Some airstrikes should be labelled war crimes

I am trying very hard not to sound like a broken record (maybe it is time to update that analogy: like a CD that skips – or does no one besides me listen to CDs anymore?) but a recent news item has me very angry and makes me have to talk – once again – about why seeing counter terrorism as war is a stupid, stupid, STUPID idea.

The Pentagon just announced that 1,114 civilians in Iraq and Syria were ‘unintentionally’ killed in airstrikes.  Pardon the cynicism but does the fact that they were killed ‘unintentionally’  matter?  Does it make their surviving family members feel better?  Does anyone say “Gee, I really miss my mom but she was ‘unintentionally’ killed by a US warplane in the ‘war on terrorism’ so I guess that’s ok since bigger issues are at play here”?  Whatever happened to incredulous claims by senior US officials that no civilians had died in such operations?  Everyone knows that the military lies on occasion but this baldfaced whopper was an insult to all of us.  At least now it has clearly been shown to be a fantasy, which we all knew anyway.

Whatever we think about air and drone strikes – and there are definitely arguments pro and con as I tried to lay out in my latest book ‘An end to the war on terrorism’ – we cannot deny that not only do civilian deaths represent an unacceptable consequence of warfare (the so-called ‘collateral damage – what a disgusting phrase) but they undermine the very purpose for which they are carried out.  Stay with me on this.

Why are airstrikes so popular?  Several reasons:

  • they limit the danger one’s forces are subject to (as compared to ground operations)
  • against terrorists there is virtually no way they invite retaliation (terrorists do not have aircraft and have just begun to deploy simple drones)
  • they can eliminate very dangerous people in large numbers

But the whole point of the matter is that airstrikes are part of a comprehensive strategy.  That strategy?  To eliminate terrorists I would submit.  If terrorists die in an airstrike they can no longer carry out terrorist attacks, right?  So win-win-win-win for the home team!

The problem with this argument is that it ignores the impact of civilian airstrike deaths on the survivors.  What are the chances that a young boy who loses his parents to a bomb stamped ‘Made in USA’ will be so angry and bent on revenge that he later radicalises and becomes a terrorist?  Quite high I would say.  I remember reading somewhere that the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 were  a direct consequence of the Reagan Administration’s tactic of lobbing missiles into the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to hit Hizballah (and a lot of innocent people I am sure).  Hence errant airstrikes create more of the thing you are trying to undo.  Not a great strategy, is it?

I do not doubt for one minute that these are indeed ‘unintentional’ deaths.  I cannot fathom why the US would deliberately target civilians: I cannot say the same for the Russians or the Syrians for that matter.  Still, do these strikes not constitute war crimes?  As I am not  legal expert I will allow others to weigh in on this.  But I imagine that a case can be made that some are.

In the end, not only is the Pentagon’s admission that it killed more than a thousand civilians a black mark and a reversal of the ludicrous earlier claim that the total was zero, and not only is it an admission that untold human suffering was visited on the innocent courtesy of Uncle Sam, and not only will these lead to more (not less) terrorism, but it is a propaganda bonanza for terrorists.  IS and AQ are indeed barbaric terrorist outfits, with the former worse than the latter, and we rightfully condemn their killing of civilians.  Now, thanks to the Pentagon, they can turn and point an accusatory finger at us.  And I am not sure what reply we can give to rebut their argument.

So, once again, we need to stop talking of counter terrorism as war and stop seeing the military as the primary actor in this approach.  Are you listening boy-president?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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