Eight days after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would escalate military operations in Afghanistan, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the country killed more than a dozen civilians. On Wednesday, American airstrikes killed 11 more.
This is just the latest string of innocent casualties in the Middle East since Trump delivered his first foreign policy address to the nation last week. It also follows a pattern that has seen a 450 percent increase in civilian deaths since Trump took office. About 80 civilians died per month under former President Barack Obama whereas about 360 have been killed per month under Trump, according to the watchdog group AirWars. U.S.-led airstrikes have killed more than 5,100 civilians in total since intervening in Iraq and Syria in 2014 to rout out Islamic State fighters.
In his speech, Trump committed additional troops to Afghanistan and vowed to defeat Taliban militants, extending what is already the longest-running war in U.S. history.
Democrats and even some Republicans responded swiftly, criticizing Trump for a lack of policy specifics. But human rights organizations had a more dire concern.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch, for example, said Trump’s new strategy “offers a dangerous recipe for increased civilian harm,” denouncing the president’s suggestion that “the laws of armed conflict and rules of engagement meant to protect civilians are a hindrance and excessive.”
This is not the first time, however, that Trump has shown an apparent disregard for civilian life in war zones.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump called on the military to “take out” terrorists’ families. He has also worked to loosen rules of engagement that Trump and many Republican lawmakers say were too restrictive under Obama.
Republicans had long criticized Obama for putting rules in place that limited the ability of generals and commanders in the field to act unilaterally. Now, Trump suggests he will lift those restrictions.
“Micromanagement from Washington, D.C. does not win battles,” Trump told a crowd of U.S. troops during his Afghanistan speech at Fort Myer, Virginia. “They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and frontline soldiers acting in real time, with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.”
These loosened rules of engagement and the ramped up U.S. airstrikes across the Middle East don’t appear to be a coincidence. In addition to a rise in civilian casualties under Trump, The New York Times recently reported that the U.S. military used about 1,250 bombs in Afghanistan since January. That is nearly twice as many as in the same period last year.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, had previously denied any change in the military’s rules of engagement.
“[U.S.] coalition forces work diligently and deliberately to be precise in our airstrikes,” Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told The New York Times in March. “Coalition forces comply with the Law of Armed Conflict and take all reasonable precautions during the planning and execution of airstrikes to reduce the risk of harm to civilians.”
The Pentagon has yet to publicly weigh in on Trump’s new strategy in Afghanistan.