Civilians hold both sides accountable for civilian casualties

Summary by Jacob N. Shapiro

When insurgents kill civilians in the course of attacking governments they oppose, do they pay a price? When government forces unintentionally cause civilian casualties, does that turn the population towards insurgents? These are not idle concerns. U.S. commanders struggled for many years with how much risk to accept to their forces in exchange for protecting civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. Debates about the use of drone strikes for counter-terrorism often turn on untested claims about how non-combatants will respond when these strikes harm non-combatants. Moreover, insurgent groups around the world debate how violent they should be towards non-combatants, with leaders in even the most blood-thirsty groups occasionally advocating for restraint from their operatives, as evidenced by recent disputes between Al-Qa’ida leaders and ISIS.

Using detailed evidence from Iraq collected by Coalition forces and the remarkable Iraq Body Count group we found that both sides were punished for the collateral damage they inflict. Coalition killings of civilians predicted higher levels of insurgent violence in subsequent weeks and insurgent killings predicted less violence in subsequent periods. This symmetric reaction was tempered by preexisting political preferences; the anti-insurgent reaction was not present in Sunni areas, where the insurgency was most popular, and the anti-Coalition reaction was not present in ethnically mixed areas.

The implications for policy are clear. First, efforts to minimize the civilian costs of conflict can be valuable. Second, making public the costs that insurgent and terrorist groups impose on the populations they claim to represent can help reduce their support. In fact, in subsequent work we find that simply telling people their country suffers more violence than its neighbors can drive down support for violent organizations. This suggests a large role for public diplomacy in managing non-state security threats.

About the Authors: Luke N. Condra is Assistant Professor of International Affairs, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh. His coauthor, Jacob N. Shapiro is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs and Co-Director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project, Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. Their article, “Who Takes the Blame? The Strategic Effects of Collateral Damage” appeared in the April 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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