People and Politics: adding complexity to the urban fight (Part VI of a series)

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This is the sixth article of a series on the Twelve Urban Challenges. You can access the series here


In previous articles, we have seen and attempted to explain the puzzling attitudes towards urban warfare, and examined complications imposed by physical structures. What makes an already difficult and complicated fight truly complex is the presence of people and related political factors. It is this presence that generates the five remaining ‘complex’ challenges: equivocal rules of engagement, global media display, non-combatant welfare, civilian hindrance and resistance and finally, concentration, overload and interference.

This article will look at the first of these ‘complex’ challenges, the question of the rules of engagement that seek to reduce the harm to civilians during urban combat. This has become one of the vexed issues of urban warfare simply because changing attitudes towards civilian harm have changed the political significance of urban war. While global urbanisation has made such conflict more likely, it is attitudes that have made it matter

In ancient and mediaeval siege warfare, city populations were pawns to be starved, made an example or enslaved as a prize.  In the 17th century the laws of war still permitted the slaughter of a besieged population that did not surrender, thus obliging the attacker to make a costly assault. By the 18th century, factors including the influence of elite social norms during the Enlightenment, the increasing costs of fortifying and besieging places and the advent of mass armies saw this change.

Inter-state battles were fought for, but decreasingly in, cities – though domestic rebellion was swiftly crushed with cannon. In the 20th century British Army Imperial policing transitioned from ‘exemplary force’ to ‘minimum force’ to deal with riots – but that benign-sounding term might yet mean sufficient discriminate killing with rifle fire to disperse the crowd – and swift judicial executions of rebels. When ideological total war returned combat to the city in the late 1930’s the population became participants, targets – or fled.  Urban warfare was prosecuted with maximum force and usually little regard for civilians.

Attitudes towards the military treatment of civilian populations shifted after World War II.  This was partly because of developing International Humanitarian Law after 1949 and partly because communications technology, especially television, now portrayed civilian suffering immediately and emotively to a wide audience.  However, the key change was political – shifting norms for the use of force in Western societies and armies. 

This occurred as they confronted the decades-long ‘waves’ of anticolonial insurgencies and leftist rebellions for which revolutionaries had both a sympathetic international audience and material and ideological support from the communist powers.  The military became major actors in political contests of legitimacy between State and insurgents, with the preferences of civilian population becoming the key military objective.

There was more ‘blowback’ from repressive public order measures that had been effective in prior centuries. Instances of troops opening fire on civilians preceded and accelerated almost every insurgency in the decades after 1947.  Coercive military force increasingly proved unable to suppress support for rebels.  Where it succeeded tactically, as in the Battle for Algiers, the domestic or international outrage led to strategic political failure.

The political potency of film or television portrayals of either State brutality or State impotence drove the emergence of modern terrorism – characterised either as ‘Political Theatre’ (Jenkins 1974) or ‘jujitsu intended to provoke the State to overreact’ (Fromkin 1975).  Armies confronting urban terrorism such as the British in Northern Ireland learned to use less aggressive tactics against hostile communities and shifted to support of the police – with offensive lethal action becoming the province of special forces.

In the wake of Vietnam, the US military expunged its memories of counterinsurgency and the civilian suffering associated with political defeat, to focus on developing the conventional capability to defeat the Soviets in Europe – away from its cities as a matter of policy. In the West it was implicit that civilian casualties were unacceptable.

The implied imperative of avoiding civilian casualties did not prompt new military solutions, rather the problem was wished away or ignored until at least the 1990’s. If they considered the issue, leaders proposed that urban combat could be simply avoided, or that the now professionalised Western forces would be able to apply the kind of surgical techniques proven by special forces against small groups of terrorist hostage takers.

In contrast, adversaries observed that to avoid the overwhelming military superiority they could move into cities where there is both physical and political cover from the technological might of the West.  Similarly, they recognised that this would present governments with unpalatable political alternatives: allow the adversary to defy the State or follow them into an environment where they have asymmetric advantages. Perhaps one of the greatest advantages for a weak adversary in urban terrain is the constraints that the presence of non-combatants imposes on the attacker – which are articulated as rules of engagement.

Challenge eight – Equivocal Rules of Engagement describes how because IHL protections for non-combatants and certain structures can be interpreted subjectively, constraints balancing risks to own troops and civilians are politically and normatively determined.  Different political constituencies may have very different and changing perceptions of what force is required or acceptable. 

