ISIS and the Ethics of Delegation in Fighting Terrorism

| September 2014
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A key part of the strategy outlined by the United States in combating terrorism in the Middle East is for the U.S. to rely upon local forces who will handle the ground campaign against extremist organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with America acting as the air force, intelligence service and quartermaster of the anti-terrorist coalition. This has been driven, in part, by domestic political polling data that suggests while many Americans want a firm and decisive response to terrorist acts, they do not want U.S. service members exposed to much risk or for U.S. ground forces to return to the Middle East.

Of course, politicians always have the benefit of some sleight-of-hand; forces who are defined as advisers or trainers (rather than designated as ground combat troops), even though they might be engaged in direct combat, and, of course, the use of contractors to augment the U.S. presence (but who do not seem to rise in public opinion to the level of being American soldiers). Nevertheless, despite the presence of some Americans on Iraqi soil, the bulk of the fighters are expected to be comprised of Iraqis and Syrians, and perhaps the armed forces of other regional powers.

What are the ethical considerations of essentially using proxies to both kill and potentially be killed in a task that has been described as a vital national interest of the United States? This calls to mind the calculus that some things are worth dying for, some things are seen as necessary to kill for, but others rise only to the level of being paid–of expending some degree of treasure but nothing more. While individual U.S. lives are at risk, the current approach looks for ways to maximize the threat to ISIS while minimizing the risks to Americans.

To what extent, however, will this strategy work, if it appears that groups like ISIS are seen as a threat, but not one which rises to the level of being willing to risk U.S. blood? The real risk that this strategy runs is the assessment that local fighters are prepared to engage in combat–and that the U.S. is augmenting their capabilities for a fight they were going to enter no matter what–and therefore there is no real ethical issue at stake since the anti-ISIS Syrians, the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi Shi’a militias, among others, were already committed to risk their lives to battle groups that they view as existential threats.

But simply because these groups, in turn, may benefit from U.S. support and air power, does not mean that they are prepared to accept Washington’s dictates as to how to carry out the fight. They are not controlled assets but independent actors, whose view as to how to carry out the fight and what the shape of a post-conflict order may look like may not accord with American views and preferences. If their strategic interests and those of the United States diverge, the U.S. may have to consider risking its own forces to achieve its preferred ends–or be prepared to accept less-than-satisfying results–and this includes ethical and humanitarian issues–that U.S. backed forces on the ground may not operate in accordance with preferred American standards of ethical combat and respect for human rights. Stephanie Collins, in an earlier post, in speaking about coalitions of the willing, notes:

“Negotiations occur and reasons are given. No party changes their preferences, but consensus is needed. So each partner begrudgingly compromises.”

How the anti-ISIS coalition unfolds over the next several months will surely demonstrate the veracity of these observations.

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  1. Alex Yates says:

    I enjoyed reading about this article and potential action soon needs to be taken against this threat.