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In Islamic State fight, radically changed Pentagon view of civilian casualties

A US military pilot this week complained that it has become too difficult for him to get authorization to shoot at anything from his A-10 gunship.

As the Islamic State continues its march across Iraq and Syria, so, too, has come the blame game. It runs along the lines that the US military should be doing more to help its Iraqi and Syrian allies in the region fight the Islamic State.

Specifically, the US has reportedly declined to bomb certain targets for fear of civilian casualties. This includes a refusal to  attack the Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, where the terrorist group appears to keep civilian prisoners on the premises.

A US military pilot this week complained to The New York Times that it has become too difficult for him to get authorization to shoot at anything from his A-10 gunship. “We have not taken the fight to these guys,” he said. “I cannot get authority to engage.”

The hesitation on the part of the US, military experts say, stems from the disastrous consequences of civilian casualties during the Iraq War, which fueled anti-American feeling and led to support for what has become the Islamic State.  This also may contribute to a reluctance to commit US combat troops, as some have urged, since that might lead to situations in which the military would have to drop even more bombs in order to protect soldiers in harm’s way.

This attention to civilian casualties also dovetails nicely with another key US strategy, which is to hang back enough to convince Iraq that America won't win the war on its behalf – Iraq must show that it is willing to at least try to do that for itself.

In the process, has the US grown too cautious in its fight against the Islamic State, ​as some analysts charge, or is it simply being justifiably prudent? 

“I think the current situation in part is an acknowledgement of the consequences of Bush’s Iraq War, and how that has affected the military’s thinking since then,” says John Tirman, executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies in Boston. 

During the early years of the Iraq War, there was little recognition – at least publicly – that US actions were producing a reaction among Iraqis that was doing great harm to US strategy.

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As the anti-American insurgency began to coalesce, surveys of Iraqi prison populations showed that these insurgents believed they were fighting to defend their communities, which they said were under assault, notes Dr. Tirman. 

“All of this pointed to a quandary for the military, whose war-fighting doctrine has historically been very aggressive.” 

It was in 2006 that then-Gen. David Petraeus oversaw the rewriting of the Army Field Manual, in what amounted to a remarkable acknowledgement that US actions were producing indiscriminate killing. 

“The phrasing was a pretty strong acknowledgement that we hadn’t been mindful of how US military operations were creating a reaction” among Iraqis, as well as fueling a virulent insurgency.

Particularly in the Anbar Province of western Iraq, where there is a complex network of Sunni tribal groups and dense kinship and social networks, one family member death could lead to a series of reprisals from a series of sources. 

There was "no one" to negotiate with, and no leaders to target, says Tirman. He notes that while Shiites tend to have a religious hierarchy, the Sunnis are far more decentralized.

This was frustrating for US soldiers on the ground. “Their reaction was, ‘Who are these guys – who are we fighting?’ ” 

They responded in their confusion with considerable firepower. “Then things like Haditha happened, where they are supposed to be looking for the bad guys and all hell breaks loose,” Tirman adds. “The upshot is that this was a disaster for the US – so the current leadership has learned from that.”

US Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians, including women and children, in Haditha in 2005.

Just how much they have learned is evident in the Pentagon’s announcement last week that its investigation into the deaths of two Syrian civilians determined that they were likely killed by a US airstrike last year.

Though it is the first time the US has acknowledged civilian casualties since the air campaign began, the announcement itself was remarkable, says Paul Scharre, who worked at the Pentagon from 2008 to 2013 on weapons system policy.

“The fact that we’re counting in such small units – that we’re talking about two civilians – is indicative of how careful we’ve been,” he says. 

As the US military carries out roughly 15 air strikes per day, there is never a conscious choice to kill civilians, either for reasons of psychological warfare or an inability to avoid it, says Mr. Scharre, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“It’s not as if we’re making a conscious choice now that we need to kill civilians in order to save our own people. We’re not saying, ‘Well, we know this will kill however many people, but it’s worth it,” he adds.

“What we’re trying to do is institute greater and greater protections in order to ensure zero civilians are killed.”

Still, some defense analysts, as well as lawmakers, are increasingly arguing that the US military may need US military boots on the ground. This might include Air Force Joint Air Tactical Controllers, who proponents say make air strikes more accurate, since they speak directly to the pilots to tell them precisely where to put the bombs.

Indeed, US troops on the ground “could help allow closer coordination,” Scharre says. 

The problem, however, is that in that case there will be more US troops in harm’s way and, as a result, “more situations where you want to drop bombs in order to protect those US forces on the ground,” he adds.

Today, the US military is able to “hold back, because we don’t have US troops in contact” – military parlance for troops who are in the middle of a firefight – "so we don’t have to drop bombs to protect them, which would greatly increase the risk of civilian casualties."

It is a point that the Army’s top officer, Gen. Raymond Odierno, made on Thursday, when asked whether the US military should send more ground troops into Iraq.

Embedded advisers “would probably make us more effective” but “it could also be an accelerant,” he warned. “An accelerant to sectarian issues, an accelerant to ISIL,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

He added that he is “adamantly” opposed to sending in any US ground combat troops.

The reason he gave is perhaps one big reason why the US military is not being more aggressive: The Iraqis, he said, first need to demonstrate that they have the will to fight for their own country.

“Until the Iraqis and others in the area want to defeat this threat,” he said, “it won’t be defeated.”  

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