Why do critics ignore the potential civilian casualties if an airstrike against ISIS doesn’t take place? Let’s think about the moral hazard of inaction.

Many individuals and groups are quick to criticize the U.S.-led coalition when airstrikes aimed at defeating the Islamic State sometimes cause civilian deaths.  What they never seem to take into consideration is what I’ve begun to call the moral hazard that arises when force is not used.

In a nutshell, shouldn’t there be as much consideration of the civilian suffering sure to occur if a strike is forgone and the terrorists who would have been killed live on to commit all manner of atrocities on the helpless?  The hard truth is that it isn’t necessarily true that when an airstrike doesn’t take place, civilian casualties are avoided.

This week the New York Times published an op-ed (“Does the U.S. Ignore Its Civilian Casualties in Iraq and Syria?”) by a Chris Woods, who leads something called “Airwarswhich describes itself as a “project aimed both at tracking and archiving the international air war against so-called Islamic State and other groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya.”  The essay rails against the coalition air war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), claiming that there is “one [civilian] death for every nine strikes.”  (This is based on a casualty estimate that is many times that estimated by the U.S.)

What he either doesn’t know or declines to share with his readers is that even if his numbers are correct (which I don’t believe they are), militarily speaking they still would reflect an astonishingly successful effort at limiting incidental harm to civilians given the situation.  The Islamic State not only embeds itself in densely-urban civilian areas, it also embraces the loathsome and cowardly tactic of making wholesale use of human shields.

Coalition airstrikes have been the centerpiece of the counter-ISIS campaign which the military calls Operation Inherent Resolve   There have been more that 14,000 airstrikes against over 26,000 ISIS targets, and they have been largely responsible for the killing of an estimated 45,000 ISIS fighters in the last two years.

Ask yourself this: if those 45,000 fighters hadn’t been attacked and killed, how much death and misery would they have inflicted on the civilians they’ve subjugated?  The UN estimated last January that in Iraq alone, ISIS had killed more than 18,000 people (and there are certainly thousands more in Syria).   And let’s not forget that these are the people who systematically tortured American Kalyla Mueller into becoming a sex-slave for Islamic States kingpin Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Woods also fails to inform his readers that, as the International Committee of the Red Cross explains, international law does not prohibit attacks even when it is certain that civilian casualties will occur

Rather, it is only when it is expected that civilian deaths would be “excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated” would the law require an airstrike to be called off (Emphasis added.)  From my perspective, even using his numbers, Mr. Woods has yet to make the case that the deaths, however regrettable, were “excessive.

I invite you to take a look at my new essay over on War on the Rocks where I explore a bit more this new conception of “moral hazard” that can be occasioned by inaction. 

As British philosopher John Stuart Mill observed in his 1859 essay, a “person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

Still, remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!





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