Trump turns up the terror

May 3, 2017

Donald Trump's military strategy is about bigger bombs and fewer restrictions on using them--but the difference with Obama is one of degree, writes Nicole Colson.

IT'S HARD to escape the feeling that Donald Trump took office dreaming about how quickly he could find someplace to bomb. After all, on the campaign trail, Trump did promise to "bomb the shit" out of ISIS.

In the past month, Trump's anti-diplomacy has reared its head again, with a series of threats--including of military action--against North Korea as that country attempted to carry out missile tests in April, itself a response to a stepped-up U.S. presence and war games in the region.

Calling for "maximum pressure and engagement" against North Korea, the Trump administration even sent Vice President Mike Pence for a ridiculous photo op--complete with military jacket and brooding gaze across the border demilitarized zone that separates North Korea and South Korea.

With Pence threatening North Korea not to test the resolve of the U.S. or the "strength of our military forces," the sabre-rattling toward North Korea recalled the early days of the U.S. "war on terror," when North Korea was labeled part of the so-called "axis of evil" by George W. Bush.

Residents pull victims from the rubble following a coalition air strike in Mosul
Residents pull victims from the rubble following a coalition air strike in Mosul

The tough talk against North Korea followed the Trump administration's stomach-turning display of U.S. military might in Afghanistan on April 13 with the use of the so-called "MOAB"--the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb, nicknamed the "mother of all bombs." It was the first time the U.S. has used such a weapon in battle.

Ostensibly, Trump's unleashing of MOAB--America's most powerful non-nuclear bomb, weighing in at 21,600 pounds and 30 feet in length--was meant to destroy a network of tunnels and caves supposed used by the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Achin district of the Nangarhar province, located in the eastern part of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.

But there were more pragmatic reasons for Trump and his administration to unleash the MOAB--to shore up flagging support for his historically unpopular presidency after all the failures of his first months in office, and to send a message to U.S. rivals that the new president was prepared to unleash the Pentagon's most destructive weapon, consequences be damned.

PREDICTABLY, CONSERVATIVES could hardly contain their glee at Trump's willingness to unleash the MOAB. Trump was praised for acting "presidential"--by bombing a poor country, already devastated by decades of war.

Writing in the National Review, one conservative commenter called the bombing a "beautiful bargain," before continuing: "Once again, the Trumpophobic Left has proved that it will not give President Donald J. Trump credit for anything, not even erasing Islamofascist killers who are the sworn enemies of every American--even those who despise Trump."

But it's unclear how many "Islamofascist killers" were killed by the MOAB and how many civilians were. After the bombing, Defense Secretary James Mattis initially refused to elaborate, telling reporters, "For many years we have not been calculating the results of warfare by simply quantifying the number of enemy killed."

As Alex Emmons pointed out at The Intercept, with a blast radius of a mile, the MOAB is, by design, meant to inflict far-reaching terror.

The bomb was considered so destructive that the Bush administration considered--and rejected--using it in Iraq in 2003 because of its potential to kill large numbers of civilians.

"[T]he concern there was that once the weapon was put forward as an option, we reviewed it, did a collateral damage estimate, and well, let's just say the collateral damage was impressive," Marc Garlasco, a former senior targeting official in the Bush-era Pentagon, told The Intercept. "It was decided that the civilian harm greatly outweighed the military gain.

According to Airwars, a transparency project aimed both at tracking and archiving the international air war against ISIS and other groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya, March saw the greatest number of munitions dropped by the U.S. and its allies so far in the campaign in Iraq and Syria. Not coincidentally, it was also the deadliest month for civilians since the project began.

The use of the MOAB also comes as the Trump administration has reportedly loosened the rules of engagement that were meant to minimize civilian casualties, according to Mother Jones. Iain Overton, executive director of Action on Armed Violence, told Mother Jones that MOAB "cannot be targeted, it cannot be proportional, and it cannot but kill civilians."

In other words, while Trump might talk about the suffering of civilians to justify U.S. military action--like the "beautiful babies" killed in the Syrian dictatorship's sarin gas attack--his actions are putting much greater numbers of civilian lives in peril.

