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February 06, 2017

The Strategic Benefits of Minimizing Civilian Harm in Counterterrorism Strikes

In the fight against terrorism, minimizing and addressing civilian harm resulting from U.S. strikes is one of our most powerful weapons for successfully defeating terrorist organizations.

In responses to his pre-confirmation hearing questions, Secretary of Defense General James Mattis stated that the United States does “everything humanly possible to prevent civilian deaths in war.” These efforts are vital for both humanitarian and strategic reasons. Civilian harm from U.S. strikes can fuel the very terrorism these strikes are meant to address, impede counterterrorism assistance from our allies and partiers, tarnish the reputation of the United States as a leader on human rights, and set a dangerous precedent for other nations to follow.

As General Stanley McChrystal (Ret.) said, “We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories—but suffering strategic defeats—by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.” General McChrystal has noted that “[t]he resentment created [by lethal strikes] is much greater than the average American appreciates.”

This issue brief explains how protecting civilians from harm and providing appropriate redress when harm is caused by U.S. strikes is vital to protecting U.S. national security.

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