Winning: The Taliban Taught ISIL How To Survive

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June 2, 2015: One of the unpublicized victories over Islamic terrorists in the last year was the very low number of civilians killed during the American led air campaign against Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria. This bombing campaign began in August 2014 and despite over 7,000 targets hit (with smart bombs or missiles) since then there were only a few incidents of civilians being killed. Pilots and troops on the ground complain about this because it means a lot of opportunities to kill Islamic terrorists are lost because of the risk, no matter how small, of causing civilian casualties. While the Islamic terrorists were hoping for civilian casualties, to use for mobilizing international media criticism of the air attacks in general, they could only muster about 50 seemingly real accusations of civilians being killed. Only ten percent of those survived close examination and the number of civilians killed was miniscule compared to the number of Islamic terrorist deaths and historically extremely low.

For ISIL even the threat of civilian losses to air strikes had proved a valuable asset in Syria and Iraq. In this respect ISIL is benefitting from pioneering work done by the Afghan Taliban to make it more difficult for Western air forces to use their smart bombs and superior sensors to find and cripple Islamic terrorists on the ground. American, Iraqi and other Arab leaders are complaining that the restrictive American ROE (Rules Of Engagement) are and how these rules severely limits the number of targets that can be hit. As a result ISIL can move around more freely despite the constant presence of coalition aircraft overhead.

All this began in Afghanistan where the Taliban learned how to exploit the ROE and increase the demands for fewer civilian casualties, even if it meant the troops were put in more danger. Sometimes this approach actually put civilians in more danger. For example, as the ROE got more restrictive American troops increasingly encountered angry Afghan civilians who demanded that the Americans act more decisively in pursuing and killing Taliban gunman, even if it put Afghan civilians at risk. The civilians could do the math and knew if Taliban were not killed they would go on to kill more civilians.

All this was an unexpected side effect of a 2009 change in the U.S. ROE in Afghanistan. This was in response to popular (or at least media) anger at civilians killed by American smart bombs. As a result of the new ROE, it became much more difficult to get permission to drop a smart bomb when there might be civilians nearby. After 2009 American commanders had to decide who they should respond to, Afghan civilians asking for relief from Taliban oppression or Taliban influenced media condemning the U.S. for any Afghan civilians killed, or thought to be killed, by American firepower. What to do?

Taliban propaganda, and the enthusiasm of the media for jumping on real, or imagined, civilian deaths caused by foreign troops, made people forget that far more civilians (about four times as many) had been killed by the Taliban. But because Afghans have been conditioned to expect more civilized behavior from the foreign troops, much less media attention was paid to the civilians killed by the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Of course Afghan civilians are aware of who is killing most of the civilians, and that's why the Taliban and al Qaeda get low numbers in local opinion polls. But the media, hammering foreign troops every time they kill a civilian or are simply (often falsely) accused of doing so, led to the ROE becoming far more strict than it ever was in Iraq. Thus, one Taliban victory you don't hear much about is how they turned their use of human shields into a powerful, and very successful, propaganda weapon against NATO and U.S. troops and an excellent way to avoid getting attacked. ISIL is now benefitting from this, even though ISIL kills more civilians than the Taliban.

Under the 2009 ROE you had to, in effect, do a casualty analysis and consult a lawyer before a deliberate missile or smart bomb attack is made on the Taliban. To their credit, the U.S. Air Force targeting specialists (who do most of this) could carry out the analysis quickly (often within minutes). Even the lawyers became quick at the decision making game. The bad news was that attacks were often called off just because there was some small risk of harming civilians or because the delay enabled the enemy to get away.

The Taliban were aware of the ROE and took advantage of it. Thus the Taliban and ISIL try to live among civilians as much as possible. But the Taliban and ISIL do have to move around, and the ability of NATO and U.S. ground forces, aircraft, and UAVs to keep eyes on a Islamic terrorist leader for weeks at a time has led to the deaths of many smug guys who thought they had beat the system.

Meanwhile since the 1990s the U.S. Air Force managed to reduce civilian casualties, from deliberate air attack, to near zero. Most of the Afghan civilian casualties occur when airpower is called in to help NATO and U.S. troops under attack. In these conditions the ROE was much more flexible but even in these situations Taliban use of civilians as human shields could sometimes be allowed to get friendly troops killed. The tactics used by foreign troops changed to adapt to this and there were some tense situations where Afghan troops were getting hammered, calling for a smart bomb, and told that they can't have it because of the risk of civilian casualties. Another risk was Taliban or ISIL dragging some women and kids along with them when they move, simply to exploit the ROE and avoid getting hit with a smart bomb.

The post-2009restrictions on the use of air power, and the greater Islamic terrorist use of civilians as human shields enabled the Taliban and ISIL to avoid a lot of situations where they would otherwise get killed. When they are out in the open, the Taliban still got toasted regularly by foreign troops (with or without the use of smart bombs). In Syria and Iraq the ROE is very unpopular with the civilians living under ISIL control. ISIL is much hated and at times the American ROE is hated even more because it allows ISIL to move about and commit more atrocities against civilians.

 

 


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