"There is no doubt that ISIS are brutal and that they have committed atrocities against our people. But I don't see why the bomb was dropped," the mayor of Achin, Naweed Shinwari, told the Guardian. "It terrorized our people. My relatives thought the end of the world had come."

Adding a grotesque postscript to the attack, the target of the bombing, as a Tweet by WikiLeaks pointed out, was a massive system of tunnels, bunkers and camps constructed by the U.S. during the Cold War, back when the CIA financed reactionary Afghan fighters, including Osama bin Laden, as opponents of the government backed by the then-USSR.

TRUMP'S USE of the MOAB may have been meant to send a message that his administration will use any force it deems necessary--no matter how destructive, no matter the risk to innocent life.

But the "my bomb is bigger than your bomb" style of foreign policy isn't so much a break with, but a continuation of, the trajectory of the U.S. "war on terror" under first George W. Bush and then Barack Obama.

Calling Trump a "logical endpoint to a grim process," Tom Engelhardt, writing at Tom Dispatch, noted:

When it comes to war and the U.S. military, none of what's happened would have been conceivable without the two previous presidencies. None of it would have been possible without Congress' willingness to pump endless piles of money into the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex in the post-9/11 years; without the building up of the national security state and its 17 (yes, 17!) major intelligence outfits into an unofficial fourth branch of government...

None of this would have been possible without the growing militarization of this country...without a media rife with retired generals and other former commanders narrating and commenting on the acts of their successors and protégés; and without a political class of Washington pundits and politicians taught to revere that military.

While Democrats were more muted in their cheering of the bombing in Afghanistan compared to the missile strike in Syria, in general, the "opposition" party's reservations about Trump unleashing the U.S. war machine was about his failure to identify a clear "strategy" in the "war on terror," not his willingness to drop the bombs.

Some, like Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, said the problem about the Afghanistan attack was that Trump didn't follow the precedent he set with his missile strikes in Syria, where "proportionality" was considered.

In other words, it's okay to pursue the failed "war on terror" in Afghanistan--as long as its done multiple smaller bombs, instead of one great big one.

Yet the Democrats were all but silent as the Obama administration dropped more than 26,000 bombs in 2016, a majority of them in Iraq and Syria. The result was scores of civilians killed and injured on Obama's watch.

WHILE TRUMP may be willing to escalate the U.S. show of force in the region--giving the military establishment and figures like "Mad Dog" Mattis a longer leash when it comes to using weapons like MOAB--it's a fact that Trump inherited ongoing U.S. imperial wars and military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries and regions across the globe.

As much as he'd like to present his administration's policies in the "war on terror" as a radical break with Obama's, Trump is continuing the use of a massive military apparatus and a war machine with tentacles sunk around the globe.

If he has his way, that war machine will be expanded--more military force will be used with less oversight, and, almost certainly, with more civilian deaths and destruction as a result. But at a fundamental level, no matter who's sitting in the White House, both parties are committed to maintaining U.S. imperialism and projecting U.S. power and dominance.

While this may take different forms depending on the administration in power, Trump's claim that Obama failed to win the "war on terror" because he was playing it "too nice" is ridiculous.

If more than 15 years of the "war on terror" have shown anything, it's that attempting to bomb people into oblivion doesn't stop terrorism, it fuels it. As Robert Dreyfuss wrote in Rolling Stone: "Kill innocent men, women and children, and you create a fresh crop of angry recruits for terrorist organizations, while pissing off the local population and alienating our allies and the governments of countries where we're fighting."

As Dreyfuss adds, "The point isn't that the Obama administration's War on Terror (which Obama stopped referring to as such) didn't kill and maim many civilians." It did. But, he notes, "It's hard to escape the conclusion that under President Trump, the number of civilian casualties is heading skyward."

To stop Trump and his coterie of generals salivating over increased military funding, more destructive weaponry and fewer restrictions on the use of it will take a rebuilt mass antiwar movement based on principled opposition to U.S. imperialism everywhere.

It will take a movement that doesn't look to dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad as some kind of anti-imperialist opposition, but calls for self-determination for ordinary people around the globe.

And it will take a domestic movement that demands money be spent on people's needs--in the U.S. and around the world--not on yet another expansion of an already bloated military.

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