Asymmetric wars: comparative study (2)

Comparing the ratio between civilian and combatant casualties in different wars can never provide a balanced and fair conclusion. Every conflict and every war has its special characteristics and a comparative study will always suffer from structural deficiencies and can raise questions regarding intellectual integrity. However, since the issue has become so central in academic studies of warfare, international law and war ethics the comparison provides some insight. Moreover, media coverage of Israel’s military campaigns against terrorist organizations such Hamas and Hezbollah, makes it essential to compare existing international standards in asymmetric warfare. After introducing the challenges of international lawfare against Israel in the first article we will review here some of the comparative data in recent conflicts. The next article will analyze the significance and implications of the statistics.

As stated in the previous article civilian casualties have become, particularly in the twenty first century, a litmus test for legal and moral behavior in the battlefield. Media commentators are playing with the numbers regardless of the special circumstances and nature of asymmetric wars. For the purposes of this analysis asymmetric wars are not just confrontations between regular state-armies and militia forces of non-state actors but also wars between parties representing asymmetry in culture, religion and political-social beliefs. The gap between open and democratic societies to closed dictatorships with fundamentalist agenda and ideology is very much significant in this analysis.

The Vietnam War (the American war in Vietnam 1955-1975)
The estimated number of Vietnamese civilians killed in the war is two million while the number of casualties of combatants is around one million, which makes it a ratio of 67% civilians. If one adds the civilians killed in the enlarged conflict with its spill-over in Cambodia and Laos we can reach a total of 75% civilians of the total number of casualties. There are different estimates by different parties and writers; some may add casualties caused by relocation, famine, or the use of herbicidal warfare by the U.S. military. The American herbicidal campaign covered huge parts of South Vietnam which were sprayed by gas (Agent Orange), causing, according to Vietnamese estimates, additional half million dead and another half million children born with birth defects. Also, the Americans confirmed officially the execution of several organized massacres during the war.

The War in Chechnya
In the first war (1994-5) civilians casualties were more than 90% of the total (44,000) and in the second (1999) more than 80% civilians casualties. The Russian army, under the democratically elected leadership of the Russian Federation, was widely blamed for its disregard of the humanitarian codes of conduct. To explain the heavy ratio of civilian casualties the Russians pointed out that the religious leaders in Chechnya have waged a Jihad and Islamic war against them.

NATO intervention in Yugoslavia
There are contradicting estimates of the 10 weeks air attacks in 1999 in Kosovo but there is a wide agreement on 50% and even 80% of civilian casualties. Since the American led intervention did not receive the approval of the United Nations Security Council it was termed by an international commission as “illegal but legitimate”.
Iraq War: the overall estimate of the civilian casualties in the war launched by the United States’ led coalition in 2003 (up to 2013) is 174,000 casualties 77% of which were civilians. It is hard to review the different estimates and to determine how many civilians died directly from US and its ally’s attacks. Human rights groups (such as the British based “The Iraq Body Count Project”) blame the American forces and their allies for all civilian deaths by direct firing or under the responsibility of the occupying power.

US drone strikes in Pakistan
According to estimates by the independent think tank in Washington, the Brookings Institution, the American drone strikes may kill “10 or so civilians” for every militant killed, namely more than 90% civilian casualties. Other estimates are between 50% to 90% civilians (out of total casualties between 2600-4700). Other reports by human rights organizations highly contradicted the Obama administration assertions regarding low civilian casualties. They claim that the drone strikes in Pakistan and in Yemen made significant civilian casualties using “targeting practices that violated the laws of war”.

War in Afghanistan (since 2001)
The estimates in 2014 are of 22,000 civilians dead in Afghanistan and a similar or even a double number in Pakistan (up to 50,000 by some NGO’s). Together it is about 70%-80% of total casualties. According to human rights groups the US and NATO are responsible for the death of thousands of civilians directly and carry responsibility for the conflict as the occupying power and for providing economic assistance and military aid to the pro-government forces. Some tend to analyze single war campaigns of US air strikes and bombs, including cluster bombs, which show very high rates of civilian casualties. A report published by Amnesty international today, blames the US for failing to properly investigate civilian killings, including possible war crimes, which occurred during its military operations in Afghanistan.

Israeli operations in Lebanon and Gaza
According to IDF estimates the rate of civilian casualties was 30% in the second Lebanon war (2006), 40% in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-9), and 32% in Operation Pillar of Defense (2012). In the current Operation Protective Edge figures provided by IDF stand in the range of 45% civilian casualties.

In the next article we will refer and discuss other estimates by critics of Israel.
The major urge for this comparative study came from what was termed already by the media as the “numbers game” used and abused to attack Israel for “disproportionate” firing in Gaza and causing high ratio of civilian casualties. It seems now that, from a comparative point of view, Israel can present a better record than other armies fighting asymmetric war. Our next and concluding article will show why under the geo-political circumstances and given the nature of the enemy and the threats involved, the IDF can justifiably claim its high position as the army which makes efforts, more than any other army in the world, to protect the enemy’s civilians.

About the Author
Dr. Avi Beker teaches diplomacy and international law at Tel Aviv University and Ono Academic Center. He was the Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress and a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University.