Terrorist groups do not follow the laws of armed conflict but have been using them to their advantage in war with countries such as the United States, according to a report from the High Level Military Group.
Members of the group, which was formed last year and is composed of retired military officials and civilian experts, released the report on Tuesday during an event at the Washington, D.C., office of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“This report illustrates a new threat our forces are faced with—a political warfare strategy of our adversaries, terrorists, and insurgents, who fight with utter disregard for the laws of war or human rights,” explained, retired British Col. Richard Kemp, one of the report’s authors.
“They not only ignore the laws of war, but they exploit our armed forces’ adherence to the law,” said Kemp, who commanded Britain’s troops in Afghanistan. “They not only exploit events when our forces kill innocent civilians, but they do all that they can to compel our forces to kill innocent civilians. Then they use the media and human rights organizations to create political pressure against our governments.”
The fear that is instilled in our troops of breaking laws that are not being followed by their opponents on the battlefield will cause more casualties, he argued.
“The lives of our troops are in danger beyond what should normally be expected on the battlefield,” said Kemp. “The constraints that they are placed under both limits military effectiveness and cause more casualties.”
The group researched eight cases of government militaries in armed conflict with non-state insurgent groups since January 2000. Case studies were conducted on operations led by the United States, Britain, France, Colombia, and Israel.
In every case of conflict examined, it was determined that the government forces adhered to the Law of Armed Conflict—in most cases, the military force went above and beyond the level of care that is expected of them.
The IDF, for example, went to great lengths during 2014 operations in the Gaza Strip to minimize the sort of civilian damage that Hamas terrorists routinely had used in the past to turn public opinion against Israel.
Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who directed Air Force operations for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, expressed concerns that the level of restraint and precision exhibited by the IDF becomes the standard for all militaries.
“I do not believe the level of restraint exhibited in the Gaza conflict in 2014 should become a standard,” Deptula said. “Raising standards in one instance, even if done as a matter of national policy and not as a result of legal obligation, risks creating a precedent to which military forces will be expected to adhere to in the future.”
Deptula complained that incidental loss of civilian life makes front-page news and is wrongly treated as a violation of the law.
This attitude has pushed the United States-led coalition against ISIS to operate with a “zero civilian casualty tolerance policy” that is hampering the operations ability to be effective.
“What is the morality of a policy that restricts the use of air power to avoid the possibility of collateral damage, while allowing the certainty of the Islamic State’s crimes of humanity?” Deptula asked.
Kemp said that forcing our troops to be hesitant on the battlefield is putting their lives at increased risk.
“The war against the Islamic State is being severely hampered by the hesitancy caused by the overwhelming desire not to inflict civilian casualties,” said Kemp. “That hesitancy endangers our forces on the battlefield and endangers all of us here at home.”
Pierre-Richard Prosper, the former United States Ambassador for War Crimes Issues, said that the current military environment was created by a group of people in human rights groups that wanted to “criminalize war.”
“We saw—particularly in 2001 when we were in Afghanistan—a reaction from people who wanted to effectively criminalize war,” said Prosper. “These people will assume that any attack by any force where there is a civilian killed is an illegal act.”
Kemp said that the fact that this perspective being pushed by people with “totally unrealistic views on how to deal with violence, terrorism, and insurgency” needs to be countered by our leaders.
“The agenda on warfare in the 21st century has been seized by those that believe that human problems cannot and should not be confronted with military force,” said Kemp. “That these perspectives are not being effectively countered points to a crisis of leadership in the West, which if it continues will further undermine our democracies and the ability we have to protect them.”