Civilian Casualties in War: Redefining “Everything Possible”
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Civilian Casualties in War: Redefining “Everything Possible”


The United States advocates respect for human rights and the protection of civilians during combat operations. It has long been committed to upholding the law of war and minimizing combat-related collateral damage, which includes civilian casualties and unintended damage to civilian objects. At the same time, U.S. leaders have consistently left no room for improvement in their descriptions of U.S. efforts to reduce civilian harm during operations. Consider the following statements by leaders and representatives of the U.S. and its allies:

“We have taken every possible step to avoid civilian casualties.” Richard Boucher, Department of State spokesman, 2001

“The U.S. is doing everything possible to prevent the killing of Afghan civilians.” President Barack Obama, 2010

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“We've done everything possible in Afghanistan and other areas to reduce any risk to that civilian population.” Mr. John Brennan, National Security Advisor, 2012

“We do everything possible to mitigate against civilian casualties.” Spokesman for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) regarding Afghanistan, 2007

“NATO did everything possible to minimize risks to civilians.” Spokesman for NATO regarding Libya, 2012

While the U.S. has consistently met the requirements of international humanitarian law during combat operations over the past decade, this is not the same as the U.S. doing “everything possible” to avoid civilian casualties. In fact, U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that improvement in protecting civilians was possible – and was required – over the course of those lengthy campaigns. However, in these cases, improvement was slow; delays in measures taken resulted in unnecessary harm to peaceful civilians as well as harm to the overall campaigns through alienation of the local population, tarnishing of the U.S. reputation, and limited freedom of action. In other theaters, such as Libya and Pakistan, U.S. denial of civilian casualties in the face of credible media reports to the contrary created negative second-order effects that impacted U.S. national, strategic, and operational interests.

A brief history of the past decade of operations illustrates how U.S. forces found that improving civilian protection was indeed possible without sacrificing the mission; this history provides impetus for the U.S. military and government to sustain and pursue further improvements in current and future operations.

Major combat in Afghanistan and Iraq (2001-2003)

The U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to minimizing harm to the peaceful civilian population when it began major combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively. On October 7, 2001, U.S. forces began combat operations to capture Al Qaeda’s leadership and eliminate the use of Afghanistan as a launching point for terrorist activities.

Within days of the start of U.S. operations, international media began reporting incidents of civilian casualties. Many of these incidents occurred in villages where suspected enemy personnel were located, highlighting the challenge posed by an enemy that did not meet its obligations under the law of war (e.g., not wearing a uniform and hiding among the population). As a result, identifying the enemy was more problematic and U.S. engagements tended to rely on self-defense considerations, carrying the risk of mistaking peaceful civilian activity as nefarious.

In contrast, during major combat operations in Iraq, the ability to distinguish the enemy from the civilian population was simplified by the fact that the enemy was the Iraqi military. Iraqi forces were generally located away from civilian areas; their military equipment and uniforms reduced the ambiguity of engagement decisions relative to those faced by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. However, the Iraqi military purposely violated law of war rules designed to protect the peaceful civilian population by employing human shields, misusing the protected symbols of impartial humanitarian organizations (e.g., Red Crescent), and placing equipment in protected sites. In addition, Fedayeen Saddam forces did not wear uniforms and fought using irregular tactics, further contributing to U.S. challenges in identifying the enemy.

In both campaigns, the U.S. and its allies went to great lengths to minimize collateral damage to people and structures; for example, in Iraq, similar to Afghanistan, most air engagements used precision-guided munitions to minimize damage. While no Department of Defense assessment of civilian casualties during major combat operations in Iraq appears to have been made public, an independent assessment judged U.S. pre-planned attacks to be relatively effective in minimizing civilian casualties. The main concerns over civilian casualties centered on coalition forces conducting time-sensitive targeting of enemy leadership in urban areas. 

As insurgencies developed in Iraq and Afghanistan following the end of major combat operations, the U.S. was forced to adopt a counterinsurgency (COIN) approach for which it was largely unprepared. The reduction and mitigation of civilian casualties became a key issue in these population-centric operations.

Counterinsurgency in Iraq

In Iraq, U.S.-caused civilian casualties were primarily caused by escalation of force incidents at check points and during convoy operations. These incidents resulted in a significant outcry from nongovernmental organizations and the media; the shooting of a vehicle containing Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and her rescuers during an escalation of force incident further increased visibility of this issue. In mid-2005, U.S. forces in Iraq undertook heightened efforts, widely seen as successful, to reduce civilian casualties and mitigate them when they occurred.  Still, this issue was not completely resolved: later in the conflict, U.S. generals emphasized the strategic importance of reducing civilian casualties and cited the lack of available nonlethal capabilities and inadequate training in their use as key deficiencies.

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