Anatolian / Reuters A U.S. soldier walks past an overturned car in the Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk, August 23, 2003.

The Military Cost of Civilian War Casualties

Why Minimizing Harm During Conflict Is Also Good Strategy

Although the ethical and legal issues surrounding civilian casualties committed by combatants during war have been widely debated, the consequences for military operations in harming civilians, even when inadvertent, are much less well understood. As the United States considers deploying more troops to Afghanistan and continues to use drones against suspected militants in countries such as Pakistan, this issue is all the more pertinent. 

In a forthcoming study of the Iraq war in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, we sought to inform the discussion on this topic by focusing specifically on the operational consequences of harming civilians. We examined how locals reacted to accidental civilian deaths caused by both multinational forces and Iraqi insurgents and found that both parties suffered very real consequences when they harmed civilians. We used newly declassified U.S. Defense Department data on the weekly number of tips that Iraqis supplied to British, Iraqi, and U.S. government forces between June 1, 2007, through June 27, 2008, one of the most intense periods of the war. Tips provided throughout the war covered a variety of sensitive war-related matters, including the locations of terrorists and the whereabouts of weapons caches. Combining this data with U.S. military and civilian casualties during combat from the British nongovernmental organization Iraq Body Count, we found that when insurgents killed civilians, locals shared information with U.S. allied forces more often. When multinational forces were responsible, civilians shared less.

Although both sides of the conflict paid a price for harming civilians, the cost to U.S. forces and their allies was greater. Specifically, we estimate that for every two civilian deaths caused by multinational forces, Iraqis provided roughly two fewer tips the following week. When insurgents were responsible for the same number of deaths, civilians supplied approximately one additional tip over the same period of time. Our results suggest that there are very real consequences for the success of counterinsurgency efforts, since changes in information flow affect the ability of government forces and their allies to Past analysis of the conflict in Iraq is consistent with this theory: increases in civilian casualties caused by U.S. coalition forces were followed by increases in insurgent attacks against them, while increases in insurgent harm to civilians were followed by fewer incidents against U.S. forces.

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