Small Wars Journal

Collateral Damage and Counterinsurgency Doctrine

Mon, 08/13/2007 - 5:52pm
By Charles J. Dunlap

One of the most controversial issues today is the role of kinetic military force, and especially airpower, in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. While no one advocates the use of force except when truly necessary, the history of COIN efforts reveal that it is essential to success. For example, Professor Daniel Moran points out in his book, Wars of National Liberation, that in Malaya, the COIN operation most admired by many contemporary COIN aficionados, "7,000 guerillas were killed" out of total number "which probably never exceeded 10,000."

Nevertheless, accepted wisdom these days is that reflected in FM 3-24, that is, "killing insurgents...cannot itself defeat an insurgency." This is complemented by a related listing of "paradoxes" which include such aphorisms as "sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is." (Of course, "sometimes" is a qualifier that renders it almost meaningless because virtually anything can happen "sometimes" -- to include sometimes the more force is used, the more effective it is.)

The overall flavor of FM 3-24 is, however, most unambiguously reflected in its attitude toward airpower. It especially discourages it use by warning commanders to:

Exercise exceptional care when using airpower in the strike role. Bombing, even with the most precise weapons, can cause unintended civilian casualties. Effective leaders weigh the benefits of every air strike against its risks. An air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation (HN) government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory. Even when justified under the law of war, bombings that result in civilian casualties can bring media coverage that works to the insurgents' benefit.

Unexplained is why similar cautions are not raised with respect to other kinds of fires, including artillery, missiles, mortars or, for that matter, small arms fire. Regarding the latter, it was reported in July that U.S. troops in Iraq allegedly shot 429 civilians in the past year. Inexplicably, airpower is viewed fundamentally differently and less favorably.

Actually, insurgents benefit from policies that limit the use of technology like airpower against which they have no defense. It appears that this is exactly what is happening. Consider that a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan recently insisted, in response to inquiries about casualties as a result of airstrikes, that "NATO would not fire on positions if it knew there were civilians nearby."

Such an approach puts civilians at risk not only because it allows terrorists to escape to kill innocents in the future, but also because it encourages them to hide among civilians so as to enjoy a policy-made "sanctuary" the law does not require.

This also raises another interesting question: what exactly is the effect of civilian casualties, and does it matter how they occurred? FM 3-24 presumes that civilian "collateral damage" causes the people inevitably to turn against the perpetrators of the same. As logical as this may seem, is it the whole story?

Experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrates that the issue is much more complicated. Specifically, it is undisputed that insurgents have caused vastly more civilian deaths than have COIN forces -- air or ground - yet support for the insurgency remains robust in many areas. Put another way, COIN forces rarely enjoy any "propaganda victory" with host-nation populations when the enemy kills innocent people. Thus, the impact of civilian casualties is an issue clearly more complex than simplistic assumptions that underlay the airpower-hostile policies FM 3-24 recommends (and ISAF appears to have adopted).

In an upcoming article in Small Wars Journal I examine the myths about airpower that seem to underpin FM 3-24's approach. It aims to debunk some of the misconceptions about airpower that seem to persist, even among the militaries of advanced nations.

Consider, for instance, this astonishing statement from a ISAF spokesman: "I am assured by uniformed colleagues in NATO that there is a marginal difference to the potential for civilian casualties between using a 500lb bomb and a 2,000lb bomb."

If military people really believe that there is only a "marginal" difference between a 500 lbs. bomb and a 2,000 lbs. bomb, then the depth of misinformation is truly disturbing. Accordingly, my article will examine the technologies and processes that operate today to limit collateral damage from air-delivered munitions.

Moreover, the broader topic of civilian casualties is also discussed. Specifically, has collateral damage from airstrikes caused more enemy "propaganda victories" than have, for example, the results of land force actions at such places as Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Hammadyia, and Mahmudiyah? Is there a difference between the impact of unintended civilian causalities from airstrikes and intended injury to civilians by rogue military members on the ground?

Most importantly, what is the relatively likelihood of civilian casualties in future COIN operations vis-í -vis air and ground power? Bear in mind that the preeminent doctrine, FM 3-24, calls for putting huge numbers of COIN forces on the ground to engage in close contact with a civilian population the bulk of which is hostile to them -- and do so in a era of a globalized, near-instant 24/7 news environment.

Insurgencies are enormously stressful and frustrating for forces combating them. The use of improvised explosive devices, booby-traps, snipers, and more by an adversary who hides among civilians creates a vicious and explosive environment to the point where recent studies show that less than "half of Soldiers and Marines believed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect." Given such attitudes, preventing future incidents will be extremely difficult despite all efforts..

Could it be that the nature of today's COIN operations is such that a new paradox is emerging, that is, the more COIN troops you employ on the ground, the greater the possibility of injury to civilians? Could it also be that airpower, not groundpower, is actually less likely to produce the kind of enemy "propaganda victory" FM 3-24 is concerned about?

That and more will be discussed in "Collateral Damage and Counterinsurgency Doctrine" upcoming in Small Wars Journal. Watch for it!

Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr. is Deputy Judge Advocate General, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C.


Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr is right to focuse on "Collateral Damage".

As "COIN aficionado" let me quote that one of the best and positive EBO that anybody can account using Air Power against terrorism -linked with complex and hi-level Intel and political management- was the "armed Predator" attack against Yemen's Al Qaeda leadership in 2002, November

By the way, the main Malayan Emergency's EBO (1948-1961), today, are:

1. Malaisian comparative "fortress" regarding Al Qaeda' workshop and desestabilitation efforts into Indonesia, and

2. "Pro Western" attitudes from Singapur City-State, Chinesse's leadership.

No matter for "bodycounts" policies, I think.