Trump's War on Terror

Members of Iraqi army are seen during the war between Iraqi army and Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) against the Islamic State militants in al-Ayadiya, northwest of Tal Afar, Iraq August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

After eight exhausting years fighting terrorist groups, there are important insights from the Obama administration that President Trump would be wise to heed.

November-December 2017

Partially in response to these pressures, the Obama administration developed a set of legal and policy guidelines aimed at clarifying targeting criteria and minimizing civilian harm. The recently declassified 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets sets out rules to determine the legality of a proposed strike. It mandates high-level interagency deliberations before strikes are approved and requires “near certainty” that no civilian casualties will be killed. The president’s July 2016 executive order on civilian harm amplified this guidance. It established heightened standards to minimize civilian casualties from U.S. military actions and mandated the public release of certain information about strikes against terrorist targets. In July 2016, the administration revealed its first set of civilian casualty figures, acknowledging between sixty-four and 116 aggregate civilian deaths from 473 counterterrorism strikes taking place between 2009 and 2015 (not including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria). In the waning days of his presidency, Obama also issued a comprehensive report documenting key legal bases governing the use of force in counterterrorism operations and the main policy and legal frameworks constraining U.S. actions. While the report did not bring any real surprises, it provided a remarkable compilation and record of how and why the Obama administration reached its counterterrorism policy and legal conclusions over the past eight years.

President Obama’s actions partly stemmed from the recognition that significant casualty numbers would impede U.S. counterterrorism objectives and reinforce terrorists’ recruiting narratives. His administration’s efforts to mitigate civilian casualties did have an impact: for example, existing data indicates that improved targeting rules and reduced signature strikes lowered the incidence of civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in Pakistan after 2011. Yet the steps taken by the Obama administration to increase the transparency of U.S. counterterrorism operations remained tentative—it only published the Presidential Policy Guidance after a federal court mandated its release, and its aggregate casualty estimates were significantly lower than those put forward by nongovernmental monitoring groups. It is also worth noting that the Trump administration can easily reverse Obama’s steps to increase transparency and establish a set of criteria governing lethal action outside of conventional war zones.

ANOTHER CENTRAL component of Obama’s light-footprint counterterrorism strategy was to place greater emphasis on outsourcing the fight against terrorist groups to foreign militaries and local proxies. Describing this approach, then U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates asserted in 2010 that the United States should do more to help “other countries defend themselves or, if necessary, fight alongside U.S. forces by providing them with equipment, training, and other forms of security assistance.” This strategy has been central to U.S. policy in Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Mali and Somalia, as well as U.S. efforts to combat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. For example, in the case of Somalia, direct financial support to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and bilateral assistance to troop-contributing countries have allowed the United States to avoid getting pulled into an expensive conflict with no clear exit strategy.

Engaging in these types of alliances was not new or specific to the Obama administration. What was unique was the extent to which the Obama administration relied upon other countries as a central plank in its counterterrorism efforts. As a result, the United States frequently entered into unsavory partnerships with repressive governments and armies with poor civilian-protection records.