In the aftermath of Islamic terrorist (e.g., jihadists) attacks in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump created a political and media firestorm by provocatively suggesting the U.S. is fighting a “politically correct” war, and since jihadists “don’t care about their lives… so you have to take out their families.”
Predictably, critics like Jeb Bush, Sen. Rand Paul and others immediately pounced on his comment as not a serious response or, if implemented, tantamount to engaging in international war crimes. Once again, Trump succeeded in putting a topic on the debate table that needs to be discussed, even though it might be better if he said “hit jihadis when family members are present” as opposed to specifically targeting family members.
To be fair, Trump’s critics should acknowledge that President Obama has already admitted that U.S. drones (the President’s covert program which targets terrorists from afar) have killed civilians, but the U.S. insists that terrorists themselves are to blame for using family or other civilians as human shields. Also, the United Nations and groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others disagree, stating that current U.S. policy may constitute international war crimes.
Why would Trump bring up this issue? A recent CNN/ORC Poll offers an answer: 75 percent of those polled say they are unhappy with President Obama’s progress in the war on terror. And it’s clear to many of them that something else needs to be done to deter jihadists.
What should be done? A good start would be for U.S. leaders to acknowledge that jihadists use international law and political correctness as a tactical weapon against the West, and their success is being enhanced by the support of witless enablers in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Terror groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda and others know their adversaries fight based on the idea that the rule of law is what separates the civilized world from the barbarians. They have shrewdly and callously exploited civilized rules of warfare to their advantage.
Jihadists’ weapons of choice are improvised explosive devices, suicide bombing attacks, videotaped beheadings and caged executions by fire and drowning. They seek to inflict as much mutilation, death, destruction and terror on civilian and military targets as possible.
In the regions of the world that bore them, many jihadists are treated as heroes and, shockingly – in many quarters of the civilized world, including the United Nations and some media – they are considered freedom fighters, insurgents, or militants. This even though, among other things, they disguise themselves as civilians; use willing family members and civilians as human shields; and store weapons in hospitals, schools, and mosques; and kill, maim and torture with impunity.
When attacked, jihadists respond by claiming the retaliatory violence is misdirected against civilian populations and religious, educational and humanitarian institutions.
If killed, fellow jihadists claim innocent civilians have been killed.
If captured, the terrorists claim they have been denied legal rights as prisoners of war under Geneva Conventions and Protocols.
If questioned by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, they claim they have been tortured and abused.
The flagrant barbarism of the region would, a reasonable person might think, lead to a quick and general consensus on the need for military action and swift and appropriate justice for the terrorists. But they haven’t. Since his capture in 2003, 9-11 mass-murderer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed still hasn’t stood trial because of a string of legal machinations.
The Geneva Conventions and Protocols of 1949 and 1977, behind which the terrorists which to hide, are the civilized world’s most recent attempt to control wartime behavior. These rules established, among other things, laws governing the conduct of soldiers and the treatment of prisoners and civilians during conflict.
At the heart of the conventions and protocols are clear distinctions between warring parties (combatants) and civilians (non-combatants). Their chief benefits are to make it easier for combatants to avoid targeting non-combatants and for lawful combatants (soldiers) from being prosecuted for acts of war.
To qualify as a lawful combatant under Article IV of the Geneva Convention a soldier must:
(1) be commanded for a person responsible for subordinates;
(2) have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance (a uniform);
(3) carry arms openly; and,
(4) conduct operations in accordance with laws and customs of war.
Conversely, an unlawful combatant is a fighter who does not conduct operations according to these rules – and arguably not entitled to Geneva Convention protections. This is the type combatant the world and humanity currently faces.
It is beyond time for White House decision-makers and policy-makers and congressional law-makers and others – instead of reflexively criticizing someone like Trump – to recognize that this is a battle against stateless, lawless, and uncivilized Islamic jihadists who have no regard for the civilized world’s laws of war but are effectively using those laws against it. Action should be taken to debate, re-examine, and change those laws, international or otherwise, that impede successful prosecution of this war against Islamic jihadists that threaten Western civilization. The international order and humanity depend on it.
Fred Gedrich is a foreign policy and national security analyst. He served in the U.S. departments of State and Defense.