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Trump Administration To Loosen Obama-Era Policy On Land Mine Use

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Trump administration is planning to loosen restrictions on the use of weapons that have been banned by more than 160 countries - landmines. The new policy is set to be announced tomorrow. The State Department has already informed its embassies. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: According to a diplomatic cable first reported by the news website Vox, the Trump administration is rescinding President Obama's 2014 directive on landmines. That was a policy that came out of long discussions with the Department of Defense, says Rob Berschinski, who served on Obama's National Security Council.

ROB BERSCHINSKI: DOD came to the position that other than with respect to very specific circumstances on the Korean Peninsula, they are not of military utility. And thus it agreed with what became the Obama administration policy, which was not to use these weapons outside of Korea.

KELEMEN: CNN reports that the Trump administration's change in approach followed a Pentagon review. The new policy is expected to allow the military to use landmines anywhere as long as they have a self-destruct mechanism. Berschinski says even those types of landmines are dangerous because there's no person involved to make a distinction between enemy fighters or a child who thinks it's a toy.

BERSCHINSKI: It's not like a rifle, where there's a person deciding to pull the trigger, or a drone, for that matter, where there's someone watching the video feed and deciding whether to fire the weapon or not. These are, at the end of the day, so-called dumb munitions, even those that self-destruct after 30 days' time.

KELEMEN: A former commander of U.S. Army Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, though, says the U.S. has to be realistic, especially after Russia's military aggression in Ukraine.

BEN HODGES: So as you start thinking about the possibilities - not the probabilities, but the possibilities of a conflict with the Russian Federation Forces up along NATO's eastern flank, the need for landmines that can stop large armored formations is still valid.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is not a signatory of the treaty banning landmines. The Obama administration didn't go that far. Hodges, now with the Center for European Policy Analysis, says the U.S. would need Russia and China onboard for that.

HODGES: I've seen nothing in the last - in my study of Russian or Chinese history that gives me any confidence that they would respect international law. So this is about being able to protect allies and protect our own troops.

KELEMEN: The former Obama official, Berschinski, doesn't buy that.

BERSCHINSKI: We've been engaged in two decades of persistent conflict, and DOD simply hasn't used these weapons. That's because they're not particularly useful on a modern military battlefield.

KELEMEN: And landmines continue to be a danger to civilians around the globe.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.