the strikes were causing too many civilian casualties, driving terrorist recruitment and undermining support among local partners in the regions. In response, the Obama administration developed the rules, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance.
Under those rules, Cabinet officials generally must agree in high-level deliberations that a proposed target away from a traditional war zone poses a threat to Americans. That is intended to limit strikes targeting generic groups of suspected low-level foot soldiers. And there must be “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed.
By contrast, in a standard war zone, military commanders can approve a strike without interagency review in Washington, and some civilian casualties are acceptable under the laws of war, as long as they are deemed necessary and proportionate to a legitimate military objective.
Military operators have chafed under the 2013 rules, but the Obama administration saw them as a signature accomplishment in the era of drones and open-ended war on terrorism. In his last year in office, Obama issued an executive order requiring the government to disclose annually its official estimate of civilian and combatant deaths from counterterrorism airstrikes away from war zones.
Still, in its final year in power, the Obama administration declared the area around Sirte, Libya, to be an “area of active hostilities.” It then started a sustained campaign of 495 airstrikes targeting Islamic State group militias there. Obama revoked the Sirte declaration hours before Trump’s inauguration.
The Obama administration also permitted the Defense Department to carry out an escalated campaign of airstrikes last year in Somalia that the U.S. Africa Command started without going through the process laid out by the 2013 rules. Instead, those airstrikes were justified under an expansive theory of collective self-defense to protect African Union and Somali forces being trained and advised by the United States.
Against that backdrop, officials said, both the Central Command, which oversees military activity in Yemen, and Africa Command, which oversees it in Somalia, had been developing proposals by mid-2016 to ask for parts of Yemen and Somalia to be declared active-hostilities zones, officials said. They submitted those to the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s “J5” directorate, which handles strategic plans and policy.
As a result, the Pentagon was in a position to swiftly bring the ideas forward to Trump, whose inauguration raised expectations that the White House would be more permissive. The officials said that Mattis signed one-page memos to Trump asking for each authority, backed by about five pages of supporting material, within days of Trump’s becoming president in January.
Several officials said Trump signed off on making parts of Yemen an active-hostilities zone at the same dinner with Mattis five days after his inauguration where he approved the ill-fated raid on a Qaida compound in Yemen. At the time, they said, the expectation was that the Somalia proposal would be swiftly signed, too, and that the larger 2013 rules could be jettisoned swiftly.
On Jan. 28, Trump signed a presidential national-security memorandum directing the military to give him a plan within 30 days to defeat the Islamic State group. It said the plan should include “recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force,” a veiled reference to rescinding the 2013 limits on airstrikes.
But the momentum for rapid change broke, the officials said, after the Yemen raid, which resulted in numerous civilian deaths, including of children; the death of a member of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and the wounding of three others; and the loss of a $75 million aircraft.
As a result, Trump’s national-security advisers — first Michael Flynn, who has since resigned, and now Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster — have slowed the review process down while letting operations in Yemen, and soon Somalia, play out as test runs, the officials said.