The US military, under President Donald Trump’s leadership, has used force this month to send strong cautionary messages to the country’s increasingly aggressive adversaries, experts said.
Last week, the US struck military installations used by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The strike came days after Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians.
Then this week, the US military dropped the “mother of all bombs” (or MOAB) on an ISIS target in a remote area of Afghanistan. It is the largest nonnuclear bomb in the US military’s inventory.
That strike came days after a US special forces soldier was killed in the same province the bomb hit. The blast killed 36 ISIS fighters and destroyed some underground tunnels the terrorist group was using.
Military experts say that the use of the MOAB is strategically significant.
It could signal that Trump is more willing to trust his military commanders to make decisions independently and that he’s eager to send a message that actions will have consequences.
Trump himself said Thursday that he has given the US military “total authorization” (although he didn’t specify what for).
“I think the message being sent is you had a chemical attack in Idlib [Syria] and days later you had a response,” Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and former US Army intelligence officer in Iraq, said. “You had a US special forces [soldier] killed … and then you had the ‘mother of all bombs.'”
He continued: “So what you have is you have very quick responses, you have a commander in chief basically giving priority to commanders on the ground, to the defence secretary, to the national security adviser, to be able to do something, to send messages. And I think it’s important that the timeliness that these responses to provocations is sending a message.”
Wesley Morgan, a researcher at Harvard University’s Belfer Center who’s writing a book on Afghanistan, wondered on Twitter about “how many times commanders in [Afghanistan] have requested MOAB use” over the years and “been denied.”
“There could be a changed climate about airpower requests that’s only indirectly to do with Trump — officers making new requests in new climate,” Morgan said.
President Barack Obama was notorious for his tendency to painfully deliberate military decisions. He famously backed away from his 2012 “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria — when the Assad regime used them in a brutal attack on civilians in 2013, Obama struck a deal in lieu of launching a military strike. The deal was supposed to have led to the removal of Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons, but it’s now clear that the regime didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Trump might now be trying to send a message that “the next four years will not be like the last eight years,” Pregent said.
Indeed, Trump on Thursday said, “If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that, really, to what’s happened over the last eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference.”
Some have suggested that the US military could also be sending a message to other adversaries abroad.
“There’s also the very real possibility that we’re sending a message to the North Koreans that we have these 30,000 pound bombs,” said Chris Harmer, a former US Navy commander and aviator who’s now a senior naval analyst for the Institute for the Study of War.
When asked whether the use of the MOAB sends a message to North Korea, Trump said Thursday that he wasn’t sure and that it didn’t make any difference whether it did or not.
While Gen. John Nicholson, the commander for US forces in Afghanistan, said the MOAB was “the right weapon against the right target” — it’s meant to cause “overpressure” that can crush underground tunnels and bunkers — Harmer noted that the military should “only want to use as much force as is necessary.”
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of a “brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous,” although the US coordinated the strike with Afghan officials.
Harmer also wondered why the US military wouldn’t have used smaller precision weapons for the strike in Afghanistan.
“We’ve been fighting for 16 years and this is the first time we’ve needed to wipe out a tunnel system?” he said, adding, “You can’t possibly tell me that today is the first time we’ve needed to go after tunnels or caves in Afghanistan. What is special about today?”
If the US is trying to send a political message with the use of the MOAB, Harmer said, “It’s a sign of overkill.”
But Pregent argued that this wasn’t meant to be a precision strike.
“It was meant to be an area of denial strike, that we’re taking this area away from you,” he said, adding that it sends the message that ISIS is “not going to have freedom of movement in this area.”
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