World

Pentagon enjoying more freedom now

US President regularly defers military operations to Defence Secretary Mattis

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon under US President Donald Trump is enjoying greater freedom to run its wars the way it wants, without constantly having to seek White House approval.

Many in the military appreciate this increased autonomy, but critics charge that it raises civilian death rates, puts the lives of US troops at greater risk and leads to a lack of oversight of America's conflicts.

Nowhere has the shift been more visible than in the fight against ISIS in Syria, where under former president Barack Obama, even minor tweaks to US plans underwent exhaustive White House scrutiny.

Since Mr Trump's inauguration, the Marine Corps has sent an artillery battery into Syria, and the total number of US forces there has increased to almost 1,000.

Commanders are weighing the possibility of deploying hundreds more, and the Pentagon announced last week that it provided artillery support and airlifted local forces behind enemy lines to seize a strategic dam.

The greater leeway marks a departure for the National Security Council (NSC), which coordinates foreign and military policy and implements the president's national security agenda.

Under Mr Obama, the NSC oversaw just about every aspect of America's wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Mr Trump, conversely, has repeatedly deferred to Defence Secretary James Mattis on military moves.

Mr Mattis has delegated expanded authorities to his battlefield commanders.

"Jim Mattis has been given the latitude to conduct military operations in the way he sees best," Pentagon spokesman Chris Sherwood said.

The US is fighting ISIS as well as the Taleban in Afghanistan with local forces backed by US and allied air power.

GREATER DISCRETION

Commanders now have greater discretion to move troops and equipment around.

Troop increases were especially sensitive for Mr Obama, who promised to end America's Middle East wars.

Senator John McCain, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, often criticised the NSC's "micro-management".

"We don't have to ask the 30-something-year-olds for permission to respond to an attack in Afghanistan," he said.

Mr McCain's congressional counterpart Mac Thornberry described a visit to Afghanistan under Mr Obama, when he overheard a call from an NSC staff member asking how much fuel was in the planes on the tarmac.

"The level of micro-management was incredible, and of course by the time you work your way through the NSC process, your target has moved," he said.

Mr Trump has also faced criticism for his hands-off approach, especially after he approved a special operations raid in Yemen that went horribly wrong, leading to the death of a Navy Seal, multiple civilians including children and a crashed helicopter.

Though the White House insisted the raid yielded vital intelligence and was a "successful operation by all standards," critics said the military had been rash to execute the mission.

Observers are also calling into question whether the Pentagon is allowing civilian casualties to mount.

Military officials vehemently deny this and stress that civilian safety is a top priority in approving any strike.

The Pentagon has acknowledged that at least 220 civilians have been unintentionally killed since operations to defeat ISIS began in 2014, although other groups estimate the real number to be more than 10 times that. - AFP

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