Have American forces increased civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq because of looser rules of engagement?
Taken together, the surge of reported civilian deaths raised questions about whether once-strict rules of engagement meant to minimize civilian casualties were being relaxed under the Trump administration, which has vowed to fight the Islamic State more aggressively.
This author says that it is horrible that the rules have been changed to the "minimum required by international law." That is, what we are doing is perfectly legal.
If only other countries fulfilled this minimum requirement.
We deny the rules have been loosened. I suppose it is possible that practices are liberalized even without the rules being loosened formally. Or it might be bad luck. Or just the result of different conditions that make civilian casualties more likely (like more densely populated parts of Mosul).
Remember that it is not illegal if civilians die during combat operations--unless like strikes conducted by the Russians and Assad, civilians are the target. Indeed, if civilians die because they are unlawfully kept near enemies when we fire weapons at the enemy, the fault of those civilian deaths lies with the enemy who embraced civilians and not with our forces who dropped the bomb.
Strikes that risk or will result in civilian casualties can be illegal if the attack is disproportionate to the threat. A hyperbolic example I like to give is that when faced with a sniper operating from an apartment building, it is not lawful to drop a tactical nuke on the building, killing many civilians, to destroy the real threat of a sniper. A nuke is not proportional. But a tank round into the window is likely legal even if a child is huddled in the bedroom and is killed in the blast. The enemy should have evacuated the child, not fought near the child. We are not under a legal obligation to allow our troops to be killed by the sniper behind the shield of potential civilian deaths.
But even apart from the question of the rules of engagement and the responsibility for civilian deaths, if the rules of engagement have been loosened by one means or another, it is not appropriate to say that loosening the rules results in higher civilian casualties.
It is false compassion to say that very tight rules of engagement and very tight application of those rules that reduce casualties from our firing to a 2 or 3 per day is better than rules that result in 100 per day if the looser rules end the war much faster.
If we wage a two-day battle that defeats the enemy and ends the battle but kills 200 civilians, is that really worse than a 100-day battle--longer because the enemy isn't being hit as hard as it could be--that kills 2.5 civilians per day (so 250 total dead)?
And how many more civilians die from other causes in that extra 98 days of fighting from enemy executions, accidents, disease, lack of medicine for treatable conditions, hunger, thirst, suicide, or the perils of becoming a refugee (like dying in a sinking boat trying to reach Europe)?
Seriously, was it compassionate to have refused to get involved in the Syrian civil war 5 years and 450,000 dead ago out of fear of "further militarizing" the conflict as our secretary of state put it? Was that truly the compassionate decision?
I've made the same point in regard to force protection considerations for our own troops. The issue is valid for unintentional civilian deaths, too.
You might feel better about the ugly situation with tighter rules of engagement--or by just staying out and letting the locals sort out the problem--but objectively more people might die.
What is really the compassionate course of action?
Oh, and a small point about civilian casualties:
Islamic State has flooded YouTube with hundreds of violent recruitment videos since the terrorist attack in London last week in an apparent attempt to capitalise on the tragedy, The Times can reveal.
The terrorists capitalize on the attack because they don't consider it a tragedy. That's what they do.
You will never find an American military recruiting campaign centered on any accidental tragedy that kills civilians while we are trying to kill jihadis.
That difference matters. So let's get on with the job of killing jihadis. That's the compassionate thing to do.
UPDATE: LTG Townsend addresses the issues around casualties and responsibility.
And this is welcome perspective from Townsend:
Yeah, I'd like to say something before we close it out here.
A little disappointing to me that all the questions were about our airstrikes and our process and our decisions. And it almost seems to me like it was completely lost on everybody, and I hope it's not lost in your reporting, what I said about who is killing innocents here in Iraq and Syria. If -- if these innocents were killed by the coalition, it was an unintentional accident of war.
And ISIS is slaughtering Iraqis and Syrians on a daily basis. ISIS is cutting off heads. ISIS is shooting people, throwing people form buildings, burning them alive in cases, and they're making a video record to prove it. This has got to stop. This evil has got to be stamped out.
And in my mind, all the responsibility for any civilian deaths, the moral responsibility for civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria belongs to ISIS.
I will close with that. Thanks.
No further comment on that is necessary.
UPDATE: Defeating ISIL requires an acceptance of civilian deaths in the process.
For all the claims that somehow we should reduce civilian casualties for the sake of compassion, the fact is that the only way to reduce civilian casualties from our fire support is to leave ISIL in charge of Mosul or insist that Iraqi troops fight only with their personal weapons--driving their casualties skyward.
Either of those "solutions" is compassion in action?