Skip to content
civilian casualties, human rights, iraq, syria

Civilian Casualties Are a Policy Choice

Civilians dying in strategically dubious and unnecessary missions is not an accident.

Words: Geoff LaMear
Pictures: Jackson David

The recent publication of hundreds of Pentagon civilian casualty assessments has prompted questions about US collateral damage. But these civilian casualties occur because US foreign policy has placed an unwarranted emphasis on military force, and has done so in the pursuit of unattainable objectives. A better way to prevent civilian losses is to reorient the objectives of US foreign policy. That means ending missions that don’t make sense.

The majority of civilian casualties documented in these Pentagon reports occurred in Iraq and Syria. Given the undeniable human cost to civilians in these countries compared to the paltry benefits, the US troop presence doesn’t help locals. Moreover, with the ISIS threat largely abated and pro-Iran militias continuously lashing out in response to the US presence, this mission doesn’t benefit the United States.

Despite being recently relabeled as noncombat forces, the role of US forces in Iraq remains what it has been since 2019: An “advise and assist” mission to the Iraqi government to counter ISIS. This mission, however, remains behind the times. While US troops remain and continue to conduct strikes, ISIS has pivoted to Africa after being attrited to near extinction in Iraq.

Despite clear signs that conditions for victory have been met, and that the enemy has moved elsewhere, the US continues to muddle aimlessly in Iraq with no clear exit strategy. The recurring rocket attacks on US troops in the last days of 2021 serve as reminders that the consequences of staying will prove disastrous.

Americans don’t accept the killing of innocent people, but under the guise of national security Washington has obfuscated doing just that. This isn’t a case of hard moral tradeoffs. It’s a case of choosing the righteous and prudent path or the immoral and counterproductive one.

The two-year anniversary of the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3, 2021  rallied anti-American sentiment throughout Iraq. Without any timetable for withdrawal, Iraqi militias are likely to conduct bolder attacks to compel a withdrawal. Rather than waiting for this eventuality, the US should publicly commit to a plan to withdraw militarily. The possibility of withdrawal under Trump was enough to satiate the militias in 2020, while the continued US presence didn’t deter an assassination attempt on Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Withdrawal would give the Iraqi government much-needed legitimacy as Kadhimi tries to manage pro-Iran factions in Iraq’s government and military. More importantly, it removes the benefit of striking US troops.

Rocket and drone attacks routinely target US forces in Syria as well. Meanwhile, recurring confrontations with pro-Assad forces serve as a potential flashpoint that could lead to the deaths of servicemembers in the short run and embroil the US in a new war in the long run. Because the US mission in Syria is focused on cutting Iran’s supply lines, this has the added detriment of incensing Iran and making the ongoing nuclear negotiations more difficult.

The Syrian border is not a strategically useful position to counter ISIS or any other armed actor, but it does serve as a useful target if and when anyone wishes to attack US forces. Having 900 US servicemembers function as target practice for drone pilots does not promote US interests. It also denigrates the trust that these troops place in US leaders to use their lives responsibly. Keeping US forces in Iraq and Syria, therefore, is counterproductive to regional security and only increases the prospect of war. The deaths of civilians in these countries should not be treated as an afterthought, either. The moral imperative to leave becomes more poignant when there is no countervailing reason to stay. Civilians dying is always tragic — but civilians dying in an aimless conflict is a policy choice, not an accident.


US foreign policy has emphasized military power as the sole means to accomplish objectives. That civilians die in large numbers is a lamentable but predictable result of that. Only by reorienting US foreign policy as a whole will that change. It starts by pulling troops out in the places where their presence is both dangerous and unnecessary. This realignment doesn’t just mean negating the militarism of the last decades. It means fostering a diplomacy-first foreign policy, something which President Joe Biden advocated but hasn’t implemented in Iraq and Syria.

We can stop further civilian deaths if we stop asking our troops to persist in endless and strategically dubious missions. That’s not a military decision; it’s a civilian one. Americans don’t accept the killing of innocent people, but under the guise of national security, Washington has obfuscated doing just that. This isn’t a case of hard moral tradeoffs. It’s a case of choosing the righteous and prudent path or the immoral and counterproductive one.

Geoff LaMear is a Fellow at Defense Priorities.

Geoff LaMear

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.