Protesters marched in New York City to oppose military action against Syria in 2013. (Photo: The All-Nite Images/Flickr/cc)
As the 17-year-old War on Terror rages on—and with the international community still reeling from the illegal missile strikes that the U.S., U.K., and France launched on Syria over the weekend—Congress is considering a measure that critics warn will expand the executive branch’s authority to wage war.
Some lawmakers have tried for years to replace the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that has been used (pdf) by three administrations to justify military actions across the globe. Now that President Donald Trump has repeatedly ignored reminders that only Congress can approve attacks not covered by the authorization, Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) plan to introduce a new AUMF that could give even more war powers to the president.
Christopher Anders, deputy director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, explained that under the proposed AUMF described in reports on Monday, Trump would essentially “get a blank check from Congress to go to war virtually anywhere on the planet.”
Outlining his concerns with various aspects of the proposal, Anders concludes it “would cause colossal harm to the Constitution’s checks and balances, would jeopardize civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad, and would lead to a breathtakingly broad expansion of war without meaningful oversight.”
Sign this petition to tell Congress not to support the proposed AUMF. Our Constitution creates a system of checks and balances to avoid this exact situation. https://t.co/JaVNKqu455
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) toldNBC News that he worries “about an AUMF that is more permissive than what the president currently interprets his authority to be,” adding: “It’s gonna be hard for me to support something that has no sunset and no geographic limitation.”
Columbia Law School professor Matthew Waxman, a former national security official in the George W. Bush administration, said that an AUMF without an expiration date will bolster concerns among those who fear that greenlighting a new measure “entrenches an indefinite war.”
“The political reality, though, is that a much more restrictive AUMF won’t be possible anytime soon,” Waxman said, “and we’ll be engaged in an indefinite war either way.”
Reports about the new AUMF—which could be introduced as early as Monday—follow Kaine’s controversial comments to “CBS This Morning” earlier in the day.
While Kaine sharply criticized the attack on Syria as an “illegal military act,” the senator also said he would have “likely” supported it if Trump had asked for permission from Congress first.
Tim Kaine on the Syria strike: “This is an illegal military act. It’s one that I would likely support if he brought it to Congress. We have a president not a king and the constitution says it’s congress that gets to declare war not the president.” (CBS) pic.twitter.com/5Tk7LgWawW
Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)—a long-time critic of the 2001 AUMF and the only member of Congress to vote against it—swiftly condemned Trump’s weekend attack, but many more were criticized for their apparent indifference or tempered responses to Trump’s unconstitutional act.
On Saturday, the Defense Postreported that the U.S.-led coalition in Syria was building a 30,000-member “border force,” made up predominantly of Kurdish and Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as well as some unspecified new recruits.
“The Coalition is working jointly with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to establish and train the new Syrian Border Security Force (BSF). Currently, there are approximately 230 individuals training in the BSF’s inaugural class, with the goal of a final force size of approximately 30,000,” CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer Colonel Thomas F. Veale told Defense Post. Continue reading →
On December 22 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in an attempt to force the release of newly established rules related to the U.S. military’s secret program of killing. The program was established during the Obama Administration and now expanded under Donald Trump. Recent reports from the New York Times (1, 2) allude to the fact that the Trump administration is loosening the already flimsy protections established by the Obama admin. These protections were reportedly put in place to minimize injury and deaths of civilians. Continue reading →
“From the civilians harmed and displaced by violence, to the soldiers killed and wounded, to the children who play years later on roads and fields sown with improvised explosive devices and cluster bombs, no set of numbers can convey the human toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or how they have spilled into the neighboring states of Syria and Pakistan, and come home to the U.S. and its allies in the form of wounded veterans and contractors,” the new report states. (Photo: Lynn Friedman/flickr/cc)
A new analysis offers a damning assessment of the United States’ so-called global war on terror, and it includes a “staggering” estimated price tag for wars waged since 9/11—over $5.6 trillion.
