Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fox News: The Problem with the War in Syria Is We're Not Killing Enough Civilians

I confess, that was a slight paraphrase. But I suggest to you that it was very slight indeed. Here's the headline that was at the top of Fox News yesterday:

France, Russia pummel ISIS stronghold as critics blast US rules of engagement
And in case that wasn't quite blatant enough for you, the opening two paragraphs will give you a pretty good sense of the thrust of this article. Enjoy:
In the wake of Friday's deadly terror attack in Paris and the confirmed bombing of a Russian airliner, Russia and France are pounding the Islamic State's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa as, while the number of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS still dwarves all others combined, America appears to be in a slap fight while others are punching hard, say military experts.
U.S. rules of engagement and the overarching desire to minimize collateral damage are holding back the true force of U.S. air power, while Paris and Moscow have taken off the gloves following the bombing of a Russian airliner and Friday's horrific attacks in the French capital, according to one retired four-star general.
Great fun. They even threw in a misspelling of the verb "dwarfs" for good measure. Nice.

It turns out that this is actually a common grievance that Fox and other hardcore right-wingers like to dust off from time to time. The idea is that if only the US wasn't so careful about avoiding civilian casualties, we could win all the wars we fight. The argument often also involves a vague reference to the good ole days when the US military had virtually unlimited tolerance for civilian casualties to "get the job done"--maybe the carpet bombing of Germany in WWII, maybe the Total War policy of Williams Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War, or maybe the best (and thus worst) example of all, nuking Japan. For proponents of this argument, these historical episodes are models to be emulated, not tragedies to be avoided.

But as you might expect, there are significant problems with this line of reasoning.

First, it's simply not true. I don't have military experience, but the results of the modern wars in the Obama era have yielded a very high number of civilian casualties. One recent report on a 5-month period of drone strikes (often referred to as precision strikes) revealed that 90% of the casualties were not the intended targets. That is, for every 1 alleged terrorist that was killed, 9 civilians were also killed on average. And this was according to classified government documents released by a whistleblower, so there is every reason to believe those figures. Meanwhile, reporting on airstrikes in Syria and Iraq suggest far better results thus far, with the ratio essentially being flipped. Specifically, an estimated 20,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in the coalition campaign to date with up to 2,000 civilians killed. But while these seem better on their face, we must note they are necessarily conservative because it's difficult to get reliable reports out of ISIS-controlled areas.

In addition to the above statistics, we also have numerous anecdotal examples of the US bombing civilians, ranging from the recent and notorious hospital bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan (30 dead) to the drone strike that hit a random wedding party in Yemen (12 dead) to a cruise missile strike on a school in Yemen (45 dead). In all but the most extreme cases, the US denies that any civilians are killed or just refuses to discuss the issue. But while the US government is not transparent enough for us to know the exact number or percentage of civilians killed, we can say with certainty that it is significantly above zero.

Perhaps the rules of engagement really are onerous, and are just routinely ignored. Or perhaps the rules were lax to begin with. But either way, the notion that the US is exercising massive restraint to avoid civilian casualties does not stand up to scrutiny.

Having said that, I don't doubt that our bombing campaigns could be even less discriminating than they are at present. Indeed, the Fox News article cites a former military officer who suggests that we should "flatten Raqqa [ISIS's capital]". But herein lies the second fundamentally flawed assumption underlying this argument--that a massive bombing campaign would work.

Though the idea is repugnant on its face, it may be conceivable that the US could destroy all cities and infrastructure that is currently under ISIS control--which would entail massive bombing of parts of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, and possibly Nigeria. Assuming we have the firepower to actually pull that off, what would it accomplish? Well, it might make us feel good for awhile. But it's impossible that it would kill all ISIS members and sympathizers--particularly since a good number of these appear to be in Western countries at this point. Most ISIS members in the affected areas would just go back into the shadows until the onslaught subsided. Or in other words, we would just turn ISIS back into an insurgency. They wouldn't be able to hold territory, but they would still be able to carry out guerrilla warfare from time to time. We've seen this happen before. When the US surged in Afghanistan, for example, violence eventually subsided because the Taliban were simply waiting it out.

More importantly, an indiscriminate bombing campaign would simultaneously be the most effective recruiting tool imaginable for ISIS and other extremists. Indeed, it is precisely that kind of overreaction that ISIS needs to bolster its support. Killing civilians creates terrorism; after 14 years of the formal War on Terror, this should be obvious to everyone. And it bears repeating that ISIS is trying to paint a narrative of a war between the Western countries (and their allies) against Islam generally. Nothing could be more conducive to that end than aggressively bombing more Muslim countries than we already do.

The problem isn't the rules of the engagement in the War on Terror; it's the War on Terror itself.

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