RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes grappling with a difficult question - when engaged in a war, is the killing of civilians ever justified? It's a question as old as war itself. And it's come to the fore again in the fight against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Earlier this month, more than a hundred civilians were killed in the battle to retake that city. The commander of the U.S. Central Command went to Capitol Hill yesterday to announce a formal investigation into what role the U.S. may have played. General Joseph Votel warned that ISIS is preying upon American sensitivities to civilian casualties.
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JOSEPH VOTEL: While we consider and establish accountability over our actions in this incident, I think it is also important to clearly recognize that the enemy does use human shields, has little regard for human life and does attempt to use civilian casualty allegations as a tool to hinder our operations. And so they bear responsibility for this as well.
MARTIN: Joining me in the studio to talk about the intersection of national security and human rights, we are joined by Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, and also retired Major General Charlie Dunlap. He now teaches law and ethics at Duke University. Thanks to both of you for being with us this morning.
SARAH MARGON: Happy to be here.
CHARLES DUNLAP: Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: So let's start in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Four hundred thousand people are essentially being held hostage by ISIS at this moment. General Dunlap, you've written an article saying that more civilian casualties are expected in this battle and that this is something we just have to accept as uncomfortable as it may seem. What is it about the nature of this fight that makes that so?
DUNLAP: Well, in the case of Mosul, the enemy has had two and a half years to prepare for this assault. And they burrowed into the urban area, and urban combat is always very, very dangerous for civilians because, particularly in this case, since they're able to use them as human shields. And they actually have obviously thought through how they will use them as human shields so that they can generate incidents such as this. At the same time, every civilian casualty is a tragedy. And the military has to work very hard to try to minimize those, not just because it creates this sort of problem for them, but it's - in very human terms, it's easy for people to think that people in the military are just concerned about winning. They are, but they're very sensitive to the idea that other human beings are paying a terrible price.
MARTIN: Sarah, do you agree that this is just something that, because these wars are - these battles are happening in these urban atmospheres, we just have to accept that civilians are going to die?
MARGON: It's a good question. Look, we know in west Mosul where the fight has shifted now, it's a really densely packed neighborhood. ISIS is on the back foot, making them more likely to go after civilians and use them as human shields. But we also know the coalition has removed layers of protection that are designed to minimize civilian casualties.
MARTIN: So explain what that means. We're talking about the rules that dictate when or when you can't issue a strike.
MARGON: This is actually - you know, they cut out the strike zone, as it's called in Baghdad, which was there as a critical check on targeting decisions, and that way the troops and commanders on the ground have less eyes on what's actually doing and less information to make a targeting decision. That's really important, particularly in an environment where you have civilians densely packed, you want as much information as you can about the pattern of life, who may be where, those kind of details.
MARTIN: So, General Dunlap, is that your understanding, that the rules of engagement have changed in this way?
DUNLAP: That's not my understanding. I go with General Votel's testimony yesterday where he essentially said that the rules are unchanged. But I do think Sarah has a very good point. You always want more information. But the fact of the matter is in the dynamic particularly of chaotic urban combat you're not - you're never going to have all the information you want and particularly in a circumstance where the enemy is dynamically changing his tactics so as to put civilians in jeopardy in a way that will benefit him, not only in the tactical sense of protecting himself from attack but also in the strategic sense of giving him the opportunity to create incidents like this that he hopes will undermine the coalition unity and the coalition fortitude.
MARTIN: And I think what - just to clarify what General Votel told the committee - that he's trying to get the decision-making closer to the ground, so taking it out of a centralized location in Baghdad, giving commanders in the field, on the frontlines, the ability to call in strikes.
MARGON: And I want to be really clear. These aren't necessarily the rules of engagement. What the Pentagon has said still stand. These are procedural rules. But you can still keep important safeguards in place that ensure greater protection. We understand that civilian casualties happen. It's conflict. But that doesn't mean that you don't take every precaution necessary, every feasible precaution, to ensure they're minimal.
MARTIN: Go ahead, Charlie.
DUNLAP: Well, I agree with Sarah. The law, in fact, is that you take every feasible precaution to avoid civilian casualties. But what I would say is that you don't - if you - I'm not suggesting that anybody violate the law of armed conflict. And I don't think Sarah is suggesting that the law of armed conflict is being violated. What we're talking about here is policies that are overlaid above and beyond what the law actually requires. And there's good reasons for that.
And I do think that the coalition wants to minimize civilian casualties. But I think we also have to remember that the longer this operation takes place, each time you don't conduct a strike, you'll have what I think Representative Martha McSally from Arizona said yesterday - the opportunity for the enemy to live on to kill more civilians. And we know that ISIS has killed, I think, more than 30,000 civilians during their reign of terror.
MARTIN: And just a final word here. I'll put this to Sarah. This - also every time a civilian is killed, even incidentally, by an American aircraft or in a strike of some kind, it reinforces a narrative that ISIS is spinning out.
MARGON: Yes. That's right, and that's why the investigation is so important and particularly making sure it's as transparent as possible.
MARTIN: Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, and also from Duke University, retired Major General Charlie Dunlap - thanks to both of you.
MARGON: Thank you very much, happy to be here.
DUNLAP: Thank you very much.
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