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 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 American airstrikes targeting Yemen-based Qaeda militants, starting nearly two weeks ago, the officials said.
“Areas of active hostilities” is an interesting phrase, one that is both clinical and carries within it a depth of soon-to-be-explored horrors. It’s a holdover from the Obama administration (whose worst legacy will be handing over a set of dangerous tools to a madman), and one that looks to be exploited by Donald Trump and his band.
Essentially, declaring an area to be one of active hostility means that there doesn’t need to be a Presidential-level approval for missions, and that the rules of engagement regarding civilians are loosened. The Times described it as “open(ing) the throttle” on counterterrorism activities.
The main problem with this, aside from the increased casualties in civilians and military personnel, is that it essentially becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a tautology. If you declare an area to be actively hostile, and treat it as such, and say, lose a Navy Seal while killing a dozen children, then it becomes more hostile, and the question of whether or not there is conflict becomes self-answering (if the area wasn’t hostile, we wouldn’t have lost a Seal, right?)
In Yemen, this sort of policy will almost certainly be a disaster. Let’s look at the confluence of forces. Many of these came under the Obama administration, and have been exacerbated by Trump.
- The support for Saudi Arabia’s scorched earth campaign against the Huthis. Expect this support to increase, even vocally, as the administration tries to work a grand bargain of anti-Iran Arab nations (part of its Israel/Palestine plan, led by noted regional expert Jared Kushner).
- The relentless viewing of Yemen through a strict counterterrorism lens, which leads to more militancy, and a strengthening of AQAP and, to an extent, ISIS (though I think AQAP will prove to be stronger in Yemen).
- The confluence of Yemen with Iran, never entirely true, and now wildly and dangerously exaggerated.
- An increase in boots-oriented and civilian-dismissing CT activities, designed so that a know-nothing President can appear tough. I don’t expect US military commanders and personnel to go Kilgore in Yemen, but the loosening of the rules will lead to more conflict, with its higher chances of casualties and civilian deaths. The fact that it is common knowledge that the Administration approves of this only makes America and American intentions look worse.
- And speaking of American intentions, the hateful illogic of the travel ban solidifies the AQ/ISIS narrative that the West has declared war on Islam, and Islam has to protect itself. That the huffing and bloated face of Islamaphobia is now the face of the nation is an incredible gift to our enemies, and all his actions so far have proven their point.
- One of his other actions is to gut foreign aid and the State Department. Due to the war, continued drought, and decades of mismanaged resources, Yemen is on the brink of a catastrophic famine. ISIS can’t feed everyone; nor can AQAP. This is an area where the US, and the West, can actually make a difference. But instead, we are going to cut aid, which barely makes a dent on our budget, to appeal to xenophobes.
It’s hard to overstate how crazy that is (not to mention bleakly immoral). Donald Trump and the Republicans are the only people in the world who think there is a purely military solution to radical Islamic terrorism. The idea that on the brink of a hideous humanitarian catastrophe the right course of action is to 1) reduce aid and 2) increase military activity is madness. It’s the best way to ensure that you are seen as the enemy for generations to come.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think sending grain is going to “solve” Yemen. This is a long-term internal issue that partly has to answer the question of what Yemen really is, and whether a unified Yemen is possible or desirable. But the US and the West have a role to play, and the only way to do that is build trust with political and tribal leaders on all sides.
Backing war criminals, demonizing Muslims at home, turning your back on suffering Muslims around the world, ignoring famine, and treating a country entirely as a problem for bombs and guns will is the exact opposite of what we want to do. It guarantees Yemen stays a war zone. The massive human suffering will radiate around the peninsula and across the sea. It’s the best way to make every area actively hostile.