Collective Punishment: Iraq to Afghanistan - 04.27.2009

House demolitions in Adhamiya have been one of many tactics employed by the United States military in its attempts to quell violence and insurgents in the troubled neighborhood. The tactic of house demolition has been a familiar one to the United States, used as early as 2003 to destroy the homes of suspected insurgents. This tactic was taken from the experience of Israeli Defense Forces’ behavior in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

It’s easy to believe the American forces were acting on what they believed to be noble intentions. In 2003 Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told the USA Today, “If I saw that house go away, I’d feel more secure,” in reference to the destroying the home of a “terrorist across the street“.

Unfortunately Brigadier General Kimmitt was not considering the impact of home destruction in dense urban areas such as Raghiba Khatoon in Adhamiya.

While much has been made of the improved security environment in Iraq and the decision by President Obama to withdraw combat troops, it is important to look back at the lessons learned, and those seemingly unlearned, from the US military campaign in Iraq, particularly as the US escalates its war against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, or “AfPak” as its commonly referred to in the Western press, the US continues its practice of collective punishment against the population. It does so seemingly unaware of the damages suffered during counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. In fact, it appears that the US military may actually be getting worse at it, rather than improving. A study recently released by academics at King’s College and Royal Holloway, University of London reveals that in Iraq, 39 per cent of deaths from US air strikes were children, while 46 per cent were women. Even if its assumed that all of the men killed were legitimate military targets, that still only leaves a bombing success rate of just 15 percent.

In Pakistan, the statistics are much worse. Figures released by the Pakistani government show that of 701 people killed in US air strikes, only 14 could be verified as legitimate al-Qa’eda operatives. That’s a staggeringly low success rate of just 2 percent.

It could be argued that in such active conflict zones as Iraq and “AfPak,” civilian casualties are inevitable. However, the evidence in the King’s College study of Iraq shows that the likelihood of innocent deaths increases dramatically when US air power is introduced. Wired Magazine writes, “On average, around four people were killed in each violent event. Researchers found, however, that civilian casualties tended to be higher when they involved coalition airstrikes or combined air and ground attacks: The average number killed in an airstrike was 17, similar to the average number of civilians killed by suicide bombers on foot (around 16 deaths per event).”

Obviously the US in no way intends to cause these civilian casualties, but no matter the motives, it still amounts to collectively punishing the entire population, as opposed to those directly responsible for a specific crime. It should also be noted that the nuance between “intentional” and “unintentional” collective punishment is understandably lost on those whose friends and loved ones are killed in the attacks.

As the US moves from Iraq to its war in AfPak, can it really afford to continue with collective punishment, rather than focusing on infrastructure and governance? In this classic episode of Alive in Baghdad, we witness the aftermath of one such instance of collective punishment. The reactions to similar violence by civilians in Pakistan is, unfortunately, not difficult to imagine.

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