Political correctness is thwarting the fight against terrorism.
That’s the conclusion of a report released this week by the High-Level Military Group, a collection of retired military and civilian officials studying modern warfare.
And the group’s latest product is not the first to detail how lawfare – the abuse of international law and concerns for civilian casualties as a military tactic – has set back attempts to fight terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
The group released a report last year about the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which concluded that an escalation of restrictions on democratic countries would make it harder for them to win wars against enemies who disregarded international norms.
“There are people that will assume that any bombing, any attack, by any force where there is a civilian killed is an illegal act,” said Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former U.S. war crimes prosecutor in Rwanda and an author of the latest study.
“In my view, there is an effort to criminalize conflict, criminalize self-defense. And that’s a problem. Because if we keep going down that road, they win.”
The problem has become an issue in the presidential campaign, with GOP candidates Sen. [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore] and Donald Trump saying they would “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa, Syria — drawing a sharp rebuke Monday from Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the U.S.-led coalition effort against the group.
“Indiscriminate bombing, where we don’t care if we’re killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values,” MacFarland told reporters. “And it’s what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria. Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay.”
A key finding of the report is that democratic countries, including the United States and its allies in the fight against Islamist extremist groups such as al Qaeda and the Taliban, have paid a price on the battlefield because political and military leaders are more fearful of being accused of war crimes.
Its authors said this is most evident in the current fight against the Islamic State, where the desire to avoid civilian casualties at all has led to 75 percent of all air sorties returning to base without dropping any bombs.
“The war against the Islamic State is being severely hampered by the hesitancy that’s being caused by the desire not to inflict civilian casualties,” said retired Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan.
Added retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who led U.S. air campaigns against Iraq in the Gulf War and also in Afghanistan: “We have a zero civilian casualty standard before we go attack targets against the Islamic State. Come on.”
Such fears are fueled by a wave of prosecutions and legal claims against U.S. and allied soldiers that have followed them home from the battlefield.
British Army chief Gen. Sir Nick Carter told the Daily Telegraph in an interview Friday that an unprecedented number of legal claims against British troops from Iraq and Afghanistan could undermine Britain’s ability to fight in future wars because soldiers would be afraid of making “honest mistakes.”
“There is the potential for less scrupulous individuals to try and find ways of fabricating potential cases against soldiers, and that is very sad,” Carter told the Telegraph. “It is something that would, over time, undermine our ability to take the sorts of risks that are necessary to be able to prevail on the battlefield.”
The study’s authors called on governments to do more to promote understanding of accepted international norms for armed conflict, and to push back against efforts to restrict their military forces’ behavior beyond those limits. But they also made clear that democracies benefit from making sure existing rules are upheld.
“I don’t know any commander who thinks we should abandon the laws of armed conflict,” Kemp said.