Day 84 of the Trump Administration

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Day 84—Bombs away! Last Thursday, the U.S. dropped the largest non-nuclear weapon, nicknamed “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB), on an ISIS cave stronghold in Afghanistan. This represents the first combat use of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast. The bomb, which was dropped on Nangarhar Province, is designed to destroy underground tunnel systems and its blast radius is estimated to be a mile. The President has granted the Pentagon more autonomy with military action, saying that “What I do is I authorize my military.” The military argued for increased freedom to aid the fight against the Islamic State. Trump credits the military, saying that “We have the greatest military in the world,” adding that the military’s increased autonomy is “why they’ve been so successful lately.” However, the number of airstrikes and civilian casualties caused by American-led strikes are increasing in Syria and Iraq under the leadership of President Trump. Airwars, a group that tracks bombings, said that March was the deadliest month that it has recorded in terms of civilian casualties, rising from 1,782 to 3,471 from the previous month. The White House attributes these increasing strike and death totals to the fact that the battle is shifting more towards the urban areas of Mosul and Raqqa, both ISIS strongholds. Derek Chollet—the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs in the Obama Administration—stated that “it appears that [Trump is] paying little attention to operational details”. He adds that “Trump takes great pride in his authorizing the military when things go well, but one wonders if he’ll have the same sense of shared accountability when things go wrong, as they inevitably do.”

To Chollet’s point: a drone strike led by a U.S.-led coalition accidentally killed 18 Syrian fighters who were allied with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State. This represents the worst friendly fire incident yet in the war against ISIS. The allies were members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated force that has proven to be a key ally for the United States in Syria.  The strike occurred near Tabqa, a town in northern Syria, and raised questions about American targeting procedures due to the misidentification of Syrian allies as Islamic State fighters. First, a SDF unit misreported its location to the U.S.-led coalition, units that operate close to ISIS strongholds. These units are encouraged to report their locations to the coalition, and generally do so, because it helps the coalition protect them from foreign air attacks. Second, another SDF unit spotted the first one and mistook it to be a group of Islamic State militants and reported the location to the coalition. The coalition then led the attack because the set of coordinates provided by the first unit seemed to be legitimate coordinates for the location of an ISIS group.

Referring back to the military’s bombing in Afghanistan, President Trump said that he does not know if “this sends a message” to North Korea. “North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.” Trump is hopeful to sway China to aid the United States in trying to solve the dilemma of North Korean, calling Chinese President Xi Jinping “terrific” and “a very special man,” referencing his efforts in dealing with North Korea. Trump has been busy trying to incentivize China, a long-standing North Korean ally, to pressure Pyongyang to halt its development of nuclear weapons and long-range missile delivery systems. Rocket debris found in the Yellow Sea from a North Korean satellite launch last year have provided important intelligence to the country’s adversaries. South Korea’s navy confiscated whole sections of the rocket and drew some interesting conclusions. Many key parts of the debris were found to be made outside of the country, shipped in by Chinese businesses. A United Nations expert team released a report last year in which it determined that the finding “demonstrates the continuing critical importance of high-end, foreign-sourced components” in making North Korea’s rockets. According to former U.S. and U.N. officials, along with independent weapon experts, Chinese business continues to enable North Korea by providing the regime with technology and hardware that assists in the launching process. The Chinese government has officially denied these claims in spite of investigations that show that products restricted by U.N. sanctions were shipped to North Korea as recently as 18 months ago. It is unclear whether or not the Chinese government secretly approved of the exports. These revelations come in light of the recent rise in tensions as North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapon programs.

My Take
Trump is flexing his military muscle, showing that he is, quite frankly, trigger happy. He also is willing to allow the military autonomy, which could could surely backfire. The misstep, to put it lightly, in Syria shows what can go wrong with improper communications. I’m curious to see when Trump will break with military officials and blame them for tragic accidents going forward, which will probably happen again. Regardless, the Trump administration needs to take more steps to ensure that civilian casualties by U.S. airstrikes are as limited as possible.
I don’t care much for Trump’s praise of China’s president. What I do care about is convincing China to get on board and stop enabling North Korea. This serves as another milestone for Trump—does he have the presidential savvy to successfully get China to slowly cripple North Korea’s economy, something that the Obama administration could not accomplish? Trump cannot solve all of his problems with bombs.


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