New report reveals a sharp spike in civilian casualties under Trump airstrike policy

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An MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Col. Lex Turner flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force Photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt)

The Trump administration's 2017 decision to loosen military rules of engagement meant to protect civilians was followed by a sharp increase in civilian deaths, a report released on Monday revealed.

The report (pdf), by Neta C. Crawford of the Brown University Watson Institute's Costs of War Project—one of the premier authorities on civilian casualties in the 19-year so-called War on Terror—found a 330% increase in the number of Afghan civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes from 2016, the final year of the Obama administration, to 2019.

From 2007 to 2016, U.S.-led and Afghan government forces killed an average of 582 civilians each year, the report found. From 2017 through 2019, those same forces killed an average of 1,134 civilians each year, a nearly 95% increase.

The sharp uptick in civilian deaths followed a decision by President Donald Trump, in consultation with former Defense Secretary James Mattis and other military and civilian officials, to relax rules of engagement in the Afghan war in order to give U.S. commanders more battlefield flexibility and to gain leverage at the bargaining table with the Taliban as both sides sought to end the devastating war whose course has spanned nearly the entire 21st century.

"From 2017 through 2019, civilian deaths due to U.S. and allied forces' airstrikes in Afghanistan dramatically increased," the report states. "In 2019 airstrikes killed 700 civilians—more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war in 2001 and 2002. After the U.S. and Taliban reached a peace agreement in late February 2020, U.S. and other international air strikes declined, and so did the harm to civilians caused by those strikes."

According to the United Nations, U.S.-led and Afghan government airstrikes killed more civilians than did Taliban militant attacks during the first half of 2019.

The new report found that as U.S.-led bombings declined following the tenuous peace pact reached with the Taliban in February 2020, Afghan government airstrikes have increased as the Kabul government negotiates its own peace agreement with the insurgents.

"As a consequence, the Afghan Air Force (AAF) is harming more Afghan civilians than at any time in its history," the report states. "In the first six months of this year, the AAF killed 86 Afghan civilians and injured 103 civilians in airstrikes. That rate of harm nearly doubled in the next three months. Between July and the end of September, the Afghan Air Force killed 70 civilians and 90 civilians were injured."

"As with the international airstrikes, some of this harm could be avoided by tighter rules of engagement, as well as better training," the report asserts. "A negotiated ceasefire might also yield results at the bargaining table and at the same time avoid escalating harm to Afghan civilians from airstrikes."

The report also underscores the fact that a reduction or even total withdrawal of U.S. ground combat troops does not mean an end to war or civilian casualties, as most American combat is one-sided and takes place in the air.

Crawford cites U.S. Gen. Lance R. Bunch, who said in June 2018 that "the entire purpose behind our air campaign is to pressure the Taliban into reconciliation and to help them realize that peace talks are their best option"—a policy that has drawn comparisons to the Nixon administration's so-called Christmas bombing campaign against Hanoi and other North Vietnamese cities in December 1972 during the closing weeks of the Paris peace talks.

Consequently, the report states that there were more weapons dropped from the air in 2018 and 2019 than at the height of U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2011.

Although there are still 43 days left in his presidency, it is possible that Trump will leave office being able to boast that he was the first president since Jimmy Carter to not start a new war. However, during his administration civilian casualties have increased in nearly all of the at least seven countries under U.S. attack in the War on Terror. Much of the increase has been attributed to Trump's loosening of rules of engagement.

While campaigning for president, Trump vowed to "bomb the shit out of" Islamic State militants and to "take out their families," a war crime. The president even suggested that using nuclear weapons in Afghanistan might result in a quick U.S. victory, while conceding the possibility that "tens of millions of people would be killed."

According to the Costs of War Project, more than 43,000 Afghan civilians have been killed during the 18-year U.S.-led war. Taliban militants have killed the most noncombatants, but thousands of men, women, and children have also been killed by U.S., allied, and Afghan government bombs and bullets.

In the wider war against terrorism, estimates of civilian deaths caused by U.S.-led forces range from around half a million (pdf) to as many as two million (pdf).

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