Determining the appropriate use of force in an urban area to avoid harm to non-combatants and minimise destruction yet achieve mission success within time and cost limits is a vexed moral, legal and perceptual challenge. International Humanitarian Law (IHL) prohibits deliberately targeting non-combatants and wanton or indiscriminate attacks in war.

However, since the first Hague conventions, signatory States have balked at absolute constraints of conventional firepower amongst populations in war. Even nominally absolute bans on particular methods, such as irritant gas, may not apply when fighting non-state actors domestically.

In practice, IHL constraints are subjective: an attack must be ‘necessary’, ‘precautions’ must be taken to minimise harm, there must be ‘direct military advantage’ and benefit must be proportional to (ie outweigh) incidental harm to non-combatants. The difficulties of ejecting an urban defender or being highly discriminate against unseen, well protected enemies waiting in ambush may render a reliance on firepower logically ‘necessary’ and ‘proportional’. Consequently, even extreme levels of destruction do not inherently breach IHL, so the key constraints are political: perceptual and normative.

Perceptions of excessive force causing civilian casualties can prompt domestic or international outrage with strategic implications. Examples include how the British Army killing 13 unarmed protesters in 1972 on ‘Bloody Sunday’ stimulated PIRA recruitment or the counterproductive civilian casualties and destruction during the abortive US first assault on Fallujah in 2004 that crystallised the Iraqi insurgency as popular resistance to the invaders across much of the Islamic world.

For this pragmatic reason, as well as IHL and moral considerations, nearly all operations on urban terrain are launched with restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE) involving an implicit acceptance of elevated risk to own troops.

In cases where attackers suffer significant casualties, the ROE may be adjusted by commanders, as for example, the IDF acknowledges occurred during the 2002 IDF operation in Jenin, especially after an ambush on April 9 killed 13 reservists.  In any event, a phenomenon of a spontaneous self-protective ‘aggressive shift’ by soldiers to increasingly use whatever firepower is available is foreseeable and does not necessarily breach proportionality.

The confused and obscured nature of urban operations means that it is inherently difficult to identify any but the most egregious breaches of ROE and IHL. Complicating this, such combat is usually part of a politico-strategic battle of narratives where one party seeks to portray restraint and necessity while the adversary highlights civilian harm.

The decision of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to give equal emphasis to kinetic and information operations during the Battle of Marawi showed an acute awareness that tactical victory might still lead to strategic defeat if it revived Muslim insurgencies on Mindanao.

Throughout history military brutality against civilians, for example French excesses in Iberia in 1907, has provided raw material for increasingly important propaganda, which shifting norms and digital technology have made more potent.  This creates an obvious incentive for actors to contest, conceal or misrepresent events on the ground: for example the contested characterisation of Israeli 2002 operations in Jenin as a massacre.  

Furthermore, pursuing truth may itself be difficult because of moral myopia, military group loyalty or normative assumptions by military and political leaders that soldiers adhere to values. Yet failing to pursue truth can have profound political consequences – as arguably was the case with the Bloody Sunday incident mentioned above, where the British establishment’s denial and concealment of wrongdoing compounded and protracted outrage and conflict.   

The decision first to conduct urban operations with their high likelihood of civilian harm and second, the determining of ROE within the scope of IHL, represent profoundly and necessarily political choices. Often ROE will constrain attackers and impose more risk on them in order to avoid civilian casualties – but not always.

The opposite can also apply – with political leaders demanding that troops conduct urban operations against military advice, as was the case in Fallujah in April 2004.  The ethical dilemma of balancing risk to own troops against risks to civilians is acute and complicated by compliance potentially being opaque.

Doctrine rarely recognises this, nor is there suitable research readily available to indicate the military and civilian casualty implications of different levels of constraint, which leaves military leaders poorly equipped to give guidance to politicians on what rules should apply. A fundamental consideration is that contemporary urban operations are carried out under the eye of global media – one of the remaining ‘complex’ challenges that we will discuss in the next article.


About the author: About the author: Dr Charles Knight researches capability for operations amongst populations and structures at UNSW and CSU.  An example of his field-based research is this Marawi report for ASPI. He has a practitioner and unconventional warfare background having served in the UK military and other armed forces. He also wrote the Australian urban doctrine and as a reservist is the SO1 Urban Operations at the Australian Army Research Centre. Views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @ChasAHKnight