Civilian Casualties: The Problem With Airpower

 In Iraq, Syria


With the first U.S. strikes on Syria came the first tragic reports of civilians killed in those very strikes. As our country enters into another open-ended war in the Middle East it’s important to look back at lessons learned from recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere. One lesson is that U.S. and allied airstrikes, despite all the modern technology, lead to civilian casualties.

In some ways the conflict in Libya offers the best recent historic analogy to the current escalation. As in the current U.S. intervention, the U.S. involvement was focused on airstrikes. While the U.S. led NATO intervention in Libya worked to avoid hitting civilian targets, they refused to track civilian casualties. They also refused to analyze targeting mistakes after the conflict which makes civilian deaths in the current conflict more likely.

Worse still. they created an absurd Catch-22 to excuse their inattention. As reported in the New York Times:

[NATO] said, ‘We have no confirmed reports of civilian casualties,’ ”

The reason, [NATO] said, was that the alliance had created its own definition for “confirmed”: only a death that NATO itself investigated and corroborated could be called confirmed. But because the alliance declined to investigate allegations, its casualty tally by definition could not budge — from zero.

But this is not the only Catch-22. Early in the last Iraq war military analysts pointed out the central problem with airpower even from a military standpoint:

The FM 3–24 counterinsurgency manual recognizes that “bombing, even with the most precise weapons, can cause unintended civilian casualties.” Consequently, “an air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory.” In other words, bombing is a proverbial Catch-22. Insurgents or terrorists may be killed, but no matter how much care is taken to avoid non-combatant casualties, innocent civilians may also be killed.

Wars have unintended consequences. The last Iraq war is estimated to have caused as many as 500,000 deaths. Those deaths are likely related to the rise of ISIS into the force it is today. The drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have killed hundreds of civilians and many analysts feel those deaths  have only increased recruitment for the extremist groups the U.S. is targeting. The president compared the current war to “successes” in Yemen and Somalia but it is far from clear the drone strikes there have been working. There’s far more evidence of the effort backfiring. Some estimates say there are dozens of recruits for every strike:

Tribal leaders, who have a lot of influence within Yemen’s complex social structure, warn of rising sympathy for al Qaeda. Awad Ahmed Mohsen from Majallah, a southern village hit by a drone strike that killed dozens in 2009, told Reuters that America had brought hatred with its drones.

Asked if more people joined al Qaeda in the wake of attacks that killed civilians, Mohsen said: “Definitely. And even those who don’t join, now sympathize with al Qaeda because of these strikes, these violations. Any American they see, they exact revenge, even if it’s a civilian.”

The path we are starting down in Iraq and Syria is a dangerous one. But there’s time to turn back. Please call your members of Congress today.

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