When a Navy SEAL was killed and three others injured during a raid in Central Yemen in early 2017, Americans asked, “What are we doing there?” When three U.S. Army Special Forces troops were killed in an ambush while on patrol in Niger, folks back home said, “What are we doing there?”
While these two surprise attacks by suspected al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters on the ground raised important questions about America’s military presence in countries where we haven’t declared war, as usual the queries and public outrage failed to illuminate the iceberg beneath the surface. U.S. military activity—in particular, airstrikes and raids in the Middle East and Africa, not to mention Afghanistan—has not only accelerated under the Trump administration, but targeted killing campaigns are reportedly operating under fewer constraints and with less transparency than even under the notoriously secretive Obama administration.
In short, there’s a lot of kinetic action going on that the American public doesn’t know about—at least until something awful happens or officials are forced to show their cards, and even then, they will be holding most of the deck under the table.
Earlier this year, investigative journalist Nick Turse, who U.S. African Command blacklisted after claiming he was not “legitimate,” reported that the U.S. has Special Forces operating in 149 countries on the planet—a 150 percent increase over the George W. Bush years. But what about the skies? Of this we have only troubling glimpses. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Trump administration launched over 160 strikes in Yemen and Somalia in 2017—that’s 100 percent and 30 percent more, respectively, than the drone-loving Obama administration launched the year before. The attacks in Afghanistan as of January 1 were reaching the same levels as the 2009-2010 “surge,” and we all know how well that’s working out.
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To put it into more context, the Obama administration conducted 563 covert strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen during its two terms, compared to 57 strikes under Bush. Obama only admitted to between 64 and 116 civilian deaths during that time, though the bureau said it was likely 380 to 801 times higher than that.
But from the current administration, near-silence on all of this. On Thursday, the Department of Defense issued a report to Congress mandated under the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The DoD was supposed to list each strike—time, date, and place—that was confirmed (or reasonably suspected) to have resulted in a civilian casualty, along with the number of casualties, both civilian and combatant, in 2017. The report was 30 days late and, not surprisingly, fell terribly short of the requirements.
What it did reveal is that out of 10,000 total military strikes in 2017 (typically by drone, AC-130 gunships, missiles, and fighter-bombers), the DoD could confirm approximately 499 civilians killed and approximately 169 injured. These took place during Operation Inherent Resolve (Iraq, Syria), Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (Afghanistan), and U.S. operations in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Supposedly, DoD has no reports of civilian casualties resulting from strikes in Libya and Somalia, though we know targeting has increased in both countries under Trump, and according to outside observers, there were upwards of 10 civilians killed in Somalia in 2017.
The report also says DoD has 450 additional reports of civilian casualties that it has not yet been able to assess, so the number of confirmed civilian deaths is likely much higher. Furthermore, the report neglects to identify the combatant death totals or put any of the casualties into context—date, time, place. Instead, they’re lumped together, rendering the totals nearly useless in terms of deciphering the costs in each country.
“The Department of Defense’s report on civilian casualties contains glaring gaps, including a blatant disregard for statutory requirements to provide the number of combatant casualties and to list all operations that were reasonably suspected to have resulted in civilian casualties,” said Rita Siemion, legal counsel for Human Rights First.
Equally frustrating, the congressional mandate only covers U.S. military strikes—we still have no idea how many CIA drone operations have been conducted in each of these countries under Trump. That information was supposed to be included in an annual White House report of all civilians and combatants killed in American counterterrorism airstrikes in 2017. The report was required under an executive order signed by Obama in 2016. Yet the May 1 deadline came and went, with administration officials suggesting that, according to a spokesman who talked with the Washington Post, “the executive order that requires the civilian casualty report is under review,” and could be “modified” or “rescinded.”
Furthermore, “the previous administration’s EO requirement for the public report was based on Obama CT (counterterrorism) policies, many of which were rescinded to allow the warfighter to better pursue the evolving threat.”
Let’s unpack that for a moment. The Trump administration has never publicly announced the new rules of engagement, but it was widely reported in September that the Obama-era President Policy Guidance (most certainly vague but the only rules we have to go on since he issued them in 2013) would be relaxed in two major ways. The first was that the targets of so-called “kill missions,” which under Obama would have to pose “a continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, would be expanded to include mere jihadist foot soldiers “with no special skills or leadership roles,” according to New York Times reporting. In other words, it would now include those who weren’t an imminent threat.
Second, drone attacks and ground raids would no longer go through high-level vetting. A critical piece—that strikes would proceed only if there was “near certainty” that civilians would not be harmed—remained in place (though neither administration has ever explained what the standards are for achieving that level of assurance).
“The Trump administration issued a new policy but they have neither released that policy itself or even a declassified fact sheet or summary of it—or even acknowledged that it exists,” Siemion told TAC in an interview last week. “We don’t even know if they are being applied.”
To make matters more complicated, these rules, if they exist, only ever applied to countries deemed outside the “area of active hostilities.” Otherwise all bets are off and the laws of war apply, which are much less constraining. The area of active hostilities include Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and, as of last year, parts of Yemen and Somalia, too. And remember, the current AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) allows the president to target any ISIS, al-Qaeda, or “associated forces” at any time, and he need not define publicly who those forces are or where they are being targeted.
Why any of this would keep the White House from releasing a body count under the executive order (which, by the way, only covers CT operations outside the area of active hostilities) by May 1, however, is not clear. Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the White House told the Washington Post that there “was no increase in civilian casualties in 2017,” which is kind of amazing. In Obama’s 2016 report, he acknowledged only one civilian death, an announcement widely panned by outside groups. Given the uptick in strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya post-Obama, the idea that there would be only one civilian death among them seems fantastical. Unfortunately, with both administrations playing a shell game—inside-versus-outside the area of active hostilities, military versus CIA—as a way to hide and massage totals, we cannot be completely sure.
Which is right where they want us to be. Outside groups get caught up trying to count via open-source reports, only getting the word out in fits and starts to a public that is distracted by a 24-hour news cycle obsessed more with Stormy Daniels and Russia-gate than the fact that in places like Iraq and Syria, where we are not technically “at war,” there were nearly 30,000 U.S.-led coalition airstrikes over the last four years.
As we speak, according to reporter Rebecca Gordon, AFRICOM is building a new $110 million installation in the Nigerian town of Agadez to serve as a new drone base. “It will soon become the new centerpiece in an undeclared U.S. war in West Africa,” Gordon says. “Even before the base opens, armed U.S. drones are already flying from Niger’s capital, Niamey, having received permission from the Nigerian government to do so last November.”
The worst of it all is, after three administrations setting, executing, and accelerating targeted killing programs of this nature, there has never been a real conversation about whether or not they work. Imagine that: tens of thousands of airstrikes, thousands of lives lost, and no honest assessment of the success, or blowback, whatever it might be. Official Washington likes to debate what “CT policy” should be, but not surprisingly, no one ever suggests that the idea of targeted killing should be reexamined entirely.
“We’ve been doing it, and keep on doing it without taking that step back to ask whether it’s effective, not just because we are spending billions of dollars, and Americans have lost their lives and all sorts of other people have lost their lives as well,” said Siemion, “But that there is a possibility it’s counterproductive and we are paying this very high price for something that is actually making the threat worse.”
Considering Trump, who has issued notoriously tone-deaf statements about targeting terrorists’ families and wondering aloud why a drone operator “waited” before dropping a bomb on a Syrian target, there’s not much hope such an examination will come soon. “So by default,” lamented Siemion, “everything’s on autopilot.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.