Thursday, March 16, 2017

When and How Should We Use Military Force to Fight Terrorism?

Several days ago, Charlie Savage had an important article in the New York Times  that reported that the Trump Administration is "exploring how to dismantle or bypass Obama-era constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths from  drone attacks, commando raids and other counterterrorism missions outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan."  As Charlie reported, the President had already declared three provinces of Yemen to be  an "area of active hostilities" where less restrictive policies should apply.  The first use of this policy was the Special Operations raid in Yemen, which killed several civilians.  He is also expected to make a similar decision with regard to Somalia.

So what's the big deal?  Why shouldn't we "unleash" our military?  That is a question that I and 34 other former national security officials tried to explain in a set of principles that we sent to Defense Secretary Mattis.  As we explained in this principles, civilian casualties are not merely a human right problem.  They also hurt us in our fight against terrorist groups:
The United States has always put a strong premium on minimizing civilian harm in armed conflicts, both because it is the right thing to do and because doing so is strategically beneficial. However, even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries—whether or not legally permitted—can cause significant strategic setbacks. For example, civilian deaths from U.S. operations can cause partners and allies to reduce operational collaboration, withdraw consent, and limit intelligence-sharing; increase violence from militant groups; and foster distrust among local populations that are crucial to accomplishing the mission. As a result, reducing civilian harm and appropriately responding to harm that does occur play an important role in helping the United States achieve its mission objectives.
We noted that attacks in countries outside the battlefield (in Yemen and Somalia) require special caution:
The use of force outside traditional war zones, particularly using drone and other air strikes, raises complex legal, strategic, diplomatic, and humanitarian considerations that warrant continued use of heightened standards and procedures. To ensure that such operations are both strategically effective and lawful, the executive branch should, absent extraordinary circumstances . [u]se lethal force only when there is a near certainty—or a similarly high standard—that no civilian harm will occur; this standard has proven useful for maintaining support for kinetic operations among foreign governments and populations, and for minimizing the downsides and unintended consequences that occur when the United States accidentally kills or harms civilians.  

The letter was  signed by an impressive list of former national security professionals, all of whom had to make tough life and death decisions in the fight against terrorism, and all of whom learned from the experience.  We hope that the Trump Administration will recognize that while military power is an important tool against terrorism, it needs to be used with great care.

You can read the entire letter here.

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