WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is preparing to dismantle key Obama-era limits on drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefields, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations. The changes would lay the groundwork for possible counterterrorism missions in countries where Islamic militants are active but the United States has not previously tried to kill or capture them.
President Donald Trump’s top national security advisers have proposed relaxing two rules, the officials said. First, the targets of proposed drone strikes and raids, now generally limited to high-level militants deemed to pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, would be expanded to include foot-soldier jihadis with no unique skills or leadership roles. And second, such attacks by the military and CIA would no longer go through high-level vetting.
But administration officials have also agreed that they should keep in place one important constraint for such attacks: a requirement of “near certainty” that no civilian bystanders will be killed.
The proposal to overhaul the rules has quietly taken shape over months of debate among administration officials and awaits Trump’s expected signature. It prompted an outcry from human rights groups, which had objected even to the more rigorous Obama administration standards.
The policy would pave the way for broader and more frequent operations against Al-Qaida, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other jihadis. It would also apply in countries where the U.S. has targeted Islamist militants outside of regular combat for years, including Yemen, Somalia and Libya, and would ease the way to expanding such gray-zone acts of sporadic warfare to elsewhere in Africa, Asia and the Middle East where terrorists operate.
A Cabinet-level committee of the top leaders of national-security agencies and departments approved the proposed new rules — called the PSP, for “Principles, Standards and Procedures” — at a meeting Sept. 14 and sent the document to Trump, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The policy, while containing significant changes, also preserves a key structure of President Barack Obama’s approach to counterterrorism — dividing the world into war zones and places where higher protections for civilians apply. The elements of continuity suggest that as the war on terrorism drifts toward its 17th year, political, legal, diplomatic and practical hurdles constrain the Trump administration from making more radical policy shifts.
Last month, when he delivered a speech outlining his security policies for Afghanistan and the rest of South Asia, Trump vowed to loosen restrictions on hunting down terrorists.
“The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms,” he said. “Retribution will be fast and powerful.”