The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Center says the figure—which covers the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan from 2001 through 2018—is the equivalent of more than $23,386 per taxpayer. Continue reading →
This is exactly the type of atrocity that the United Nations vowed to combat in 2005, when it asserted a “responsibility to protect” civilian populations from genocidal violence. Yet, little has been done.
Why has “the responsibility to protect” failed, and can the Rohingya be helped?
Responsibility to protect
The “responsibility to protect” doctrine resulted from the humanitarian catastrophes of the 1990s: Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and especially Rwanda. The world struggled to balance respect for state sovereignty with the imperative to prevent the slaughter of civilians. In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty issued a reportredefining the problem. It stated that states had primary responsibility to protect their populations. But, if they could not or would not, then that duty could be exercised by the international community.
This concept was affirmed by the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit. However, my research on the origins and implementation of the responsibility to protect has demonstrated that this consensus was superficial. Many states, including the United States and China, gave lip service to a “responsibility to protect,” but were unwilling or unable to implement it. The conditions under which the responsibility to protect could be invoked remain deliberately ambiguous.
Words in action: Libya and Cote d’Ivoire
Despite this tepid support, in 2011, the United Nations authorized two operations in countries where civilians were at risk.
In Cote d’Ivoire, United Nations peacekeeping forces intervened to remove the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, who had lost an election and was using the country’s security force to attack civilians in an attempt to remain in power. U.N. forces helped oversee a political transition and maintain security. This intervention was widely seen at the U.N. as a success.
The other intervention was in Libya, after the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi threatened to slaughter those who opposed his regime. The intervention – led by Britain, France and the United States – successfully prevented Gaddafi’s slaughter of civilians. But it also led to the collapse of his regime, his murder by rebel forces and continuing conflict in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Failure to protect
Despite humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, the responsibility to protect has not been used by the U.N. since 2011 to justify intervention. The Libya case helps to explain this: Once the intervening forces helped overthrow Gaddafi, Russia and China declared that the “responsibility to protect” was merely a pretext for the West to conduct regime change. Those countries have repeatedly vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria.
Implementing the “responsibility to protect” faces other challenges as well. One is that an intervention to protect civilians may encounter armed resistance from those who are committing the atrocities, as would likely be the case in Syria. A larger, more capable international military force would be necessary to defeat them. Many states will be deterred by the greater costs and risks of such an intervention.
Another challenge is that states and international organizations have multiple goals and priorities. They may not wish to jeopardize relations with the offending regime, or risk other national interests, in order to stop violence. They may even help the regime that is committing the atrocities, as the Russian government has done in Syria, to advance those interests.
Finally, a successful intervention may lead to a costly commitment to provide long-term security and relief – a “responsibility to rebuild,” so to speak. For most states, these potential costs of intervention far outweigh their willingness to act to save lives.
What can we do for the Rohingya?
All these challenges to implementing the responsibility to protect are evident in the Rohingya case. Myanmar authorities have resisted any international role in the crisis, raising the cost of potential intervention. In any case, other states have little interest in taking action. China is shielding Myanmar from pressure in the U.N. Security Council and is trying to pull Myanmar into its sphere of influence. President Trump has not made Myanmar a priority for American foreign policy. Russia, India and other states prefer to work with the regime to further their own interests in the region.
What can be done, then?
Economic and political sanctions against the Myanmar military are a possibility. But without Chinese participation, they would have limited effectiveness. Sanctions might also lead the Myanmar military to reverse recent democratic reforms in the country.
An alternative would be for the United States and other countries to sharply increase aid to Bangladesh, which is hosting the fleeing Rohingya civilians. They might also consider accepting some Rohingya as refugees. However, this could be problematic given the current debate on refugees in the United States and many other countries.
In the longer term, diplomatic and financial pressure, as well as the possibility of indictment for crimes against humanity, may convince Myanmar’s military leaders to cease the ethnic cleansing and allow some Rohingya to return. Unfortunately, no international cavalry is likely to ride to the Rohingya’s rescue.
When President Donald Trump took office in January, it was unclear whether the bombast from his campaign would translate into an aggressive new strategy against terrorism. At campaign rallies he pledged to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State. He openly mused about killing the families of terrorists, a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits violence against noncombatants.
