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Pentagon Asks for More Cash to Cut Down Civilian Deaths

Under fire from human rights groups, the Pentagon is asking lawmakers for funding to improve its ability to track civilian casualties in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, Foreign Policy has learned. 

Smoke billows following an airstrike by the US-led international coalition forces targeting Islamic State (IS) group in Mosul, Iraq, on July 9, 2017.
Smoke billows following an airstrike by the U.S.-led international coalition forces targeting the Islamic State group in Mosul, Iraq, on July 9, 2017. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images

Under fire from human rights groups, the U.S. Department of Defense is asking lawmakers for a cash infusion to improve its ability to track civilian casualties in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, Foreign Policy has learned. 

It’s not immediately clear how much the new setup, which includes funds to set up a database that would allow members of the public to directly submit claims of U.S.-caused deaths, will ultimately cost. Those estimates are expected to come later as the Pentagon appears set to unveil a new policy to curb civilian casualties in combat later this year, first prompted by former Defense Secretary James Mattis and continuing under his successor, Mark Esper.  

The report sent to Congress in February from Thomas Alexander, the Pentagon’s acting top civilian overseer for special operations, asks for significant new staff to be added at the Defense Department’s civilian policy shop, and at major geographic commands, such as U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command. Foreign Policy reviewed a copy of the report.

The Pentagon has been under increased scrutiny to improve its civilian casualty reporting since the London-based Airwars outfit began reporting higher tallies of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, said Larry Lewis, a former State Department official now at the CNA defense think tank. “It became really hard to just live with that, because Airwars just put so much effort into that, and it really did seem conservative,” he said.

The pressure has had an impact. At the end of last month, U.S. Africa Command announced it would begin issuing a new report revealing ongoing civilian casualty investigations, after Amnesty International said that retaliatory American strikes against the al Qaeda-linked Somalian group al-Shabab killed two civilians in February, contradicting U.S. findings. 

Under the new proposal, additional military staff are likely to be asked to draw up no-strike lists of civilian targets and to staff up cells at the combatant command “tasked with reconciling external and US military reports,” the document reviewed by Foreign Policy said. 

“Currently, information from the public is received in a variety of ways — such as through email, reports by impartial humanitarian organizations and civil society groups, media reports, and social-media,” a defense spokesperson told Foreign Policy. “We are looking at additional options for receiving information from the public, such as creating a webpage that identifies what types of information helps in conducting assessments and how to submit it.”

The directive comes on the heels of a January memo sent by James Anderson, the Pentagon’s acting policy chief who is heading up the civilian casualty response, that called for the Defense Department to field more accurate intelligence and weapons systems to detect civilians on the battlefield to prevent the unnecessary loss of life.  

But after a U.S.-led coalition drove the Islamic State out of the self-described caliphate’s twin capitals of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, in 2017, spearheaded by foreign troops backed by American advisors and strikes, rights groups that accused the Pentagon of vastly undercounting the number of civilian dead are pushing the agency to fold in public assessments to get smarter about choosing its targets.

We’ve moved past the ‘military age male’ assessment,” said one nongovernmental organization official involved in the Pentagon policy process, referring to a process by which the Obama administration once marked all adult men as possible terrorist combatants in areas where the United States conducted drone strikes. “But those types of issues keep cropping up. It’s hard when you don’t have more transparency.”

“What intelligence can be gathered about vulnerable civilians when you’re privileging airstrikes,” the NGO official added, describing the Pentagon’s air-dominant strategy in taking on the Islamic State. “Information coming from third parties is valuable to flesh out their intelligence picture. It’s almost taken for granted that they have superior situational awareness.”

Defense Secretary Esper’s office is currently coordinating with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other Pentagon entities to determine what the Pentagon will need to carry out the policy, the defense spokesperson told Foreign Policy. Coming onboard at the Pentagon to help craft the plan will be Stephanie Hammond, the official said, a longtime Capitol Hill aide who began serving as the agency’s new acting deputy assistant secretary for stability and humanitarian affairs in March.

Two former defense officials told Foreign Policy that the stabilization office had long been under threat of elimination during the Trump administration amid a Pentagon mandate to examine the number of civilian deputy assistant secretaries, senior positions that are not appointed by Congress, for possible cuts. Hammond will be the first person to fill the role on an acting basis since Mark Swayne left the Pentagon last year.

Anticipating the release of the Pentagon’s new instruction, more than a dozen NGOs have called for the agency to engage more directly with external reports of civilian harm and honor more payments to victims of U.S. strikes. But even as experts say U.S. practices have improved, there is still concern about the bandwidth of Pentagon civilians to roll out the upcoming policy as the U.S. military remains the kingmaker in many Defense Department budget talks.

One of the hardest things as you move out on this is that OSD policy doesn’t own a lot of things, so resources are going to be an issue,” said Lewis, the former State Department official. “You may see other combatant commands saying this won’t be a priority.”

Two officials from NGOs familiar with the Pentagon’s policy development said the effort to curb civilian casualties has gotten an additional push since Anderson, the officer in charge of the effort, took over as acting deputy secretary of defense for policy last year.

But the Pentagon and the NGO community, first brought into the fold by Mattis in 2017, have consistently been at odds over a lack of desire at the agency to do onsite monitoring of bombing sites by U.S. troops, which the military has pushed back on over concerns of protecting American troops in harm’s way. 

The Defense Department has also chafed at building a fund to pay back the families of innocent victims of U.S. strikes, allowing only $3 million to be authorized each year, despite a tabletop exercise meant to reconcile the differences between the agency and the NGO community first reported by the Washington Post.

“They weren’t spending it,” another NGO official told Foreign Policy. “They’re definitely not spending that amount.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has been tasked by Congress with completing a study this year on the lessons learned from the Islamic State fight in Raqqa and Mosul, where the Defense Department’s usual intelligence advantages were muted by dense urban terrain. 

Yet within the military, as the Pentagon tries to gear up for a possible future war against China or Russia, some experts fear there’s not enough work being done to prepare the U.S. military.

John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major who now chairs urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, said the service’s national training center at Fort Irwin in California’s Mojave Desert only has one yearly brigade-level exercise that is an urban fight.

“These major battles will not go away,” he said. “You can report more civilian casualties all you want. These wars will continue.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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