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Public Opinion on Civilian Casualties in the War on Terror

Running Numbers by Kyle Lynaugh

Data suggest that Americans accept some foreign civilian casualties as a necessary cost to counterterrorism, but Republicans and Democrats differ on willingness to use lethal force.

In early February, President Joe Biden announced that US Special Forces had conducted an operation that killed the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, also known as Hajji Abdullah. Humanitarian organizations on the ground in Idlib Province, Syria reported that at least 13 people were killed, including women and children. The civilian casualties made headlines in a time when the United States is facing heightened scrutiny surrounding its counterterrorism operations following a US drone strike in August 2021 that killed ten civilians. Despite Americans having an aversion to civilian casualties, data suggests they are willing to accept some as a necessary cost to achieve their counterterrorism goals.

Air and Drone Strikes Preferred Over Ground Troops

Americans tend to favor airstrikes against terror-linked targets, rather than risking US service members’ lives in ground operations. For example, according to the 2015 Chicago Council Survey, 77 percent of Americans favored the use of airstrikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities, while only 60 percent favored using US ground troops against those targets. However, Americans are still concerned with the civilian casualties that are more likely to result from increased airstrikes. In a Washington Post poll conducted in conjunction with YouGov in 2019, 64 percent of Americans agreed that “The US should NOT use airstrikes if it meant killing innocent civilians.” Although, a notable portion of the population (36%) disagreed with that statement. Furthermore, a subsection of voters that identified as supporting Donald Trump in the 2016 primary election held opposite views, with nearly three-quarters disagreeing with that same statement (74%). This disparity between the general US population and early Trump voters alludes to a larger partisan disagreement amongst the American populace concerning counterterrorism and the tools to combat it.

Partisan Divide on Counterterrorism Operations

While all Americans have an aversion to civilian casualties the willingness to use lethal force differs between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans tend to favor more military interventions while Democrats are more wary of the use of force. The type of military intervention does not affect this overall trend. The 2021 Chicago Council Survey finds that 40 percent of Republicans say the United States is not using military tools like drone strikes and military interventions enough, nearly double the 20 percent of Democrats who say the same. Democrats are much more likely to say that the United States uses military tools like drone strikes too much (39%), while very few Republicans feel this way (14%). This discrepancy relates to civilian casualties as air and drone strikes are more likely to kill civilian bystanders. The above Washington Post Poll that finds a partisan subjection of the population may me more willing to accept some civilian casualties could be a potential reason as to why political party seems to affect the preferred amount of air and drone strikes. 

Americans are also divided on the use of manned military operations in Syria, such as the raid that resulted in the death of Hajji Abdullah. Two-thirds of Republicans (65%) favor the use of troops in Syria to combat violent Islamic extremist groups, while only one-third (33%) oppose it. Democrats are more divided on the issue with 50 percent favoring the use of troops in this scenario and 47 percent opposed.

Support for Airstrikes Correlated with Nationality of Civilian Casualties

The American public’s support for military interventions in counterterrorism operations and their aversion to civilian casualties is not constant. Nationality of the civilians that are killed does affect the American support for military intervention. In a 2015 experiment by Scott D. Sagan and Benjamin A. Valentino, Americans were presented with a scenario where the US military had located a meeting attended by 20 Taliban leaders taking place in the same building as 40 civilians that had no knowledge of the Taliban meeting. When asked to choose between conducting an airstrike that would kill both the civilians and the Taliban or conducting no strike and letting the Taliban leaders escape, 66 percent of Americans approved of the strike when the civilians where Afghan. This was significantly higher than when the civilians were identified as Indian (50%) or American (36%). When asked if this strike was ethical, 51 percent said yes when the Afghans were the casualties, followed by 38 percent when the casualties were either American or Indian.

The disconnect between the approval of the airstrike and the views of its ethics demonstrates that Americans are willing to take unethical actions during wartime. While Americans recognize the ethical implications of killing civilians, they are willing to accept some civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations. This effect is particularly strong when the civilians are members of the war zone’s local population, rather than American citizens or perceived ally nations.

Overall, Americans are concerned with civilian casualties but seem to be unwilling to give up low-risk operations to American troops such as drone and airstrikes that tend to result in increased civilian casualties. Looking to counterterrorism operations in general Americans would prefer to minimize civilian casualties but would still approve of operations that resulted in some foreign civilian deaths. Americans seem to understand this cost of the War on Terror and accept some amount of foreign civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations.

About the Author
Kyle Lynaugh
Former Intern
Photo of Kyle Lynaugh outdoors in a blue suit
Kyle Lynaugh joined the Council in January of 2022 as a spring intern with the Public Opinion team. He's a graduate student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, studying public policy while focusing on global conflict and policy analysis.
Photo of Kyle Lynaugh outdoors in a blue suit