It’s easy to call for destroying the Islamic State, as President Donald Trump does to thunderous applause from his supporters.
But our new commander-in-chief is learning how difficult and bloody that can be – and he’s starting to stray dangerously close to deepening American involvement in intractable wars.
The U.S. military is investigating whether its weapons killed as many as 200 civilians in Mosul, where a March 17 airstrike was called in by Iraqi troops targeting Islamic State fighters and equipment. It’s possible that the civilians were being used as human shields. If confirmed, it would be the deadliest civilian incident in the two-year coalition air campaign in Iraq and Syria and one of the worst ever for the U.S. military.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said Monday the military does “everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people. The same cannot be said for our adversaries.”
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The Pentagon, however, does not plan to change the way it conducts airstrikes, even as the fighting enters more densely populated urban areas. It should at least take a second look. The United Nations is warning that the worst is to come in Mosul, where an estimated 400,000 are trapped in Iraq’s second largest city.
To retake Mosul from the Islamic State, the president has ordered 200 more U.S. soldiers into the fight and has allowed them to go closer to the front lines to support Iraqi forces. About 5,000 U.S. troops are already in Iraq.
Trump is also sending 400 more soldiers into Syria to prepare for the battle for Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. That would nearly double U.S. forces in the middle of that civil war. The Pentagon is also looking into reports of more than 60 civilian deaths in two recent airstrikes near Raqqa that hit a mosque and a school.
The incidents should cause the White House to think twice about loosening the rules of engagement, designed to prevent civilian casualties and imposed by the Obama administration for drone strikes, commando raids and other counterterrorism missions outside war zones. Trump has granted a Pentagon request for the looser rules in three provinces of Yemen. That allowed the January special forces raid during which a Navy SEAL and several civilians were killed.
In January, Trump directed his national security team to come up with a comprehensive strategy against the Islamic State. Full details have not been released, but U.S. military action is already ramping up in Syria and Iraq. If Trump thought the blowback to taking away people’s health insurance was bad, he’d better not send thousands more Americans into battle.