Sadly, we have to expect more civilian casualties if ISIS is to be defeated

Yesterday’s New York Times report about civilian deaths from airstrikes in Mosul is, unfortunately, likely not the last such story as coalition forces close in on the Islamic State (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria (where there have also been reports of civilian deaths).  The grim truth is that given ISIS tactics, civilians will die in the effort to crush the terrorists.

To its credit, the Times found this was not a case of “once-strict rules of engagement meant to minimize civilian casualties…being relaxed under the Trump administration” as some might have thought.  Rather, the Times reported that although airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have “been heavier in an effort to press the Islamic State on multiple fronts” it was also true, according to American military officials, “that the rules of engagement had not changed.”

The facts are beginning to emerge.  The Washington Post said the Pentagon disclosed that their initial investigation “indicates that, at the request of the Iraqi security forces, the Coalition struck ISIS fighters and equipment, March 17, in west Mosul at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties.”  We surely learn more in the days ahead, but it could be that in this instance there was some heartbreaking miscalculation on the part of either the Iraqi or the coalition forces.  Of course, a tragic miscalculation is not the same as saying anything illegal occurred.

Still, we ought to brace ourselves for more civilian casualties, even when there is no miscalculation and a completely legal strike goes as exactly as planned.

Retaking a densely-populated city like Mosul is extraordinarily difficult.  Indeed, chaotic urban combat is one of the toughest challenges for any military, as enemy fighters can take advantage of a city’s labyrinths to infest battlespaces with booby-traps and ambushes, and – most malevolently – it allows them to readily hide among civilians.  This and more is exactly what is happening in Mosul.  A coalition spokesman explained that ISIS was using “inhuman tactics [of] terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods.”

However, airpower can obviate at least some of those tactics.  As then Lt Gen Norton Schwartz (later Chief of Staff of the Air Force) and Air Force Colonel Robert Stephan presciently wrote back in 2000 about urban operations:

Aerospace forces can bring overwhelming precision firepower to bear, achieving devastating operational- and tactical-level effects against key adversary nodes. Future generations of “smart weapons” will allow even more precise effects against high-value targets with an extremely favorable asset-to-target ratio–minimizing both the exposure of friendly forces to hostile fire and the destructive effects against noncombatants and civilian infrastructure.

Despite the recent civilian casualty incidents, their prediction has been largely borne out.  Today, using precision airpower is not more deadly than relying exclusively upon ground troops to root out ISIS fighters.  After all, in his 2013 article in Atlantic about drones, Blackhawk Down author Mark Bowden made the apt but frequently overlooked observation that “[g]round combat almost always kills more civilians than drone strikes do.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that international law does not prohibit otherwise lawful air attacks even when it is certain that civilians will be killed.  To be sure, the law does require “constant care’ to be taken to avoid civilian casualties, and mandates that all “feasible” precautions be taken towards that end.  Still, the law does not bar attacks where civilians are expected to be killed, so long as such anticipated losses are not “excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

This is sometimes called the “proportionality rule,” but the DoD Law of War Manual cautions:

Under the law of war, judgments of proportionality often involve difficult and subjective comparisons.   Recognizing these difficulties, States have declined to use the term “proportionality” in law of war treaties because it could incorrectly imply an equilibrium between considerations or suggest that a precise comparison between them is possible. (¶

Parenthetically, the public and – especially – the media typically assumes any civilians killed are losses of “innocents.”  Often, as I believe is the case with the Mosul casualties, that is likely to be true.  However, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the law of armed conflict makes no judgment as to whether those properly characterized as untargetable “civilians” are also morally or even legally “innocent.”

In fact, the opposite might be the case in certain instances.  For example, a few weeks ago an article on a surprising (to me anyway) discussion hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (From Nazis to ISIS: Women’s Roles in Violence) reported these comments from researcher Hamoon Khelghat-Doost:

Women in these terrorist groups work in security, enforce morals laws, die as suicide bombers, torture other women and manage sex slaves.  They serve as teachers, doctors, tax collectors, and they offer legitimacy to ISIS by acting as online recruiters and simply by raising families within its territory, Khelghat-Doost said. ISIS is somewhat flexible on gender roles, while rigid on separation of the sexes and generally barring them from combat, he noted.

