In order to avoid putting ever more boots on the ground, the United States has increasingly turned to using airstrikes and drone strikes to damage a wide range of militant groups. Yet whenever President Obama contemplates dropping a bomb from the air, he risks killing civilians, which presents an unavoidable tradeoff. The benefits of damaging enemies are relatively simple to measure. More U.S. strikes on a group means it will have fewer weapons, less money, and fewer fighters. But in addition to significant and enormously important moral problems – not to mention larger strategic issues like potentially undermining international law -- how do we measure the on-the-ground costs of taking civilian lives? The answer lies in an assessment of the context of each mission.
Whether a militant group seeks to establish its own government or strike a subway system in the United States, the thoughts and opinions of the local population matter to its success. Beyond directly taking up arms and joining a terrorist or insurgent group, supportive non-combatants can help raise funds and resources, provide cover, or stay quiet when questioned by government officials. Those facts create a genuine strategic interest in preventing locals from joining, or even supporting, a militant group that the United States is seeking to eliminate. Accidentally killing civilians, by alienating locals and fueling extremism, can make the initial use of force counterproductive.
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