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Americans Don’t Target Civilians, Islamist Militants Do
Smoke billows in a neighbourhood called 17 Tammuz following a car bomb explosion, west of Mosul, on May 18, 2017 (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Americans Don’t Target Civilians, Islamist Militants Do

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

ISIS is trying to increase and exploit civilian suffering and death while the United States tries to avoid and protect civilians. This isn’t new. It’s the way it’s been with every militant Islamist group the United States has fought since September 11, 2001. But if the United States and coalition forces are going to finally destroy ISIS, it is crucial that this point is understood. More civilians will die until the war against ISIS is completed, and regardless of whose weapon it was that caused the death, the moral responsibility of the tragedy rests with ISIS.

Reuters described one way ISIS baits U.S.-led coalition forces to attack civilians. In Mosul, where there are hundreds of thousands of civilians, ISIS will force a group of civilians into a home and trap them. Then, ISIS fires from the home to entice coalition forces to destroy the home, but only after the ISIS fighters have slipped out of the building. One specific such incident did not work as ISIS had planned because U.S. forces watched the entire scheme from a drone. But there will not always be a drone overhead and other incidents, especially when civilians and combatants are nearly indistinguishable, will be more confusing.

It is inevitable: there will be times when, while targeting Islamist militants, coalition forces will inadvertently kill civilians, especially in places like Mosul where urban combat is occurring among women and children.

But in order for ISIS’s inhumane tactics to work, that is, to turn the American people and their allies against the war, the American people and allies have to fall for the ISIS lie that the blood of civilians is on the hands of coalition forces– that there are more innocents dying at the hands of Americans than ISIS.

The top U.S. Commander in Iraq knows this possibly better than anyone. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, lectured reporters during a press conference on the heels of an attack in March that resulted in the deaths of roughly 100 civilians. After a string of questions by reporters asking about the role the United States played in the attack, General Townsend responded :

[It’s] a little disappointing to me that all the questions were about our airstrikes, and our process, and our decisions… If these innocents were killed by the coalition, it was an unintentional accident of war, and ISIS is slaughtering Iraqis and Syrians on a daily basis. ISIS is cutting off heads. ISIS is shooting people, throwing people from buildings, burning them alive in cages and they are making the video record to prove it. This has gotta stop. This evil has gotta be stamped out. And in my mind any responsibility for any civilian deaths, the moral responsibility for civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria belongs to ISIS…I’ll close with that.

U.S. coalition forces are only involved in Iraq and Syria because of Islamists’ aggressive mission against Americans and her allies. If ISIS and various Islamist iterations were not on a barbaric mission to slaughter Christians, Jews, and other religious — often Muslim — minorities in the Middle East, Europe, and beyond, U.S. coalition forces wouldn’t be forced to act defensively.

Having the moral clarity about who is the aggressor and who is the defender is necessary to fighting the war effectively and to see it to a conclusion.

Being confused about who is the aggressor and why the United States is fighting leads to a long, protracted war in which there is no decisive end, let alone an end in which the United States is victor.

At this stage in the war, under a new commander-in-chief who has a strong commitment to destroy ISIS, this message must be communicated repeatedly and directly to the American people from the highest level.

President Trump has already authorized enormously crucial changes about how and by whom military decisions are made. He is showing clear signs that he understands this war must end and the most effective way to do it is to more ferociously pursue the enemy.

It would be wise if he addressed the nation to rally the American people and remind them about who the enemy is, and how they pose a direct threat to the American people. And he should explain, just as General Townsend did to reporters, that American forces stand is stark contrast to the enemy. Americans seek to protect innocents, and any tragic death of an innocent person killed in the war to defeat ISIS is the moral responsibility of ISIS.

The president and his generals can’t be the only people to understand this; to win the war, the president must continually persuade the American people of this too, and to help steel the entire nation to have the same determination to win that General Townsend has. Because we can’t win against this ruthless enemy without it.

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