There's a conundrum in anti-terror operations. Military necessity dictates stopping, killing and capturing terrorists. However, the priorities of ordinary citizens are, more often than not, simply survival; and, after survival, the security of their property and possessions. This has led to many situations where military counter-terror operations have been opposed by local civilians, on the grounds that they are suffering more from them than the terrorists. (Iraq and Afghanistan have provided many examples.)
The most recent such situation occurred in Marawi, in the Philippines, earlier this year.
More than six months after Filipino and foreign fighters claiming allegiance to the Islamic State stormed this lakeside city, setting off a monthslong war with U.S.-backed Philippine troops, liberated Marawi lies in ruins and its people seethe.
The heart of the city has been bombed and burned beyond recognition, its domed mosques pierced by mortar fire. Homes stand roofless, blackened. There are armored vehicles on the streets.
Some 200,000 residents are still scattered across the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, living with weary relatives or in displacement camps thick with mud and worry.
Those who have been allowed to return found their homes sacked and looted - safes open, jewelry snatched, appliances gone.
Many are angry at the men who seized their city in a failed bid to establish a caliphate, taking hostages and targeting civilians. They are angry, too, at the forces that fought those men, namely the Philippine army and its backer, the United States.
. . .
In late May, Philippine troops stormed a compound in Marawi, expecting to make some arrests. Instead, they set off fighting that lasted more than 150 days.
After a prolonged gun battle, the Philippine army slowly pushed the militants toward the city's center, where they dug in. "It was heavy urban fighting," said Col. Romeo Brawner, a U.S.-trained soldier who is now the deputy commander of a Marawi task force.
. . .
More than six months after the fighting started and more than two months after Duterte declared Marawi liberated, it still looks and feels like a war zone, with the destruction centered in the city's heart, along the shore of Lake Lanao, and radiating outward.
The center is a no-go zone controlled by soldiers. Militants had turned the houses that are still standing into snipers' nests, where furniture has been trashed and pro-Islamic State graffiti is still on the walls.
It may be years before the main battleground is habitable. At the periphery, where people have been allowed to move back and schools are reopening, families are returning to wrecked and emptied homes.
. . .
The bombing is a source of tremendous anger here. "Why didn't they warn us, 'Hey, be prepared because we are going to deploy an airstrike?' " asked Drieza Lininding, a displaced resident who runs the Moro Consensus Group, a nonprofit that seeks to counter radicalization.
The strikes sent people fleeing without money, documents, weapons and other valuables - much of which has since been taken from damaged homes. The military denies assertions that it was behind systematic looting, but civilians, including Lininding, are not sold.
"Who are we going to blame for that looting? Nobody could do this without using a truck," he said.
There's more at the link, along with photographs. It's well worth clicking over there to read the article in full.
I remember seeing many similar situations in Africa, in South Africa, Rhodesia, Mozambique, Angola, the Congo, Rwanda and other countries. In every case, government and/or military priorities dictated an offensive against terrorists. In every case, the locals suffered because of it. Many died. Many lost loved ones, even entire families. Many lost everything they owned. None of them could understand how their government could completely ignore their needs and priorities, in order to concentrate on the military mission of killing terrorists.
I don't have an answer to that conundrum. All I know is, having seen at first hand how innocent people suffer through military and/or terrorist action on both sides, my preference is to work against terrorists in less indiscriminate ways. Military action may, indeed, be unavoidable; but could not military forces do more to evacuate civilians from danger zones, or refrain from using weapons that target an area, regardless of who may be in it? As for fighting in a major urban environment, that's virtually guaranteed to cause mass civilian casualties, simply because they're stuck there. Avenues in and out are likely to be blocked by fighting, or damage resulting from fighting. Who's going to pay any attention to their needs? With the notable exception of US and First World armies, most soldiers will not. Their priority is to stay alive themselves, and to hell with anything and anyone who stands in the way of that. As General George S. Patton famously said, "The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his." Most combat veterans of my acquaintance (including myself, when I was still wearing a uniform) would wholeheartedly agree.
I truly feel for the citizens of Marawi. They've been largely abandoned by their government. What does their future hold? Only what they can rebuild for themselves. It's a cold, hard, brutal world out there.