Yes, the White House lowballed its drone casualty numbers. But don’t let that obscure the value of its important policy changes, which will save civilian lives.
- By Rachel ReidRachel Reid is the Open Society Foundations’ advocacy manager for the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. She was based in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch from 2008 to 2011. Before her move into human rights work, she spent more than a decade with the BBC.
President Barack Obama finally released data on civilians killed in U.S. counterterror operations in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen — an important step toward ending the absurdity of undeclared drone wars.
The government’s estimates that 64 to 116 civilians have died in 473 drone strikes since 2009 fall short of independent counts by a wide margin. Without satisfactory justification, the administration has refused to disaggregate the data by countries, years, or incidents. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have begun to challenge the government’s numbers, but without the disclosure of further details, an exchange about methodologies can only go so far. Nonetheless, it’s a step in the right direction, and at least the commitment to release annual data binds the next administration to rudimentary transparency.
Alongside the data, however, comes a policy breakthrough: For the first time, the United States will have an interagency policy on protection of civilians. Compared with the civilian casualty numbers, this part of the executive order did not generate much chatter, but it will have a far-reaching impact. During a presidential race that has seen candidates argue for war crimes rather than the protection of civilians, it’s a bold move.
Obama has clearly absorbed a painful lesson from Afghanistan — that civilian harm is not just a legal and moral issue, but also a strategic one that can have a decisive impact on U.S. military engagements. In a report that former Pentagon advisor Chris Kolenda and I co-wrote in June, we documented the costs of civilian harm in Afghanistan. Put simply, civilian harm fueled the insurgency and undermined the legitimate government to the extent that Gen. Stanley McChrystal bluntly declared: “We’re going to lose this fucking war if we don’t stop killing civilians.”
Kolenda and I use the term “civilian harm” to encapsulate more than just civilian casualties, having witnessed in Afghanistan the enormous impact of egregious mistakes in U.S. targeting of civilians labeled Taliban by their rivals, wrongful detentions, and support for corrupt or predatory actors. This pattern of harm led many individuals and communities to choose the Taliban for protection, out of economic self-interest or to seek revenge.
It took years for the U.S. military to reckon with the full cost of civilian harm, but once the realization came, the United States and international forces in Afghanistan took decisive action. U.S. commanders adopted groundbreaking reforms between 2008 and 2013, including new operational directives that limited the use of airstrikes in residential areas, required call-outs before night raids, improved data collection and analysis, and emphasized scenario realism in training. The reforms significantly reduced civilian casualties and were critical in repairing Afghan and U.S. government relations, which had hit rock bottom. Despite complaints from a small minority within the military that the restrictions left troops exposed, there is no evidence that the reforms put American soldiers at greater risk. Yes, the reform period saw a rise in U.S. fatalities, but that’s because the Taliban increasingly resorted to asymmetric warfare, and improvised explosive devices in particular, in response to the troop surge. As Kolenda and I detailed in our report, the proportion of U.S. fatalities to direct-fire engagements — situations where troops would be most likely to use airstrikes and artillery in self-defense — did not increase.
The July 1 executive order on civilian casualty mitigation demonstrates that the lessons of Afghanistan have not been forgotten. The order enshrines a commitment to the appropriate use of force, to monitoring civilian casualties, to provide compensation to victims of civilian harm, and other appropriate consequence management policies. The assistant to the president for national security affairs is now required to conduct periodic interagency reviews of casualty trends and revise guidance as necessary. Despite continued concerns about undercounting, this at least raises the issue of civilian casualty mitigation to senior levels in government and provides an ongoing commitment to review and revise policy — revisions that are essential in the dynamic environments in which the United States executes counterterror operations.
The Pentagon now has the task of translating the executive order into workable day-to-day practices and integrating it with standing policies on civilian protection. A number of gaps remain to be addressed. While the order represents a major step forward, it focuses too narrowly on civilian fatalities, omitting injuries and the kinds of broader civilian harm that have proven so damaging in Afghanistan. Part of the reason why the United States failed for so long to realize the full consequences of war on civilians was an “enemy-centric” intelligence focus, which counted bodies — both insurgents and civilians — but did not take into account the extent to which military intervention could warp or destroy a local political economy, creating a vacuum in which an insurgency could multiply. In Afghanistan, U.S. military spending drove the war economy and helped empower abusive local actors who remain part of that vicious cycle.
The U.S. Army Techniques Publication 3-07.6 on protection of civilians rightly defines the term in a nuanced way, as “efforts that reduce civilian risks from physical violence, secure their rights to access essential services and resources, and contribute to a secure, stable, and just environment for civilians over the long-term.” The Departments of Defense and State should interpret the executive order through this lens. To do so, they will need to draw on a more complex data set than the one Obama released on Friday. Fuller data would provide a broad picture of military operations’ consequences for civilian life — including impacts on political, economic, social, and cultural dynamics — and insight into the risk of U.S. military forces and resources being manipulated by local elites or fueling a war economy. The intelligence community should provide such data to the Pentagon and State Department. It’s encouraging that the new order reflects the need for openness and credible, independent monitoring of civilian casualties by the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and civil society organizations like the Center for Civilians in Conflict — whose policy recommendations and data have been invaluable in Afghanistan and in many other contexts.
Although working with partner forces has become central to U.S. foreign and military policies, the executive order only requires training and assistance for foreign partners to help “share and learn best practices” for reducing and responding to civilian casualties. The United States pays enormous strategic penalties when partner forces fail to protect civilians. Just look at the spiraling conflict in Yemen, for which we have Saudi Arabia’s brutal tactics to thank. As Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, told Kolenda and I: “If you’re there ostensibly to support a government that’s meant to be legitimate, but lots of civilians are dying on the government’s behalf you start undermining the government’s effectiveness.”
To follow Obama’s order, the Defense Department — which has learned in Afghanistan how challenging it can be to embed protection of civilian principles in its work with partner forces — must provide something more concrete. The Afghan security forces caused 70 percent more civilian casualties in the first quarter of 2016 than it did the previous year, according to the U.N. This is partly due to a reliance on low-precision weapons such as mortars, rockets, and grenades, as well as challenges in capacity and resources, and poor leadership. The Afghan government relies on patchy self-reporting, has no analytical capacity, and dramatically undercounts the civilian casualties it causes. In interviews for our report, officials working with the Afghan Ministry of Defense said they counted around 200 civilian casualties by pro-government forces in 2015; the U.N. puts that number closer to 1,200.
Fixing this would require a multipronged approach: boosting the capacity of Afghan security forces to track and analyze the data, ensuring that local forces are not relying on low-precision weapons, helping leadership to develop adequate civilian casualty mitigation policies (a task already underway), and helping to promote the understanding that civilian harm isn’t simply a legal obligation but a strategic necessity. The Afghan security forces enjoy a great deal of popular support, at least among urban elites, but this has the potential to dissipate quickly. If civilians on the front lines feel equally threatened by government mortars and Taliban rockets, loyalty will be hard to win.
In meetings with Pentagon officials over the past year, our recommendations have met positive responses, although officials always ask about resource implications during a time of spending restraint. Our recommendations include calls for civilian protection cells at headquarters and operational levels, and for improved data collection and analysis to provide a more complete awareness of civilian harm and its impacts, which would call upon human resources over economic ones. Overall, civilian protection is a high-reward, low-cost endeavor that provides the United States with clear strategic gains.
Despite his best efforts, Obama has earned himself a reputation for being a war president. Friday’s executive order, however, sets the United States on a path toward becoming a global leader on civilian protection. It is now up to the Defense Department to bring the new policy to fruition.
Photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images