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Killing Civilians Pisses People Off: Why Accuracy Matters in COIN

I’ll repeat this post’s title:

Killing civilians pisses people off.

And I don’t mean it pisses off Americans. For the most part, Americans never realized how many civilians died during the invasion of Iraq, or died in Iraq since, or die in Afghanistan now. For some of those deaths, the U.S. deserves the blame. (It’s true.) And for the rest, insurgents, terrorists, criminals and others deserve the blame. (That’s true too.)

No, I mean that killing civilians (or innocents) pisses off the people (or “population” in military jargon) during counter-insurgencies. In “Join the Taliban...The Americans Will Kill You Anyways”, I described how rationally, the counter-insurgent should avoid killing innocent people. Kill enough of the wrong people, and everyone will join the insurgency. Why not? The Americans will probably come kill you soon enough. In that post, I deliberately argued why killing the wrong people will rationally persuade the unallied middle to join the insurgency. But what about all those pesky emotions and irrational motivations that I have harped on for the last few months?

Emotionally, killing the wrong people will convince a population to join an insurgency too.

I think the apt word in this case is “pisses off”. When a population gets “pissed”, it will react. Killing innocent people tends to do this.

Look at the American response to 9/11. Outrage. Hatred. Fear. To be clear, Americans justifiably felt outraged, the natural reaction humans feel when attacked.

The American armed forces should understand their emotions match the emotions of other people too. Kill/capture units need to understand how their actions could cause Afghans to hate Americans. Blowing up a house with one terrorist in it, but also ten children, will engender hatred. As one Pakistani student shouted at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we experience a 9/11 everyday. That is the emotional response of mainstream Pakistanis. Dispute that Pakistani’s rhetoric all you want, that is how he feels, and how he feels will motivate his actions.

There is also the corollary, what if you kill the right person, and the people believe him to be innocent? The insurgents will benefit. True, but that is why eventually a government must create a strong, and just, legal system.

While those who hate ROE say it hamstrings out troops, it actually does the opposite. As General McChrystal stressed in his counter-insurgency guidance, "the shot you don't fire is more important than the one you do...If you encounter 10 Taliban members and kill two, he says, you don't have eight remaining enemies. You have more like 20: the friends and relatives of the two you killed...If civilians die in a firefight, it does not matter who shot them, we still failed to protect them from harm.”

We do need to kill the right people in an insurgency. But the emphasis in the U.S. military is on the wrong word, “kill”. We need to focus on the “right”. And we need to elevate the role of emotions, of both the enemy and the population. Our military cannot aford to take the wrong lessons away from the last ten years of war. Emotions matter, and we shouldn’t piss off the people of an invaded country.

two comments

This article addresses very good points, particularly the ignorance at home concerning the vast costs in civilian life to our military adventures since 2001 and the centrality of feelings in counter-insurgency. I am left wondering, does this argument about not pissing off the population apply to the Taliban? For a less conservative Afghan, doesn’t it make just as much sense to say, “I better help the Americans, since the Taliban is going to kill me sooner or later, anyway?” We talk about kill/capture engendering hatred, why not not a suicide bomb?


Good article, but it doesn’t go far enough. The logical conclusion question, if you follow it all the way through, is “just how much currency does military force have in a political situation where [to borrow GEN McChrystal’s anecdote] killing two enemies creates 20 more?”

That’s not to argue that insurgencies are not to be combated with lethal force, nor must one necessarily accept Yale’s favorite off-the-record leadership professor’s framing of the situation. If you do, however, I’d love for someone to explain how the use of lethal military force is then useful.

Matt