Pentagon is quietly seizing more control over warfighting decisions, sending hundreds more troops to war with little public debate and seeking greater authority to battle extremists across the Middle East and Africa.
This week it was Somalia, where President Donald Trump gave the U.S. military more authority to conduct offensive airstrikes on al-Qaida-linked militants. Next week it could be Yemen, where military leaders want to provide more help for the United Arab Emirates’ battle against Iranian-backed rebels. Key decisions on Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are looming, from ending troop number limits to loosening rules that guide commanders in the field.
The changes in Trump’s first two months in office underscore his willingness to let the Pentagon manage its own day-to-day combat. Under the Obama administration, military leaders chafed about micromanagement that included commanders needing approval for routine tactical decisions about targets and personnel moves.
But delegating more authority to the Pentagon — and combat decisions to lower level officers — carries its own military and political risks. Casualties, of civilians and American service members, may be the biggest.
The deepening involvement in counterinsurgency battles, from the street-by-street battles being fought in Iraq right now to clandestine raids in Yemen and elsewhere, increases the chances of U.S. troops dying. Such tragedies could raise the ire of the American public and create political trouble with Congress at a time when the Trump administration is trying to finish off the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and broaden efforts against similarly inspired groups.
Similarly, allowing lower level commanders to make more timely airstrike decisions in densely populated areas like the streets of Mosul, Iraq, can result in more civilian deaths. The U.S. military already is investigating several bombings in Mosul in mid-March that witnesses say killed at least 100 people. And it is considering new tactics and precautions amid evidence suggesting extremists are smuggling civilians into buildings and then baiting the U.S.-led coalition into attacking.
Alice Hunt Friend, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cited yet another concern: Military operations becoming “divorced from overall foreign policy” could make both civilian leaders and the military vulnerable to runaway events.
“Political leaders can lose control of military campaigns,” she warned.
But top military leaders say they need to be able to act quicker against U.S. enemies. And they’ve been staunchly supported by Trump, who has promised to pursue Islamic extremists more aggressively and echoed the view of Pentagon leaders that the Obama administration’s tight control over military operations limited effectiveness.
Explaining his request for more leeway in Somalia against al-Shabab militants, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, told Congress this month that more flexibility and “timeliness” in decision-making process was necessary.
Approved by Trump on Wednesday, it was hardly the first military expansion.
The Defense Department has quietly doubled the number of U.S. forces in Syria. It has moved military advisers closer to front lines in Iraq. It has publicly made the case for more troops in Afghanistan.