The Donald Trump administration is expanding US war footprints in the Middle East seemingly without formulating a clear-cut policy doctrine. While this may reflect the administration's dilemma in its decision-making process, it certainly suggests that Washington lacks a peace plan -- Trump's hyperbolic, somewhat outlandish pre-poll pronouncements about ending the Middle East war notwithstanding.
American and world media are awash with stories of increased air strikes by US forces in Yemen; there were more air strikes and killing of more civilians in March than during the whole of last year. Likewise, in Syria, they have airlifted local forces to the front-line positions causing increasing civilian casualties. In the bitter and prolonged war being fought by the Iraqis (with active support from the US advisers) to recover their second largest city Mosul from the Daesh occupation, increased US air strikes also became an important part in this urban engagement. The US air strikes on March 17 were responsible for scores of civilian killings and an enquiry was called for.
All indications suggest, regardless of a policy change or not, the US military is deepening its involvement in the Middle East's complex wars. A New York Times report of April 01 said: "Last month (March) the United States launched more than 49 strikes across Yemen, most of them during one five-day period, according to data gathered by the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. That is more strikes than the United States had carried out during any other full year on record."
American officials have been telling the media that there has been a shift in military decision-making process from the one that was practised during the presidency of Barack Obama. Mr. Trump's blunt statements before his election and the rise in civilian casualties in recent American air strikes have raised questions about whether the new president has removed constraints from Pentagon on how it wages war.
FIELD COMMANDERS HAVE MORE SAY: In an interview on March 29, Commander of the United States Central Command Gen. Joseph L. Votel said: "The new procedure made it easier for commanders in the field to call air strikes without waiting for permission from more senior officers…. We recognised the nature of fight was going to change and that we had to ensure that authorities were down to the right level and that we empowered the on-scene commanders."
However, speaking before the House Armed Services Committee late last month, General Votel denied that Pentagon had relaxed its rules of engagement. He called the rising civilian death toll in Iraq and Syria "absolutely tragic and heartbreaking" and said Central Command was investigating their cause.
Robert Malley, a former senior Obama administration official and now the vice-president for policy at the International Crisis Group, said the growing military involvement since Trump's coming into office may have been accompanied by planning for an eventual military victory. "The military will be the first to tell you that a military operation is only as good as the diplomatic and political plan that comes with it," he added. He pointed out: "From harsh experience we know that either US forces will have to be involved for the long term or victory will dissipate soon after they leave."
However, the lessons learnt from the American experience in the long-drawn wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia did not convey such comfortable feelings. In fact, for decades after the traumatic Vietnam engagements ended in the mid-70s, successive US administrations zealously avoided being sucked into any physical involvement of their soldiers in any far-away military adventures despite pressures from its allies.
Conversely, George Bush Junior dragged the country out in the post-9/11 episode and invaded Afghanistan and a year later Iraq for teaching the Islamist terrorists a lesson enunciating the doctrine: "Either you are with us or against us". Now the war has escalated to more than five countries (killing millions of civilians); and even after the successive two 2-term presidents' rule, Americans have failed to see any light at the end of the long dark tunnel of this unending war. Larger presence of American soldiers in either Iraq or Afghanistan during Bush's last and Obama's early years failed to tilt the war efforts in favour of the US.
PLAYING WITH INEXPERIENCED ADVISERS: Late last month, Trump sent his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner to Iraq, with General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and White House counterterrorism adviser Thomas Bossert. Kushner participated in talks with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad took a first-hand look and got on-the-job experience at the Iraqi military actions amidst attempts to recover the second largest Iraqi city of Mosul under IS occupation.
Kushner, 36, has no foreign policy experience, but received a growing portfolio, including China, Mexico and the Middle East. Some critics of the Trump regime have equated Kushner with the powerful Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister Mohammad bin Salman, 31, and dubbed him as the "crown prince" of America's increasingly dynastic regime.
The Saudi Crown Prince recently visited Washington and met the new US president to negotiate bilateral relations including buying more sophisticated arms and lifting restrictions imposed by Barack Obama on the sale of precision-guided weapons over concerns that air strikes by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the war-ravaged Yemen could further escalate civilian casualties.
The Dunford-Kushner mission follows press reports that the Pentagon will no longer announce or confirm the movement of troops into or out of Iraq and Syria, following orders from Trump's National Security Council. A Pentagon official told the Los Angeles Times that the purpose was "to maintain tactical surprise, ensure operational security and force protection."
Reports in the US media pointed out that the main purpose of this tactics is to conceal from the American people, and from world public opinion, the ongoing escalation of US military operations in the region, which includes recent deployments of 400 Marines into northern Syria and 300 paratroopers to reinforce the Iraqi onslaught on Mosul. This corroborates Trump's budgetary priorities that indicated a "military-first" approach as he has proposed a cut in diplomatic spending.