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US military footprint grows in Middle East, with no endgame in sight

BEIRUT — The United States launched more airstrikes in Yemen this month than during all of last year. In Syria, it has airlifted local forces to front-line positions, and has been accused of killing civilians in airstrikes. In Iraq, US troops and aircraft are central in supporting an urban offensive in Mosul, where airstrikes killed scores of people on March 17.

Two months after the inauguration of President Trump, indications are mounting that the US military is deepening its involvement in a string of complex wars in the Middle East that lack clear endgames.

Rather than representing any formal new Trump doctrine on military action, however, US officials say that what is happening is a shift in military decision-making that began under President Obama. On display are some of the first indications of how complicated military operations are continuing under a president who has vowed to make the military “fight to win.”

In an interview Wednesday, General Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, said the new procedures made it easier for commanders in the field to call in airstrikes without waiting for permission from more senior officers.


“We recognized the nature of the fight was going to change and that we had to ensure that authorities were down to the right level and that we empowered the on-scene commander,” Votel said. He was speaking specifically about discussions that he said began in November about how the fights in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State were reaching critical phases in Mosul and Raqqa, Syria.

Concerns about the recent accusations of civilian casualties are bringing some of these details to light. But some of the shifts have also involved small increases in the deployment and use of US forces or, in Yemen, resuming aid to allies that had been suspended.


And they coincide with the settling in of a president who has vowed to intensify the fight against extremists abroad and whose budgetary and rhetorical priorities have indicated a military-first approach even as he has proposed cuts in diplomatic spending.

To some critics, that suggests much more change is to come, in difficult situations in a restive Middle East that have never had clear solutions.

Robert Malley, a former senior official in the Obama administration and now vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group, said the uptick in military involvement since Trump took office did not appear to have been accompanied by increased planning for the day after potential military victories.

“The military will be the first to tell you that a military operation is only as good as the diplomatic and political plan that comes with it,” Malley said.

The lack of diplomacy and planning for the future in such places as Yemen and Syria could render victories there by the United States and its allies unsustainable.

“From harsh experience, we know that either US forces will have to be involved for the long term or victory will dissipate soon after they leave,” he said.

Others fear that greater military involvement could drag the United States into murky wars and that increased civilian deaths could feed anti-Americanism and jihadi propaganda.

Some insist this has already happened.

“Daesh is happy about the American attacks against civilians to prove its slogans that the Americans want to kill Muslims everywhere and not only the Islamic State’s gunmen,” a resident of the Syrian city of Raqqa wrote via WhatsApp, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. He gave only his first name, Abdul-Rahman, for fear of the jihadis.


The shift toward greater military involvement extends into one of Obama’s central legacies: the prolonged American presence in Afghanistan, where more than 8,400 US soldiers and 5,924 troops from NATO and other allies remain, and where the Taliban have been resurgent.

Plans have been announced to send 300 US Marines to Helmand province, their first deployment there since 2014. And the US commander, General John W. Nicholson Jr., told Congress in February he would like another “few thousand” American and coalition troops.

But the changes have also been notable in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, all home to overlapping conflicts in failed states where jihadi groups Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have taken advantage of the chaos to step up operations.

Even while being drawn more deeply into those conflicts, the Obama administration sought to limit US engagement while pushing — mostly in vain — for diplomatic solutions. It also launched frequent airstrikes to kill individual jihadis or to destroy their facilities and sent thousands of US troops back to Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces and also provide firepower, so they could “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State.

But under Obama, the White House often spent weeks or even months deliberating certain raids and airstrikes out of concern for US service members and civilians — and often to the frustration of commanders and US allies.


Trump’s tough statements before coming into office, and the rise in civilian deaths in recent US strikes, have raised questions about whether the new president has removed constraints from the Pentagon on how it wages war.

But administration officials say that has not yet happened. And military officials insist that the streamlined process for airstrikes does not exempt commanders from strict protocols meant to avoid civilian casualties.

Trump’s more muscular approach has been hailed by Persian Gulf leaders, who felt betrayed by Obama’s outreach to Iran and who hope that they now have an ally in the White House to help them push back against their regional foe.