GOP lawmakers defend Trump military rules of engagement

GOP lawmakers defend Trump military rules of engagement
© Human Rights Watch

Republican lawmakers are defending the Trump administration from criticism about an increase in civilian casualties from air strikes in Iraq and Syria, arguing that rules of engagement under former President Obama were too strict.

They say the rules should be loosened because they have resulted in missed opportunities to strike Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets and have discounted the judgment of the commanders in the field.

“They missed targets because they had to go back and have an NSC that met for weeks,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday. “I think you need to tell the military commanders what you expect and then let them do their job. Now, that does not mean there will never be a mistake, of course.

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“But it did not work to have NSC staffers approving each strike, and I exaggerate slightly because it did loosen through the course the Obama administration, but still, you hire these guys to a job, and if you don’t have confidence in ‘em, you need to replace ‘em.”

Defense hawks and some in the military have longed criticized Obama’s policies, which went beyond what the law of war requires, for being too restrictive for similar reasons.

President Trump promised to review the rules of engagement, and a recent spate of civilian casualty reports have left human rights groups and independent monitors suspicious that Trump has already made changes.

More than 200 civilians were reported killed when a building in west Mosul collapsed, which may have been caused by a U.S airstrike. The Mosul report followed reports from Syria that more than 40 were killed in a U.S. strike that hit a building associated with a mosque and that at least 30 were killed in an airstrike that hit a school.

The Pentagon insisted Monday the rules of engagement have not changed.

On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, provided an update on investigations into the reports. The reports of the school strike, he said, are likely “not credible.”

Townsend said there’s a “fair chance” U.S. forces are partly responsible for the building collapse in Mosul. Still, there are signs ISIS played a role, as well, he added.

Townsend also attributed the uptick in casualties to the phase of the war, not changes in the coalition’s behavior.

“This is the toughest and most brutal phase of this war and probably the toughest and most brutal close quarter combat that I have observed or read about in my 34 years of service,” he said. “I think that’s really the explanation for civilian casualties. ... It’s unfortunate that they’re just stuck in the crossfire.”

Thornberry, too, cited ISIS’ traps and the difficulty of fighting in a city as dense and populous as Mosul.

“Obviously ISIS is trying to use human beings as shields to protect themselves,” Thornberry said. “I’ve also seen public reports about booby-trapped buildings that if there’s something that happens, they booby trap to kill the people that are down in the basement. So these people are ruthless and horrible. You need to investigate each incident, but also we know for certain that ISIS is willing to create civilian casualties to make us look bad.”

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ MORE (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that the rules of engagement have “obviously” changed, but placed the blame on the current situation in the Middle East on Obama.

“War is a terrible thing,” McCain said on civilian casualties, before pivoting to talk about what military officials have described as a stalemate in Afghanistan. “That’s the legacy of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states Ford taps Obama, Clinton alum to navigate Senate hearing MORE.”

Pressed on whether there should be a change in the rule of engagement if that’s causing more civilian casualties, McCain repeated: “That’s the legacy of Barack Obama.”

But Democrats say the recent reports of civilian casualties are exactly the reason Obama’s rules of engagement were so strict.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyWant to improve health care? Get Americans off of their couches Situation in Yemen should lead us to return to a constitutional foreign policy Overnight Defense: Biden honors McCain at Phoenix memorial service | US considers sending captured ISIS fighters to Gitmo and Iraq | Senators press Trump on ending Yemen civil war MORE (D-Conn.) said Trump has shown a level of disengagement that’s troubling.

“The reason that the president signs off on major military engagements is because there’s a risk for civilian casualties,” Murphy said. “Those decisions often get elevated to the White House. A president doesn’t sign off on individual bombing targets. But the level of disengagement from this White House, especially given these reports on civilian casualties, should have both Republicans and Democrats worried.”

Murphy added that civilian casualties could undermine the fight against ISIS.

“We should all be concerned about these civilian casualties because it ultimately has an effect on our ability to hold territory against ISIS,” he said. “ISIS will use the civilian casualties, you know, in order to recruit, and we need to get to the bottom of what happened. I understand you’re never going to be able to protect against all civilian casualties but the numbers here are pretty extraordinary.”

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSherrod Brown says he's 'not actively considering' running for president The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — GOP again has momentum on Kavanaugh rollercoaster Poll: Kaine leads GOP challenger by 19 points in Va. Senate race MORE (D-Va.) said Congress should be debating the rules of engagement in light of the civilian casualties as part of a larger debate about anti-ISIS strategy that he has longed pushed for.

“You will not be surprised when I say that’s one of the reasons this is the perfect time for Congress to be weighing in on this,” Kaine said.

But the uptick in civilian casualties isn’t necessarily indicative a change has already been made, he added.

“It’d certainly be the kind of question we would want to ask,” Kaine said.

Ellen Mitchell contributed