Trump takes hands-off approach to US military in Middle East

Widening footprint. US army forces at the Taji camp in northern Baghdad, last March. (AFP)

2017/04/09 Issue: 101 Page: 17

The Arab Weekly
Tom Regan

During the 2016 US presidential cam­paign, candidate Donald Trump bragged that he knew more about military tactics than the generals in charge of US forces in Iraq and Afghani­stan. He based this, apparently, on the five years he spent at a military school.

So it is a bit of a surprise to learn that, as president, Trump is taking a hands-off approach to the Pentagon and those same gener­als. He is giving them authority to make more day-by-day decisions, especially in the Middle East and areas of Africa where the battle is against the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Shabab or al-Qaeda.

In fewer than 100 days in office, it has become apparent that Trump just says or tweets what­ever he likes, at whatever time of the day or night, and it bares almost no resemblance to reality. His campaign military comments no doubt fall into this category but his hands-off decision has real consequences for the US military, the countries in which it is fighting, civilians in and around those battles and for the US position in the world.

Under Barack Obama, control over the military was much tighter and some — but not all — of the top people in the Pentagon or at various commands around the world chaffed under that restraint. Obama was much more attuned to how the projection of US military might was seen around the world.

It also cannot be forgotten that one of the main reasons he was elected president in 2008 was his promise to get US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, so his reluctance to give the military leeway in areas such as increasing troop strength or calling in air strikes is understandable.

Trump really does not care what the rest of the world thinks. He cares what his base thinks. His promise to get rid of ISIS is behind schedule and, after the debacle with health care reform, it is a promise he cannot afford to mess up. It is easy to see why passing more control over to the military is an easy move because he probably sees it as a win-win situation.

US commanders, particularly in the field, applauded the move, saying they would be able to respond more quickly and flexibly to extremist tactics.

There are, however, problems with this hands-off approach and we have already seen how they can backfire. The raid in Yemen in January, in which a US Navy SEAL and many civilians were killed, is one example. The bombing in Mosul in March that killed perhaps 200 civilians is another. Both show what happens when increased oversight is put aside.

This is particularly true of the Mosul bombing. If the number of civilian deaths continues to climb

as it has recently, there is no faster way to turn potential allies into extremists than careless attacking of civilian areas. Trump may not care what the world thinks but there are many in Washington who do and he may soon find himself in another battle with Congress.

Although US troops levels are officially the same as the Obama administration’s in the region, the Pentagon has found a loophole to move in more troops by labelling them as temporary assignments. The Pentagon recently said there were just more than 5,000 troops in Iraq but military sources told the Associated Press that there are probably “at least” a couple thousand more. There are several hundred US troops in Syria also labelled temporary and thus not counted against the official cap.

It is very easy to see this situation getting away from the Trump administration. Soldiers want to fight and, given a free hand, that is just what they will do. All too often, however, as we have seen in US history, they make bad decisions at the wrong time if not given strict parameters of combat.

Two or three more massive civilian death tolls in Iraq, Yemen or Syria and Trump may have a much worse situation on his hands than Obama ever did.

Tom Regan, a columnist at, previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the former executive director of the Online News Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1992.

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