The war against ISIS shows there’s only one way to prevent civilian casualties: Avoid going to war in the first place.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
Pentagon officials proclaim repeatedly that the air campaign against the Islamic State is the “most precise in military history.” Since the war began in August 2014, there have been 15,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, with the United States responsible for 70 percent, which have killed 45,000 Islamic State fighters, according to a recent estimate from a U.S. commander. The Pentagon acknowledges just 55 civilian casualties, with several investigations ongoing — a ratio that is unbelievably low by recent historical standards, including when compared to counterterrorism drone strikes.
And yet on Sept. 17, the U.S. military’s vaunted precision failed. An attack that day apparently by U.S. and coalition aircraft in Syria had to be stopped when Russian officials alerted their U.S. counterparts that it was a Syrian military convoy, not an Islamic State target, which was being bombed. That convoy was not a legitimate military target under U.S. rules of engagement, making the attack on it a failure on par with inadvertently harming civilians. The U.S. military’s subsequent press release declared flatly “coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit.”
How do airstrikes like the apparently mistaken convoy attack on Sept. 17 still happen, despite the military’s satellites and drones, precision bombs, rules of engagement, and tactics, techniques, and procedures intended to minimize collateral damage and civilian harm?
The answer is that individuals working in military commands — from pilots, to intelligence analysts, to commanders themselves — inevitably experience pressures that lead them to cut corners and shortcut standard operating procedures. These service members are not consciously acting with disregard for civilian life, nor are they determined (by the military itself) to have violated the laws of armed conflict. They are humans making human mistakes. We can and should seek to reduce individual errors, but cannot expect to entirely eliminate them.
We know of such mistakes from the military’s own investigations of civilian casualty airstrike events. Consider the investigation of the Kunduz, Afghanistan tragedy on Oct. 3, 2015. During a 29-minute attack on a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) trauma center, an AC-130 gunship fired 211 rounds of ammunition. Somewhere between 30 civilians were killed and 37 wounded (according to the U.S. investigation), or 42 killed and “dozens” wounded (according to MSF).
Five consequential and avoidable human mistakes made that tragedy more likely than was necessary.
First, the AC-130 crew skipped the mission crew brief due to a compressed timeframe, which meant that they took off without the charts identifying the exact location of the MSF trauma center.
Second, the joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC), who visually identify enemy forces and call in strikes, were inexperienced, each being on their first JTAC deployment.
Third, the U.S. ground commander partnering with Afghan Army forces was pressured by his seniors to retake Kunduz from the Taliban. That commander later informed investigators that during a video teleconference he was told that “the operation to retake Kunduz was vital, had to happen as soon as possible, and that failure was not an option.”
Fourth, information identifying the trauma center was emailed to the AC-130 crew while en route to Kunduz, but the headquarters unit responsible for sending this email never followed up — as they should have — to confirm that it had been received. It had not, so the crew did not get this critical information before deployment.
Finally, there was a delay in halting the attack. A MSF employee notified his U.S. military counterpart via cell phone that the trauma center in Kunduz was being bombed. Yet AC-130 strikes continued for another eight minutes until the order was finally given to cease firing.
Consider also the investigation into a March 13, 2015 airstrike near Hatra, Iraq, which killed either four civilians (according to U.S. military investigators) or 11 (according to Iraqis). Here, lower levels of authority approved an adjustment to an airstrike that they had no authority to adjust. Initially, a U.S. general (the so-called Target Engagement Authority, tasked by the commander to approve a weapons release) had approved the bombing of an Islamic State checkpoint, specifically a group of suspected fighters standing nearby and one guard shack.
When a Kia Sorrento and GMC Suburban approached the checkpoint their passengers “appeared” to interact with the Islamic State fighters, a pilot requested that those two vehicles also be attacked. The request is relayed to an unnamed “Battle Director,” who approved the expansion of the attack in just 80 seconds. The cars were strafed for three to four seconds, and as some passengers were trying to escape, a 500-pound bomb destroyed the guard shack. The request to strike two new vehicles should have been briefed again to the general, who would have been ultimately responsible for reviewing and authorizing it.
The U.S. military would have never known of the pilot or Battle Director’s procedural errors had Raja’a Zidan al-Ekabee, the Kia Sorrento’s owner, not emailed an Iraqi working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to “compensate me for my car.” She received no compensation, because her car was destroyed in “combat activity,” according to Pentagon officials. However, the strike against both cars should have never occurred, because the Target Engagement Authority never approved it. (In June, U.S. Central Command announced in was reopening its investigation into this March 2015 airstrike.)
Such errors of judgment or violations of protocols are often dismissed as occurring in the “fog of war.” Variants of this phrase date to the 19th century, when enormous armies of largely conscripted troops were directed by officers who earned their titles through privilege and who communicated by runners or flags. In today’s U.S. air campaigns, multiple, overlapping sensors provide near real-time situational awareness of the battlefield, orders are sent and received via several channels instantly, and weapons platforms are capable of dropping increasingly precise munitions.
Mistaken strikes like those in Kunduz and Hatra — and others that we may never hear of — are not a consequence of mass confusion, but too often are the direct result of avoidable human error. Emphasizing repeatedly the further reduction of such errors is a responsibility of senior civilian and military officials in the chain of command. Pilots, analysts, and target officers should be trained to confirm the positive identification of targets and minimize collateral damage both before and during deployments. Requiring service members to study bombing tragedies is also an effective way to make them less prone to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. When time is available, the underlying intelligence and operational outcome of significant strikes should be subjected to independent assessments by “red teams” comprised of analysts outside of the target development process. Those who plan and conduct military operations cannot review and critique their own efforts.
The public has at least a limited understanding of the processes and human mistakes made conducting airstrikes because the Pentagon provides some degree of transparency via news releases, press conferences, and partially redacted investigation reports (which Centcom has unfortunately stopped releasing). By comparison, the Syrian and Russian militaries have never acknowledged civilian casualties or collateral damage from a single airstrike. Neither have they provided insights into how they minimize civilian harm, nor apparently investigated any of the hundreds of uses of indiscriminate air power, particularly in civilian-populated areas, which have been documented by Syrian activists, nongovernmental organizations, and the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry. The Russian Ministry of Defense actually releases videos of flagrantly negligent military actions, including the dropping of unguided bombs from TU-22s over Syria, which makes their denials even more implausible.
However, the United States should never justify its own errant airstrikes by pointing to the immoral and unethical standards of other militaries. Despite the U.S. military’s technological advantages and the extensive efforts to reduce human errors, it may be impossible to eliminate wartime accidents. But each individual accident which results in the loss of life is nonetheless a tragedy. If the United States conducts a formal investigation into the Syrian military convoy bombing, it will assuredly reveal human mistakes that cumulatively made the unintentional attack more probable. And though the military should take steps to reduce these battlefield mistakes, the American public should consider that the only way to eliminate such mistakes entirely is to cease entering the battlefield in the first place.
Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images