Ten months into his presidency, a clearer picture is emerging. The data indicate several alarming trends.
According to research from the nonprofit monitoring group Airwars, the first seven months of the Trump administration have already resulted in more civilian deaths than under the entirety of the Obama administration. Airwars reports that under Obama’s leadership, the fight against IS led to approximately 2,300 to 3,400 civilian deaths. Through the first seven months of the Trump administration, they estimate that coalition air strikes have killed between 2,800 and 4,500 civilians.
Researchers also point to another stunning trend – the “frequent killing of entire families in likely coalition airstrikes.” In May, for example, such actions led to the deaths of at least 57 women and 52 children in Iraq and Syria.
The vast increase in civilian deaths is not limited to the anti-IS campaign. In Afghanistan, the U.N. reports a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in the first six months of 2017 compared to the first half of 2016.
The key question is: Why? Are these increases due to a change in leadership?
Delegating war to the military
Experts offer several explanations.
One holds that Trump’s “total authorization” for the military to run wars in Afghanistan and against IS has loosened Obama-era restrictions and increased military commanders’ risk tolerance. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations notes: “Those closer to the fight are more likely to call in lethal force and are less likely to follow a value-based approach.”
In other words, an intense focus on destroying IS elements may be overriding the competing priority of protecting civilians. Because Trump has scaled back civilian oversight and delegated authority to colonels rather than one-star generals, the likely result is higher casualties.
A second explanation points to the changing nature of the counter-IS campaign. The Pentagon contends that the rise in casualties is “attributable to the change in location” of battlefield operations towards more densely populated urban environments like Mosul and Raqqa.
This is a partial truth. While urban warfare has increased, Trump’s team has substantially escalated air strikes and bombings. According to CENTCOM data, the military has already used 20 percent more missiles and bombs in combined air operations in 2017 than in all of 2016. One notable airstrike in March, for example, killed 105 Iraqi civilians when U.S. forces dropped a 500-pound bomb in order to take out two snipers in Mosul. In fact, a Human Rights Watch analysis of bomb craters in West Mosul estimates that U.S. coalition forces are routinely using larger and less precise bombs – weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds – than in prior operations. Finally, the urban battlefield explanation also does not account for increased civilian deaths in Afghanistan from airstrikes, where the environment has remained static for several years.
Pressure from the president
A third explanation of higher civilian casualties is that aggressive rhetoric from the president is inadvertently pressuring the military to take more risks and to deprioritize protecting civilians.
As former Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski observes: “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment.” Words matter, especially coming from the commander-in-chief. In the face of such aggressive rhetoric, it should not come as a surprise that military officers feel encouraged – if not indirectly pressured – to take greater risks.
Unfortunately, the increased trend of civilian casualties is unlikely to diminish. In fact, signs abound that the White House is developing a new set of policies and procedures that will authorize more sweeping discretion to the military. In September, The New York Times reported that White House officials were proposing two major rules changes. First, they would expand the scope of “kill missions” and allow for the targeting of lower-level terrorists in addition to high value targets. Second – and more notably – they would suspend high-level vetting of potential drone attacks and raids.
Then, in 2016, Obama issued an executive order on civilian harm that established heightened standards to minimize civilian casualties from military actions, and required the public release of information pertaining to strikes against terrorist targets.
While the latest actions from the Trump administration stop short of reversing Obama-era restraints, they are unsettling steps in the opposite direction. For example, it appears for now that the White House will preserve the “near certainty” standard, which requires commanders to have near certainty that a potential strike will not impact civilians. But this could change over time.
One senior official quoted in The New York Times article bluntly asserts that the latest changes are intended to make much of the “bureaucracy” created by the Obama administration rules “disappear.” As the White House dissolves the existing bureaucracy and relinquishes civilian oversight, Trump is embarking on a slippery slope that will potentially lead to major diminutions of civilian protection.
