February 11, 2016

Weighing the Strategic Impact of Killing Civilians in Counter-Militancy

By Andrew Kenealy

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.

Read the full article on Small Wars Journal.