Since President Trump suddenly withdrew American troops from Syria last week, he has repeatedly claimed that he’s simply fulfilling his campaign promise of ending the United States’ “endless wars.” It’s an appealing sentiment, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
The cruelty of the conflict he’s helped Turkey unleash in Northern Syria, and his lack of empathy towards those being affected, lays bare the emptiness of his words. Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of Trump claiming the mantle of anti-war president, while instituting policies that actually encourage the killing of civilians.
Trump’s calls for an end to American involvement in armed conflicts are a far cry from what he’s actually done as Commander-in-Chief. He has only expanded the so-called “war on terror,” bombing everywhere from Somalia to Libya to Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, all while deliberately making U.S. actions far more brutal for the people living in these countries.
In 2017, for example, the United States-led “war of annihilation” to oust the non-state armed group calling itself the “Islamic State” from Raqqa, Syria led to the deaths of at least 1,600 civilians, according to a study by Amnesty International and the UK-based monitoring group Airwars. The relentless aerial bombardment left the city in ruins.
Under President Obama, the U.S. occasionally targeted al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate located in Somalia. After President Trump was elected, the air campaign tripled. Until last spring, the U.S. military claimed it hadn’t killed a single civilian in Somalia; after Amnesty International—the organization that I work for—documented 14 civilians killed from just five of the more than 110 air strikes since early 2017, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) finally acknowledged two civilian deaths. But given that U.S. investigations don’t include any interviews with witnesses or victims of strikes, the way Amnesty’s do, it’s likely the actual death toll from US air strikes in Somalia—now at least 131 since early 2017—is much higher.
While much of U.S. policy on lethal targeting remains secret, it’s clear the U.S. military under Trump has opened the aperture on U.S. killings, with lethal consequences for civilians. AFRICOM recently offered a hint as to how that happened.
In late September, Amnesty reported that three more Somali men who had been killed in a U.S. airstrike in March were not “al Shabaab terrorists” as the U.S. had alleged, but civilian farmers with no evidence of links to any armed group. In making this assessment, Amnesty interviewed 11 people and pored over media reports, U.S. government statements, vehicle purchase records, official IDs, medical records, videos and photographic evidence of the scene of the attack and injuries sustained by the victims. Everyone the organization spoke to was adamant that none of the men was a member of Al-Shabaab. Also, Al-Shabaab did not prevent the relatives of those killed from collecting and burying their remains, which the armed group generally does when its own fighters are killed.
When told of Amnesty’s findings, AFRICOM responded: “This airstrike was conducted against lower level al-Shabaab members to decrease morale ahead of Somali Army operations… Specifically, information gathered before and after the strike indicated that all individuals injured or killed were members or affiliates of al-Shabaab.”
AFRICOM did not provide any evidence for its claim or indicate it would investigate further. But even more disturbing, the U.S. has no legal authority to target “affiliates” of non-state armed groups. The laws of war are clear that only actual fighting members of those groups may be targeted. Meanwhile, how the U.S. military assesses who is a fighter or an “affiliate” without conducting any on-the-ground or even remote witness interviews remains a mystery.
In general, the military has been far more lax about investigating the impact of its airstrikes since the Trump administration began. In places like Syria or Somalia, where the U.S. has only a small troop presence, it rarely, if ever, conducts site visits or interviews witnesses or victims after lethal strikes to find out who it’s actually killed.
In places the U.S. has ground troops stationed, like Iraq and Afghanistan, such visits and interviews used to be done, but as the “forever wars” stretched on and the U.S. began to rely more heavily on air power—both manned and unmanned—investigating their impact has become more challenging, and apparently a lower priority.
For instance, in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently acknowledged that U.S. strikes there have increased on Trump’s orders, saying: “The president did want us to pick up in response to heinous attacks that the Taliban and others conducted throughout Afghanistan… We did pick up the pace considerably.”
According to the Military Times, what “pick[ing] up the pace” meant was dropping more bombs in a single month than at any point since October 2010. Even before this latest increase in bombing, it had already been reported that in the first quarter of 2019, for the first time ever, forces allied with the Afghan government, including the U.S. military, were responsible for more civilian deaths than the Taliban and other insurgents. This hasn’t stopped the Pentagon from claiming its lethal attacks aren’t killing civilians, though. On the contrary, the U.S. has adopted the age-old policy of “deny, deny, deny” despite being given a wealth of evidence to the contrary.
Just last week, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report verifying that U.S. airstrikes, aimed at meth labs in Western Afghanistan, had killed dozens of civilians. Although the Pentagon claimed the victims were actually all Taliban fighters and therefore “lawful military targets,” the UN insisted the men inside the labs “were not performing combat functions”—making it illegal to target them.
Even when the United Nations or NGOs like Amnesty International investigate, visiting strike sites and interviewing witnesses and survivors, as well as examining satellite and publicly available evidence, the U.S. military provides nothing more than a boilerplate denial. In the case of the meth-lab bombings on May 5, UNAMA investigators received reports on 145 civilian casualties resulting from the airstrikes on May 5. Of those, UNAMA verified 39 civilian casualties (30 deaths, five injured and four whose status of killed or injured remains undetermined). The report also confirmed claims that some of the sites struck were not drug labs. In response, the Pentagon wrote: “Combined assessments determined the strikes did not cause deaths or injuries to non-combatants.” This standard response allows them to put an end to the inquiry, without disclosing how they reached their conclusion.
This dispute highlights an alarming trend we’ve seen emerge. The U.S. engages in lethal strikes—often air strikes, based on some combination of aerial surveillance and unspecified “intelligence” on the ground—and when people are killed and injured, the Pentagon insists the victims were all “militants” or “terrorists” and lawful targets under the laws of war. How the U.S. defines those terms—and whether those definitions meet legal requirements—remains a mystery.
If President Trump cares as deeply about civilian protection as he claims, then while the U.S. is still fighting these wars, his administration needs to follow the law and minimize harm to civilians. That doesn’t mean conveniently mis-categorizing everyone killed or injured as a “combatant”; it means actually taking all feasible precautions, both while planning and while carrying out the military operation, to prevent harm to all civilians, their homes and vital civilian infrastructure, like electrical grids and water supplies. And it means conducting meaningful investigations afterward to find out who was actually killed and injured and what their status really was.
The U.S. cannot honorably end its role in these conflicts without an honest assessment of whom the U.S. has killed, under what justification, and by providing reparations or assistance to civilian survivors. No amount of rosy rhetoric or unplanned troop withdrawal will help the civilians who’ve lost their families, homes and communities due to U.S. actions.
President Trump can disingenuously claim he’s ending “forever wars,” even as he sends more troops to more countries; but the devastating consequences for civilians on the ground continue.
Daphne Eviatar is Director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA, where she tackles issues pertaining to detention, interrogation, national security, and the use of lethal force. Prior to Amnesty, Daphne was at Human Rights First, where she served as Senior Counsel.