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What Military Actions Are Trump’s vs. Obama Holdovers?

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President Donald Trump has been in office for 83 days, and almost everywhere you look, the US military is escalating its operations. US warships are steaming toward North Korea, airstrikes against al-Qaeda in Yemen have ramped up, and, in the biggest show of force so far, the Trump administration bombed a Syrian airfield last week.

As the Trump administration drops more (and bigger) bombs on various Middle Eastern and North African battlefields, changes targeting rules, sends more troops to Iraq and Syria, and approves new weapons sales, it’s worth not only tracking these developments but also separating out which moves are actually Trump’s and which were set in place by the Obama administration especially during its final days if office. The following list does not take into account any classified or covert operations.

 

Trump’s Steps Up US Military Ops and Foreign Arms Sales

Afghanistan

US military drops massive bomb on suspected ISIS target in Afghanistan. On April 13, the US military announced it had used its GBU-43 bomb, “the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in combat,” in Afghanistan to target a cave and tunnel complex used by ISIS. Trump said earlier in the week he would be sending his national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, to Afghanistan  to find out how the United States can make progress alongside our Afghan partners and NATO allies. 

Bahrain

Human rights conditions lifted on arms sale. On March 29, the New York Times reported that the State Department had “decided to lift all human rights conditions on a major sale of F-16 fighter jets and other arms to Bahrain.” These conditions had been imposed by the Obama administration after Bahrain’s violent crackdown on street protests in 2011. After suspending arms sales in 2011, the Obama administration resumed some weapons sales in 2012, and lifted additional restrictions on weapons sales in 2015.

Iran

New sanctions imposed on Iranian organizations and individuals. Following a missile test, the US imposed sanctions in February against 25 individuals and companies associated with Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support of terrorist organizations. The sanctions were similar to those imposed by the Obama administration in 2016 after an Iranian missile test.

North Korea

Sending warships toward North Korea. On April 9, the New York Times reported that the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and three additional warships were being diverted toward North Korea. The Obama administration twice took similar actions.

Deployment of a missile shield to South Korea is accelerated. The US announced in March that it had begun deploying an antimissile system in South Korea. The US and South Korea had agreed to the deployment of the THAAD system in July 2016, but the announcement last month appeared to reflect a decision by the two countries to speed up the deployment after a series of aggressive actions by North Korea.

Saudi Arabia

State Department approves arms sale that Obama administration had suspended. The State Department, under the leadership of Rex Tillerson has approved a sale of precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, which the Obama administration decided to suspend because the Saudi-led coalition’s track record for killing civilians in Yemen. The White House is required to notify Congress when it has approved the sale.

Somalia

Parts of Somalia classified as areas of active hostilities. The NYT reported on March 30 the Trump administration approved a proposal to classify parts of Somalia as “areas of active hostilities.” As a result, more restrictive rules on targeting, which are found in a 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance, will not apply to those locations.

Dozens of more U.S. troops sent to “train and equip.” CNN reported on April 14 that the US is sending “dozens” of additional troops to train and equip the Somali National Army.

Syria

Hundreds of additional troops deployed to Syria. Last month, US officials told the New York Times that 400 additional US troops were being sent to Syria. The NYT reported that the troops included Army Rangers and a Marine artillery unit.

Shortly thereafter, the Washington Post reported on plans to send up to 1,000 additional troops to Syria. The Post reported that there are currently about 500 US Special Operations troops in Syria, in addition to 250 Army Rangers and 200 Marines. The newspaper also reported that the Trump administration planned to remove a cap on US forces in Syria, which was set at “about” 500 troops by the Obama administration.

Syrian airfield bombed in response to chemical weapons attacks. On April 6, the US responded to a chemical weapons attack reportedly executed by the Syrian government by launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Al Shayrat airfield in Syria.

Yemen

Increased airstrikes against al-Qaeda in Yemen. The number of US drone strikes in Yemen has increased every year since 2014, according to data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The pace of airstrikes appears to have dramatically increased so far in 2017, according to the BIJ:

Confirmed US airstrikes:

 

  • Jan-Mar 2015: 3
  • Jan-Mar 2016: 8
  • Jan-Mar 2017: 55

Three provinces in Yemen declared to be an “area of active hostilities.” The New York Times reported in March that President Trump approved a proposal to classify parts of Yemen as areas of active hostilities about five days after taking office. As a result, more restrictive rules on targeting, which are found in a 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance, will not apply to those locations.

Conducts Special Operations raid. On January 29, a US Navy Seal, at least 14 civilians and several suspected members of al-Qaeda were killed during a raid in Yemen. It was the first such operation authorized by Trump as president. After questions were raised about why the raid had gone so wrong, the Trump administration claimed the Obama administration had carried out the planning for it and had essentially approved it before Trump became president. According to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Obama administration officials approved a plan for an operation at a Jan. 6 meeting, but decided it was best to wait for a “moonless night,” to carry it out. But Obama officials say that timeline isn’t accurate and that the Pentagon had only “worked up a general proposal that asked for the authorities to do raids in Yemen,” but nothing about that specific mission. Obama decided to leave the decision about new authorities in Yemen to the new president.

This was not the first US Special Operations raid in Yemen: previous ground raids include ones undertaken in November and December 2014.

 

What Obama Did Before Leaving Office

Iraq

Changed the rules of engagement governing US forces in Iraq. Shortly before leaving office, the Obama administration adjusted the rules of engagement in Iraq, allowing for airstrikes to be conducted without the need for approval from senior officers.

Syria

The Obama administration had, in April and December 2016, announced new troop deployments to Syria.

Nigeria

Prepared to sell attack aircraft to Nigeria. On April 11, the New York Times reported that the US was finalizing plans to sell 12 attack aircraft to Nigeria for use against Boko Haram. The Obama administration had planned to approve the transaction in January, but put the deal on hold after a Nigerian fighter jet accidentally bombed a refugee camp.

Russia

Troops deployed to conduct exercises with NATO member states. In January, 2,700 US troops were deployed to Poland and additional troops were deployed to Bulgaria in February. The deployments stemmed from commitments made by the Obama administration in 2016. The US has held joint military exercises in recent weeks with Romania and Lithuania.

Somalia

Deepened US involvement in Somalia. By November 2016, the Obama administration decided to classify al-Shabaab in Somalia as an “associated force” under the Authorization for Use of Military Force. This followed a months-long escalation of the US’s role in Somalia, when the Pentagon frequently sought to justify American airstrikes as self-defense.

Saudi Arabia

New weapons sales approved. In January, the State Department announced that it had approved a specific  arms sale to Saudi Arabia that included various munitions and equipment. The transaction had been planned by the Obama administration before it left office and had been in the pipeline for months.

Libya

Surt is removed from list of “areas of active hostilities.” For much of 2016, the Obama administration had Surt, an Islamic extremist stronghold in Libya, on its list of places considered “areas of active hostilities,” where stricter rules to prevent civilian deaths do not apply. But right before leaving office, Obama took Surt off that list.

Image: U.S. Department of Defense

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About the Author

is the deputy managing editor of Just Security and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Previously, she was a senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy. Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).