Shadow Government

The Obama Administration’s Human Shields

How the Obama administration is using the threat of civilian casualties to hold its fire against the Islamic State.

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Speaking at the G-20 summit in Turkey in the wake of the coordinated terror attacks that killed 129 people in Paris, U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to “redouble” the U.S-led military campaign against the Islamic State. Shortly thereafter, U.S. warplanes destroyed 116 fuel trucks involved in Islamic State oil smuggling, an enterprise estimated to generate between $1 million and $2 million in revenue a day for the terrorist proto-state. Although the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State is now in its 15th month, a coalition spokesman told the AFP this was “the first time that we’ve hit so many at once.”

Why the hesitancy towards attacking what the Obama administration has long cited as a key center of gravity for the Islamic State? The New York Times reported that U.S. forces have delayed striking this lucrative target because of the administration’s excessive fear of collateral damage. This follows the Times’ reporting in May that U.S. and allied warplanes were not attacking the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqaa, Syria, nor its troops openly parading through the conquered streets of Ramadi, Iraq, for fear of accidentally killing civilians. “We have not taken the fight to these guys,” the pilot of an American A-10 attack plane said. “In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a U.A.V., over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage.” According Representative Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. pilots are confirming that they were blocked from dropping 75 percent of their ordnance on terror-related targets because they could not obtain clearance to launch a strike. An Air Force official quoted in The Hill in June stated, “There’s a target of zero civilian casualties, so if there are civilian casualty concerns, we would continue to monitor a target or a potential target to see if there is a way to mitigate that.” Consequently, Army Vice Chief of Staff General Jack Keane said: “Our air campaign, since it began, has been the most restrictive in terms of rules of engagement that we have ever entered into in the last 25 years.”

To be sure, American sensitivity to causing unnecessary suffering to civilian populations did not begin with the Obama administration. In 1863, amidst our clearest war of annihilation, American leaders were so horrified by the violations of customary noncombatant immunity that the Union government developed the first comprehensive set of regulations covering the conduct of land warfare. The “Lieber Code” specifically recognized the importance of distinguishing “unarmed” or inoffensive” civilians, as well as the need to spare them from harm where possible during combat operations. The United States later signed and ratified the key international agreements — the Hague Conventions of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 — that enshrined the norm of noncombatant immunity as part of the Law of Armed Conflict. This aversion to collateral damage has only grown with the destructive nature of modern warfare and the increased awareness of civilian suffering thanks to the rise of international news and social media. Thus, even in a conventional conflict such as Operation Desert Storm, the death of as many as 300 civilians in the bombing of the Al Firdos bunker almost ended the air campaign over Iraq in 1991. It was several days before U.S. commanders were permitted to bomb Baghdad again, and then only for a few high-priority targets.

Beyond the moral imperative of minimizing collateral damage, there are often strategic reasons for exercising such restraint. Clausewitz famously identified “the people” (along with the government and the army) as part of the “remarkable trinity” that determines victory in war, and modern counterinsurgency theory holds that the civilian population is the center of gravity in armed conflict. Consequently, winning the loyalty of the contested population is paramount and therefore, as General David Petraeus observed, “Every civilian’s death diminishes us, collectively.” It is also argued that civilian casualties produced by the U.S. drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen allow al Qaeda to exploit these deaths for propaganda purposes, and that even when senior leaders are killed such strikes actually help the terror network by garnering sympathy, sanctuary, and recruits from the local population. Similarly, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recalled in his memoir that every allied operation that caused Afghan civilian casualties “was a strategic defeat,” and that consequently all three generals who served as commanders there (David McKiernan, David Petraeus, and Stanley McChrystal) during his tenure at the Pentagon issued directives to U.S. forces to avoid civilian casualties.

Yet the historic moral and strategic underpinnings for self-restraint fall short as a justification for the administration’s inaction in against the Islamic State. Given that more than 111,000 civilian-noncombatants have been killed in Syria alone since 2011, the refusal to conduct military operations sufficient to defeat the Islamic State for fear of inadvertently killing Syrian and Iraqi civilians is risible. In light of the Islamic State’s well-documented use of mass executions, public beheadings, rape and sexual slavery, and symbolic crucifixion displays to terrorize the population under its control and to “purify” the community, any campaign to defeat the Islamic State would likely be the more humane course. Moreover, telegraphing the fact that U.S. forces will not attack terrorists in civilian areas merely incentivizes them do embed themselves deeper into urban environments, thereby putting even more civilians at risk.

The strategic calculus for limiting the air campaign has also changed post-Paris. As long as the Islamic State remained focused on expanding its caliphate and attacking the “near enemy” rather than Western targets, a policy of containment in which a “zero-tolerance” policy towards the risk of civilian casualties outweighed the potential operational gains from any strike theoretically made sense. Yet with the Paris attacks, the downing of Russian Metrojet Flight 9268, and the Islamic State’s threatened lone wolf attacks on servicemen and women in the homeland, the Islamic State’s strategic priorities appear to have shifted. With the lives of Americans and our allies increasingly at risk, an anti-Islamic State campaign that refuses to accept any risk of collateral damage becomes dangerously myopic. America’s anti-Islamic State military operations should reflect the new reality created by the deaths of over 400 innocent victims in Paris, Egypt, and Beirut, to include easing targeting restrictions.

The Obama administration’s logic is particularly puzzling given that it has previously accepted the risk of collateral damage in its targeted killing campaign against al Qaeda, which it correctly perceives as an ongoing threat to U.S. national security. According to New America Foundation data on drone strikes, the “Drone War” in Pakistan and Yemen has caused between 342 and 408 civilian fatalities while killing somewhere between 2,600 and 4,000 militants — an admirably low proportion of given how many civilians al Qaeda aims to kill. (This administration’s tolerance does not extend to U.S. allies, however. Despite incontrovertible evidence that Hamas was using Gazan civilians as human shields during its war with Israel last year, then-State Department spokeswoman and current White House Director of Communications Jen Psaki declared the administration believed “Israel could have done more to prevent civilian casualties” as over 4,500 rockets and mortars were fired at Israeli population centers. This directly contradicted the judgment of Chairman of the Joint Staffs General Martin Dempsey that “Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties,” and U.S. strikes against the Islamic State targets have copied Israeli tactics by dropping leaflets an hour before the attack on the oil convoy.) Although the Islamic State will undoubtedly attempt to use any collateral damage for its propaganda purposes, U.S. restraint has failed to stem the Islamic State’s appeal amongst prospective jihadists, and actually liberating Islamic State-held areas and exposing their crimes against humanity may help to shift the tide in the “War of Ideas.” To his credit, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently said “We’re prepared to change the rules of engagement” and that “It’s important not only to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but they have to stay defeated.”

Yet President Obama has previously refused entreaties from multiple secretaries of defense and state, as well as CIA directors to do more in Syria, and has thus far ruled out any significant change in our anti-Islamic State or Syria strategies. Perhaps, in the end President Obama believes he is applying Bismarck’s famous pronouncement that “the Balkans aren’t worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier” to Syria and Iraq. There are coherent arguments against a more robust U.S. military intervention in Syria, but if the president truly believes that the apparent shift in the Islamic State’s strategy does not merit a shift in our strategy away from containment, he should say so explicitly. Otherwise, by continuing to rely on the avoidance of civilian casualties as an excuse for inaction, the administration is using human shields of its own.

SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Runkle, PhD, has served as in the Defense Department, as a Director on the National Security Council, and as a Professional Staff Member on the House Armed Services Committee.

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