The Pentagon insists that there has been no major change in its rules for airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and that a surge in civilian casualties is a result of increased military operations in western Mosul, said to be the most intense urban combat since World War II.
Nevertheless, the disturbing number of casualties raises concerns that President Trump’s approach to counterterrorism puts too many civilians at risk and ultimately leads more people to side with the terrorists.
Western Mosul, where Iraqi ground forces backed by American advisers and American airstrikes are trying to defeat about 2,000 ISIS fighters, is a warren of homes and narrow streets. Military commanders have acknowledged that scores of civilians were killed by an American airstrike there on March 17, although they noted that militants might have packed the basement of the destroyed building with explosives. It may be the largest loss of civilian life since the anti-ISIS campaign began in 2014.
This month, more than 60 other people were killed in a strike on a mosque complex in Aleppo, Syria, where local residents said a religious gathering had been taking place, but American military officials said Al Qaeda was their target. The military has also been accused of killing about 30 Syrians in an airstrike on a school near Raqqa; officials say that early indications show it hit Islamic State fighters.
While the increase in civilian casualties began under President Barack Obama, it has accelerated under Mr. Trump and now surpasses the number of civilian deaths caused by Russia in Syria, according to Airwars, a nonprofit group that tracks the data. At least 1,353 civilians in Iraq have been killed by airstrikes carried out by the American-led coalition, the group said.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump talked fast and loose about bombing ISIS, killing not just the terrorists but also their families, and reviving torture, even though it is illegal under American and international law. He preposterously claimed to have a secret plan to defeat ISIS and said he knew more about the group than the generals did.
That reckless attitude has raised questions about whether Mr. Trump has removed constraints on how the Pentagon wages war. Administration officials deny this, and military officials say commanders are still required to follow strict protocols meant to avoid civilian casualties, according to The Times’s Ben Hubbard and Michael Gordon.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and top military commanders, who complained of micromanagement by the Obama White House, more freedom to maneuver. For instance, he granted their request to declare parts of three provinces in Yemen an “area of active hostilities,” giving commanders greater flexibility to strike. Later, a Special Operations raid in late January led to the death of many civilians and an American commando.
Mr. Trump has also continued some changes that began in November under Mr. Obama that make it easier for commanders in Iraq and Syria to call in airstrikes without waiting for permission from more senior officers. Military experts say that makes sense because the fight against ISIS is intensifying and there are more American advisers near the front lines to call in strikes. Also, the Iraqi forces who are doing the fighting in Mosul are requesting more air support.
It is impossible to avoid all civilian casualties, especially in crowded cities like Mosul where about a half-million civilians have been directed by their government to stay in place or have been forbidden to leave by ISIS fighters, who use innocents as shields. That’s why it’s doubly important that the United States and its allies continue to adhere to protocols that minimize civilian casualties, investigate civilian deaths allegedly caused by American airstrikes, report the findings publicly and compensate aggrieved families. On such matters, the United States has had a much better record than Russia, which showed no restraint in helping the Assad regime seize Aleppo last year.
Moreover, there is little evidence that the president has a strategy to foster long-term stability in a postwar Iraq and Syria. A military victory against ISIS that leaves Iraqis and Syrians seething over a bloody trail of civilian deaths, and that fails to address the political tensions that give terrorists space to flourish, is likely to be very short-lived.