National Security

Wars & Civilian Causalities

By Rana Athar Javed

The metaphor of modern wars reflects no charities for hundreds of thousands of civilians who died during wars that most powerful Western nations have carried out since 9/11. Yet, the human tolls, especially the deaths of non-combatant and rescuing civilians from war zones remains a hot topic of discussion among the Western political and security elites. This concept of explanation is useful only in terms of sweeping generalization of war-related consequences; in essence the discourse mostly fails to eliminate risks to civilian lives. “A recent, credible estimate puts the death toll in Syria at 60,000 in the last two years, and even that is likely an undercount”.

Noticeably, the America and its allies have been less generous to the besieged civilians and, all war-related risks are considered as the product of deficient security measures and rhetoric of “using” fellow human beings as “shields” by the militants and security apparatuses of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. Iraq Body Count project, an organization that tracked civilian deaths using press reports estimates civilian death toll between 110,937 to 121,227 (March 2003 to December 2012). In Afghanistan, contesting data is available in the media reports, and the civilian death toll varies between17400 to 19000. This figure cannot be verified by independent sources.

No matter how one regards al-Qaeda and Taliban’s rationality of killing civilians and men in uniform, the Western military planners must minimize the risks to the lives of civilians and non-combatants because regarding struggle against terrorism as a global-law enforcement operation demands laws of wars to be implemented as internationally as possible. This argument can be linked to the fact that comparatively a very less number of terrorists are being captured, killed and convicted. Also, the US soldiers who indiscriminately fired upon civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq did not receive harsher punishments.

Therefore, the Western perception of new enemies as well as conditions of war seems to be the defining factor, rather than producing a much concrete set of international laws that provides protection to civilian population in conflict zones.

There is now clear evidence that the Americans and NATO member states have missed the point as far as the human development and poverty reduction is concerned because the “new” doctrine of “over this war” – another war is a reality has deepened the shadow of death and destruction over civilian population, and hence widespread resentment, unemployment, poverty and hateful behvaiour towards the Western civilization.

The rules of war in Afghanistan are different than in Iraq, but option of restrained was overruled in both cases, and what, in short was a campaign against attackers of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden soon transformed into a nation-building project, and in the Iraq war, trained soldier turned diplomat (Gen. Collin Powel) was misled by CIA, which in turn sheds “spotlights on the politics of war-making, the intelligence failure, the desultory results of US actions, and the growing intensity of sectarian and ethnic strife”. From both perspectives, not identifying risks to civilian populations is a text-book failure on the part of modern militaries, and thus cannot be classified as unintended consequences.

The tales of inflicting endless sufferings on inhabitants of modern societies in the Middle East and South Asia are facts of imposed wars. The terrorists too have obtained extraordinary “license to kill”, and a complete disregard for the value of human life, a deplorable development, which is contributing to the vicious cycle of violence against civilian population.

By all accounts, the conflict is used to justify an inherent discrepancy in modern war strategy because these wars are permanently redefining the nature of treatment, which a civilian receives “outside” a war zone. As a result treatment of Muslim civilians at the hands of Western armies becomes an attack on global honour of Islamic world, and thereby proof that the occupation of their lands is aimed to dehumanize the young Muslim men and women, a point that is fundamentally argued in favour of democratic system. However, “it is also important to note that the West’s enemies put the West on trial too. In 1999 Yugoslavia attempted to indict NATO for war crimes and aggression in International Court of Justice (Rasmussen-2006).

Actually, more and more people in the West are criticizing the indiscriminate killings of civilians, especially in drone attacks in Pakistan. At the confirmation hearing of John O. Brennan, as President Obama’s nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during his second term (February 7), Sen. Dianne Feinsteinin remarked that it was important to “ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values” She expressed concern about civilian casualties from drone strikes — one of strongest criticisms of the program by opponents.

To be concluded, the Western government, especially the US must not forget that the legitimacy of war cannot be changed just because of disenchanted religious and political views of a minority. As we have seen in every war since 9/11 that military actions/invasions are no longer a way to settle political questions – it has raised more questions. Still some Western military strategists believe that arguing in favour of a superior moral authority thoroughly discredits “war minds”, the end of which can be “bureaucratization” of war. This assumption does not challenge the traditional wisdom, yet raises another basic question of conflict resolution by modern militaries.

The twenty-first century has thus entered into a phase of “hold and sustain” the occupied territories, and continue to counter violence so that the laws of war cannot be fully applied against fighting an inconclusive war. The final challenge for the US and NATO is not only to negotiate and stabilize the war zones, especially Afghanistan, but also to restore the high moral ground against the weak nations.