Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The United States is rolling back prohibitions on land mine use, the White House and Department of Defense announced Friday.
"The Department of Defense has determined that restrictions imposed on American forces by the Obama Administration's policy could place them at a severe disadvantage during a conflict against our adversaries," the White House said. "The President is unwilling to accept this risk to our troops."
In a press release issued Friday, the Pentagon specifically denied the policy change was related to recent events in Iran, but instead said it is "the result of DOD's policy review and the President's imperative to equip our warfighters with the appropriate means to implement the National Defense Strategy."
In 2014, the Obama administration announced its intention to eliminate its stockpile of antipersonnel land mines and eventually implemented a policy against the use of land mines outside of the Korean peninsula.
The policy brought the United States closer to qualifying for the Ottawa Convention, a 1997 U.N. treaty, signed by 164 countries -- notably excepting the U.S., Russia and China -- that banned the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and calling for their destruction.
U.S. leaders since President Bill Clinton have expressed interest in signing the treaty, but have yet to come in line with its requirements, in part because leaders have insisted on a carveout allowing use of land mines on the Korean peninsula.
According to the White House, the Pentagon's new policy will authorize combatant commanders, in "exceptional" circumstances, to employ advanced, non-persistent land mines "specifically designed to reduce unintended harm to civilians and partner forces."
Shortly after the White House's announcement, the Pentagon published the new policy on land mine use, saying U.S. forces can only use land mines if they have "compliant self-destruction mechanisms and self-deactivation features, and they are detectable by commonly available technical mine detection equipment."
"I am confident our Combatant Commanders can properly determine when it is necessary and appropriate to use land mines in an operational context, while limiting the risk of unintended harm to non-combatants," defense secretary Mark Esper wrote in a memo laying out the policy.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a longtime advocate for ending the use of land mines, issued a statement Friday saying the policy reversal was "as perplexing as it is disappointing, and reflexive, and unwise."
He also wrote that Congress had asked to be consulted about potential changes to land mine policy, but as far as he knew, had not.
"The policy that has been in place, limiting the use of this inherently indiscriminate weapon to the Korean Peninsula, was the culmination of nearly 30 years of incremental steps, taken by both Democratic and Republican administrations after extensive analysis and consultation, toward the growing global consensus that anti-personnel mines should be universally banned," Leahy wrote.
Human Rights Watch also condemned the decision, saying it reverses years of incremental work to bring the United States in line with the Ottawa convention.
"Most of the world's countries have embraced the ban on antipersonnel land mines for more than two decades, while the Trump administration has done a complete about-face in deciding to cling to these weapons in perpetuity," said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch in the statement. "Using land mines, which have claimed so many lives and limbs, is not justified by any country or group under any circumstances."