As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump voiced his support for deliberately targeting the families of terrorists. Fortunately, he has not adopted this policy as president. But he has nonetheless demonstrated a proclivity for eased rules of engagement on the battlefield and intensified military strikes. Various groups have recently raised questions about an alleged rise in civilian casualties from US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The Trump administration has, moreover, reportedly approved changes that will allow looser targeting rules in parts of Somalia and Yemen, where airstrikes have apparently increased significantly. And in a memorandum demanding a new plan for defeating ISIS, Trump asked the Pentagon for “recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force,” a request that suggests he is willing to walk dangerously close to legal boundaries.
When recently asked about whether he specifically authorized the use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal in Afghanistan, Trump explained that he has given the military “total authorization.” This comment indicates that he will largely defer to the military on targeting procedures and rules of engagement. If that’s the case, the military has an opportunity to depart from Trump’s freewheeling attitude and avoid an unnecessary slackening of rules. In addition to the compelling legal and moral reasons, military leaders should consider several more pragmatic arguments for strict rules of engagement that can protect commanders and the soldiers who serve under them.
First, although many argue that relaxed rules of engagement will liberate the military, allowing it to fight wars with the so-called “gloves off,” rigorous rules can also augment warfighter effectiveness by enhancing mental fitness. Civilian casualties in war, even with restrictive rules of engagement, are as inevitable as they are regrettable. Having served as an intelligence officer for two deployments to Afghanistan, I remember several instances when airstrikes ordered by my units caused unintentional civilian casualties. In a time-sensitive situation, I personally reviewed and vouched for the intelligence that led to one of these incidents. When I learned of the result, it felt like a moral stomach punch. But I found relief in the knowledge that we had, in good faith, followed rules that were designed to prevent civilian casualties. In a way, this liberated me from cumbersome fears that we had committed a moral or legal transgression, and it helped me to continue my mission in sound conscience.
And when something goes badly wrong—as may have been the case in a recent strike on an alleged mosque in Syria—the Defense Department can put policymakers and the public at ease by stating that the military went well above the line required by law rather than as close to that line as possible.
Second, a broad application of more lenient rules is likely unnecessary. Almost any target can be hit at some place and time that minimizes civilian casualties—it often just takes patience. Yes, it’s possible that a military command may identify particularly important yet fleeting targets and determine that finding opportunities to strike within the rules of engagement will be exceedingly unlikely. This rare scenario, however, is not reason to abandon guidelines for an entire theater of conflict. Instead, complementary procedures providing for exceptions can be implemented. For example, upon demonstrating these conditions, perhaps higher echelons of authority can conduct individualized proportionality assessments to pre-determine separate rules for those specific targets.
A third reason in support of strict rules of engagement—often cited but still deserving of emphasis—is that civilian casualties are counterproductive in war. In a letter sent to Defense Secretary James Mattis, more than 30 former senior national security officials explained that “even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries . . . can cause partners and allies to reduce operational collaboration, withdraw consent, and limit intelligence-sharing; increase violence from militant groups; and foster distrust among local populations that are crucial to accomplishing the mission.”
As is the case with so many of Trump’s statements, the suggestion that he has categorically delegated targeting authority to the military should be viewed with skepticism. He did, after all, give the order to conduct a missile strike against a Syrian government target in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack on civilians. But if his “total authorization” statement is at all accurate, military leaders might be in an important position to counter Trump’s often cavalier and sometimes illegal ideas about war. And with its apparent latitude on rules of engagement, military leaders should look for opportunities to exercise restraint.