Other than perhaps those working in “security,” most of the women having the kind of roles in terrorist groups that are described above are nevertheless likely not properly targetable under the law of armed conflict because they are probably not participating directly enough in hostilities, even though their activities may be criminal and, indeed, morally reprehensible. 

I would be surprised, however, if many of the civilian casualties in Mosul were involved with ISIS in this way.  The far more plausible scenario is that they are being used as human shields (in fact, CNN says that the coalition “is strongly looking at the possibility that ISIS put civilians in these areas as human shields.”).

The human shield situation is, I believe, an example of where the Obama administration’s use-of-force policies went terribly wrong.  Seemingly in an effort to assuage critics, the administration had long made very public highly-restrictive rules of engagement that went far beyond what international law required.  Apologists for the administration still brag about these restrictions that required a ““near certainty” that civilians will not be harmed” in airstrikes and other combat operations, and continue to boast that about this “remarkably high standard, almost unknown in the history of warfare.”

There is a good reason that the standard is “almost unknown in the history of warfare” but not because it makes civilians safer.  Retired Air Force lieutenant general Dave Deptula (and Joseph Raskas) pointed out the practical – and moral – perils of this approach:

[C]urrent policies guiding the war on terror unreasonably restrict the use of airpower.  Such policies limit civilian casualties that may result from attacking the terrorists, but allow the certainty of civilians being slaughtered at the hands of those same terrorists if they are not eliminated.  That is self-defeating at best, and counterproductive at worst.  To be sure, it is immoral.

True, the Obama administration managed to avoid a lot of criticism for causing civilian casualties with airstrikes by its restrictive policies, but – as Deptula and Raskas argue – they didn’t necessarily save civilian lives overall because the ISIS fighters who might have been killed lived on to butcher civilians.  I’ve called this phenomena the moral hazard of inaction.

Even worse, the Obama policies telegraphed to ISIS a strong rationale to use human shields by making it obvious that surrounding themselves with civilians would be a very effective ‘air defense.’  I believe this explains why the use of human shields has proliferated to such an unprecedented degree in Iraq and Syria.  Al Jazeera reported a few weeks ago that in Mosul ISIS was putting kidnapped relatives of police and army officers near their “facilities as insurance against…air strikes” adding:

The more rattled the [ISIS] leaders became, the more they made use of this gambit, and when the operation to recapture Mosul began in October, fighters forced tens of thousands more civilians into the city and executed those who refused to comply, the United Nations said.

Think about it, thanks to some degree to a policy that I believe incentivized their use, tens of thousands of civilians are now trapped as human shields in Mosul.  For its part, it appears that the Trump administration will loosen the rules of engagement somewhat, but the Washington Post says that the “Trump White House remained committed to a standard above the minimum requirement mandated by the international law of armed conflict that governs most military operations.”

Tragically, the civilian casualty situation may get worse before it gets better.  Consider that the Al Jazeera story chillingly adds that human shields are being “used more and more” as the “increasingly desperate [ISIS] fighters are now being herded into an ever smaller area as the fighting rages more intensely.”  It also observes that “for the thousands of hostages [that ISIS fighters] have taken with them, the situation is likely to become increasingly perilous.”  Sadly, yesterday’s reports have proven that prediction to be on the mark.

The truth is that even with the most precise weaponry, restrictive rules of engagement, and meticulous adherence to international law, it’s inevitable that more civilians are going to be killed if ISIS is going to be ousted from Mosul and put on the path of complete destruction.  It’s a grim reminder that there is no such thing as immaculate war if evil is going to be stopped.  Let’s have the fortitude to see the mission through even as we grieve the cost.

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