The current battle to take the Syrian city of Raqqa is emblematic of the stakes at hand. The U.S. is leading a punishing air war to soften IS defenses. In August, U.S. forces dropped 5,775 bombs and missiles onto the city. For context, this represented 10 times more munitions than the U.S. used for the whole of Afghanistan in the same month and year. The resulting civilian toll has been gruesome. At least 433 civilians likely died in Raqqa due to the August bombings, more than double the previous month’s total. Since the assault on Raqqa commenced on June 6, more than 1,000 civilians have been reported killed.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cautions that the intense bombardment has left civilians caught between IS’s monstrosities and the fierce battle to defeat it. Zeid insists that “civilians must not be sacrificed for the sake of rapid military victories.”
Trump would be wise to heed this warning. Even as U.S. forces continue to turn the tide on IS, the trail of destruction left in the campaign’s wake is unsettling. The specter of massive civilian casualties will remain a rallying point for new terrorist organizations long after anti-IS operations conclude.
Of the 72 percent of registered voters who turned up at the polls, a little more than 93 percent opted to separate their homeland from Iraq. Independence, however, is fraught with the dangers of disputed borders, ferocious opposition from its neighbors and internal dissent.
As a longtime “friend of the Kurds” who made his first illegal attempt to enter Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran in 1974 with ABC News’ Peter Jennings but succeeded many times thereafter, I want to see them free and secure. More than that, my wish is to see them avoid the destruction and displacement of the kind that Saddam Hussein inflicted on them in 1975, 1988 and 1991, when the United States abandoned them to their fate. Their leaders would be well advised to proceed with caution. The Iraqi Kurds’ antagonistic leaders are Massoud Barzani in Arbil and Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, a formidable woman who acts as a kind of regent while her husband, former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, languishes in a semi-coma. The Barzanis and Talabanis, though rivals, guided their people through the dark years of genocide by the Iraqi government and brought them to the semi-independent status they enjoy today. For that, they deserve our respect. They probably do not deserve my advice, but I’ll offer it anyway. Continue reading →
Every flower that sprouts in the mountains had to first break through a rock.
By. Dr. Thoreau Redcrow. Published 9-22-2017 by the Region
Rallies and celebrations take place throughout Kurdistan as the referendum vote approaches Monday’s date.. Photo: Al Arabiya/Twitter
In a few days on September 25th the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Southern Kurdistan / Bashur (i.e. northern “Iraq”) is set to hold a non-binding aspirational referendum on their region’s independence. For many of the 6+ million Kurds of Bashur it is undoubtedly a day they have dreamt of or longed for; perhaps even a chance which seemed all but a fantasy through the billowing smoke of chemical bombs in Hełebce, or Saddam’s mass graves of the 1980’s.
Moreover, although this referendum is only related to one of the four regions of Greater Kurdistan—leaving those 20+ million Kurds of southeastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), 12 million Kurds of northwestern Iran (Eastern Kurdistan), and 2-3 million Kurds of northern Syria (Western Kurdistan) awaiting their own eventual ‘independence day’—I have still anecdotally witnessed a surge in Kurdish patriotism and excitement throughout wider Kurdistan and the diaspora at the possibility that the first of the four dominoes may finally fall. Continue reading →
President Donald Trump is reportedly gearing up to roll back even the most limited restrictions on U.S. drone operations overseas, further opening the door for the expansion of airstrikes and commando raids into nations like the Philippines and Nigeria and setting the stage for an upsurge in civilian casualties—already at record highs in Afghanistan and soaring in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Zeke Johnson, senior director of programs for Amnesty International USA, told the New York Times in an interview that while Obama-era restrictions on drone strikes “fell far short on human rights protections,” any move to water down drone warfare rules even further would be a “grave mistake.” Continue reading →
IDF soldiers deployed during “Operation Protective Edge.” (Photo: IDF/flickr/public domain)
Last week, Israel began holding its largest military drill in 20 years, and it was specifically designed to simulate a war with Hezbollah.
From the Independent:
“The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) has deployed thousands of air, sea and land personnel to the Lebanese border for its biggest military drill in almost two decades, a show of strength designed to intimate Hezbollahand Iran even as their power grows in neighbouring Syria.”Continue reading →