President Donald Trump’s speech on Tuesday laying out the US strategy for the war in Afghanistan called for expanded military operations with apparently loosened rules of engagement, and fewer checks on military decision-making. The unspoken suggestion, which in the past Trump has more explicitly referenced, is that the laws of armed conflict and rules of engagement meant to protect civilians are a hindrance and excessive. Trump has at times publicly embraced war crimes and torture as appropriate and “winning” military tactics.
In his speech, Trump also suggested that in expanding operations to target terrorist and criminal networks in Afghanistan, “retribution will be fast and powerful,” which could encourage further human rights abuses. In the past, such abuses undercut the Afghan public’s faith in its government. Moreover, criminal networks are as deeply embedded in the Afghan government and its supporters, as within insurgent groups.
Trump’s speech shows a lack of understanding about the nature of the Afghanistan conflict, and offers a dangerous recipe for increased civilian harm. And as a legal matter, the US military doesn’t have a choice about whether to follow the laws of war: US personnel who violate it are breaking both US and international law, and become subject to prosecution in the US and abroad for war crimes.
In addition, disregarding the laws of war and international human rights law only exacerbates local political tensions, fuels vendettas and ethnic conflict, and ultimately fosters support for Taliban insurgents. That toxic recipe undermines Afghanistan’s stability, long a US objective in the region.
Trump claimed to have “already lifted restrictions” the Obama administration had imposed on military actions. There are signs that his decision has already led to a rise in civilian deaths from US airstrikes, which heightens concerns that new military procedures for vetting airstrikes are inadequate. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been steadily rising for years. While the Taliban and other insurgent forces have caused most of these casualties through indiscriminate attacks, Afghan and US forces have been causing increasing numbers of deaths and injuries to civilians.
The belief that the answer to Afghanistan’s instability is unrestrained military operations is irresponsible and dangerous. No matter Trump’s rhetoric, the US military should recommit to following the laws of armed conflict and recognizing that reduction of harm to civilians is an asset, not a liability.