Home / Charli Carpenter / Force Protection, Civilian Protection or Both?

Force Protection, Civilian Protection or Both?

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The DoD’s updated rules of engagement in Afghanistan beg the question. These rules – such as holding your fire unless you are certain a target is an actual combatant, withdrawing from fire-fights in civilian-populated areas, more reliance on ground troops and less on air raids – are meant to reduce collateral damage from military operations. But critics have claimed it leaves US troops to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, increasing the risk to soldiers in order to protect civilians.

Sarah Holewinski and James Morin have an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor arguing that it’s not necessarily a zero-sum arrangement:

Safeguarding civilians and taking care of soldiers are not mutually exclusive. Killing civilians fuels distrust and hatred among the population. That increases the risks for troops and their mission. Protecting the population isn’t political correctness; it’s a vital military objective and a distinct advantage over an enemy that uses civilians as shields.

They’re on track in a strategic sense: winning the support of the civilian population is crucial in COIN wars, and it’s only possible if you can protect civilians. But I’m not sure that a confluence of strategic-humanitarian gains mean net gains or absence of net losses in force protection. I can see plenty of cases in Afghanistan and elsewhere where the more precautions one takes to avoid collateral damage, the more troops will be put at risk. In Kosovo, it was the difference between using air power vs. putting boots on the ground; and between flying at 15,000 feet where pilots were safe from ground-to-air fire v. flying lower where they could actually see their targets. In Gaza more recently, it was the difference between accepting military casualties from sniper fire and using white phosphorous smoke bombs for troop cover, albeit in areas where collateral damage from was likely to be high. So there may indeed be trade-offs between force protection and civilian protection, and we might as well admit it.

But so what? Since when are trained soldiers unwilling to put their lives on the line to safeguard the innocent? Isn’t that actually the entire point the warrior ethic? And since when did democracies who claim to care about human rights and humanitarian standards decide that wars must be fought with zero-tolerance for military – as opposed to civilian – casualties? The idea that such an op-ed is required due to US casualty aversion is a big reason the US struggles to succeed in stability and support operations, and a big reason that collateral damage in US wars has been until late last year so unspeakably high.

If risks there be, kudos to McChrystal for putting his foot down and forcing us to accept some of those risks that come with sending our troops to fight just wars abroad. It’s good strategy, sure, but more importantly it’s the honorable thing to do.

[cross-posted at Current Intelligence]

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