Donald Trump claimed he knew “more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me,” and he’d “bomb the sh*t” out of them, getting a new policy reviewed in 30 days. He also said we never should have invaded Iraq, and promised he wouldn’t commit our troops to more deadly wars.
Fast-forward two months past his inauguration and we don’t know his “secret plan” to destroy ISIS. We do know he’s pressing our military to go faster and has authorized more forces to fight. This week, 240 infantry and roadside bomb removers were shipped out to join 5,000 US troops supporting the Iraqi army’s bloody battle to retake Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. Call them trainers or support teams, but their American boots are on Iraqi ground.
Now, defeating the brutal, nihilistic Islamic State is something Americans, Iraqis, and Syrians across the political spectrum can agree on. Where it gets tricky is the means to the end. Just as critics of President Obama complained of his think-first, go-slow micromanagement, which Obama justified to avoid more US deaths in a Middle East quagmire, President Trump is earning a reputation as a boss who wants a quick fix and doesn’t care much how you got there.
It’s hard to draw a direct cause and effect, but there’s been a staggering increase this month in civilian casualties linked to US-led coalition airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.
The United States is investigating a March 17 coalition airstrike in Mosul that residents and human rights groups say may have killed more than 100 or 200 civilians, which, if true, could prove to be the highest civilian death toll in 26 years, back to the first Gulf War.
The Iraqi military says ISIS may have booby-trapped a building, knowing a mass death toll would bring bad publicity, and a likely slow-down in the fight. Earlier this month, dozens of civilians were reported killed in Syria, in US-led airstrikes that hit a school in Raqqa province and a building in a mosque complex near Aleppo. If accurate, the civilian death toll recorded by monitoring groups in March would be more than twice the total recorded by the US military since the bombing campaign began in August 2014.
Naturally, the deaths raise questions about whether Trump has loosened the military’s rules of engagement — or whether his go-fast message is promoting a disregard for “collateral damage’’ in favor of defeating the enemy.
Testifying before the House Armed Services committee Wednesday, General Joseph Votel of US Central Command insisted the military has the highest standards for protecting civilian life and the rules of engagement haven’t changed. He said ground commanders now have more authority to call in strikes without going up the chain of command to avoid potential delays. Heavily populated urban environments like Mosul — where 400,000 civilians are pinned down by fighting — make it “more difficult to apply extraordinarily high standards . . . although we will try.”
Military officials say what has changed is the signal from the top: Trump has delegated authority, with the caveat “get it done fast.”
Ilan Goldenberg, a former Pentagon and the State Department official, said in an interview that it’s true that “Obama was micromanaging things that should have been military decisions. But now I fear the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction.”
“The signaling from the president is ‘do more, do more, do it faster.’ There needs to be a balance between giving military people on the ground the freedom they need to use their judgment, versus not inadvertently having a low-ranking officer making a decision that gets us into a profound situation or drags us into war,” said Goldenberg, of the Center for New American Security.
Retired Lt. General James Dubik, a former commander of the multinational security and transition command in Iraq, said what the go-fast approach misses is the reality that “ISIS is a revolutionary group and a revolutionary group can’t be defeated by military means alone.” Dubik, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, said Trump should adopt a comprehensive military, diplomatic, and economic strategy coordinated with our allies.
We all prefer an easy fix to a long, hard road, and that’s why Trump’s “secret plan” appealed. Many Americans think war “can be remote, precise, and bloodless. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” said Dubik, who knows first-hand.
We all want to beat ISIS. But we can’t get it done fast if we’re not getting it done right.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in a Washington columnist and the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.