Civilian Casualties in War: Redefining “Everything Possible”

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Civilian Casualties in War: Redefining “Everything Possible”

The U.S. consistently claims to be doing all it can to minimize civilian casualties. It can do better.

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

“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.

Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, President Karzai made one of his first public statements regarding civilian casualties in 2005, asking ISAF to take measures to reduce such casualties. Subsequent initiatives to reduce ISAF-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan, such as the “Karzai 12” rules for approving operations in 2005 and the first Commander, ISAF (COMISAF) Tactical Directive in 2007, were not successful in reducing high profile incidents. Additional efforts, including redrafting the COMISAF Tactical Directive in 2008, were made in response to several high profile civilian casualty incidents; however, a May 2009 high-casualty incident in Bala Baluk demonstrated ISAF’s continuing challenges.

The Bala Baluk incident served as an impetus for major efforts to reduce civilian casualties by both ISAF and the U.S. Since mid-2009, ISAF leadership clearly and consistently emphasized the importance of reducing civilian casualties, and ISAF modified its policies and procedures to that end. Similarly, concerted efforts on the part of the U.S.—spearheaded by the U.S. military’s Joint Staff—aided efforts to improve U.S. pre-deployment training to better prepare U.S. forces to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan, as well as how to best respond when casualties occur (including apology and amends). This renewed focus addressed deficiencies in pre-deployment training regarding the use of nonlethal weapons, amongst many other efforts. Collectively, these dedicated efforts bore fruit: because of improved guidance and training, ISAF forces adapted the way they conducted operations in light of civilian casualty concerns, and ISAF-caused civilian casualties decreased over time. Importantly, these efforts were a win-win, with no apparent cost to mission effectiveness or increase in friendly force casualties.

Civilian Casualties: An Enduring Issue

While the progress in reducing civilian casualties in Afghanistan is good news, to date the changes put into place have remained largely focused on supporting operations there. Sharing lessons between countries and operations—and institutionalizing those lessons—are less apparent. For example, existing lessons from Iraq regarding EOF did not appear to migrate to Afghanistan, and lessons from Afghanistan regarding air-to-ground operations did not reach NATO participants in Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR (OUP) in Libya.  Further, an incident where a U.S. Navy ship engaged a small boat in the Persian Gulf and incidents regarding U.S. operations in Yemen and Pakistan (as reported in the international media) also show that the issue of civilian casualties is not limited to Afghanistan. 

In particular, drones have been described by American policymakers as a surgical counterterrorism tool, current CIA Director and then-Counterterrorism Czar John Brennan’s statement that "it is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft." However, a recent study points to drone strikes being far less "surgical" – and more likely to cause civilian casualties – than commonly portrayed by senior American leaders. Such casualties can undermine both freedom of action and longer-term national security objectives in the pursuit of short-term gains. U.S. claims of zero civilian casualties in these operations, which resemble similar claims early in the Afghanistan campaign that were belied by locals and media on the ground, can also tarnish its reputation and credibility – the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan to be “first with the truth” and “fast and not wrong” in communications would be well applied here. Overall, the U.S. has an opportunity to better protect civilians during these strikes and improve communications regarding civilian harm, thereby promoting both its short- and longer-term interests.

Overall, it is commendable that the U.S. has consistently met the requirements of international humanitarian law during combat operations against adversaries that have eschewed such obligations. At the same time, the U.S. should ensure that its words are reflected in its actions; we must work to apply key lessons of the past decade to truly do “everything possible” to avoid civilian casualties in the future.