Thursday, February 16, 2017

Take Off the Pentagon’s Gloves in the ISIS War? Not So Fast. - Defense One

Take Off the Pentagon’s Gloves in the ISIS War? Not So Fast. - Defense One

Policies intended to reduce civilian harm didn’t arise out of elite Washington think tanks or academia; they arose from the military’s own lessons learned.

There are worrying signs the United States is about to back away from its role in setting the high bar for reducing civilian casualties in conflict. That would be a horrible mistake.

President Donald Trump consistently has said he believes the U.S. has been hamstrung in the fight against Islamic terrorists by fighting a “politically correct” war. In December of 2015, he famously said, “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families,” a tactic illegal under international law. On January 28, Trump  issued a memorandum asking for a “review of recommended changes to the rules of engagement and other policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force” in the fight against ISIS. This should give advocates for civilian protection and anybody who has an interest in defeating ISIS reason for concern.

U.S. military leaders of the war against ISIS have reportedly hoped the new administration would get the White House and National Security Council out of the day-to-day decisions they felt were hamstringing war operations. Nonetheless, given the high risk that an increase in civilian deaths stemming from U.S. actions will be portrayed by our adversaries as a deliberate expression of the President’s stated intentions, we believe the Pentagon, which will ultimately shoulder the blame and any operational consequences of civilian casualties, should proceed with an abundance of caution. Some options for ramping up the fight against ISIS  (and possibly Al Qaeda) may be worth considering. But when it comes to protection for civilians, now is not the time to “take the gloves off” in the fight against terrorists.

The “gloves” in this case are rules and constraints on the use of lethal force by U.S. forces, expressly intended to limit civilian harm, which meet or exceed the requirements of international humanitarian law. These rules were codified at varying thresholds and levels of specificity and clarity by the Obama administration in the Presidential Policy Guidance on direct action against targets outside of Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and the Executive Order on Pre- and Post Strike Measures to Address Civilian Casualties.