Editors’ note: This piece is adapted from a longer article by the author originally published in the International Journal of Stability & Development.

The military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) will be a long one with civilians facing challenges to protect themselves from harm from all sides. As Iraqi and Kurdish forces prepare to advance into urban areas and to maintain their hold in areas retaken from ISIS they have to make civilian protection a central element of their military strategy. My interviews with civilians, the Peshmergas, and Iraqi Security Forces suggests far more can be done to minimize harm to civilians who may be caught between pro-government forces and ISIS.

Prioritizing civilian protection is a legal and ethical matter, but it is also a critically important strategic endeavor in the campaign against the Islamic State. Ethically, government forces should not turn a blind eye to collateral harm or abuses committed by their own. Legally, all forces have an obligation to ensure respect for national laws as well as international humanitarian and human rights law. And strategically, taking all feasible precautions to reduce civilian harm and effectively assisting those harmed demonstrates to civilians that the government is concerned with their well-being and can help ensure support from civilians for its mission.

Security forces need not wait and react to widespread harm to civilians during operations; instead they should plan and train to minimize civilian harm and to proactively protect civilians. Below are some practical recommendations based on the challenges observed in Iraq. 

A ‘Protection Mindset’

Kurdish and Iraqi forces should adopt a “protection mindset” in all military operations. This is in addition to the crucial need for those forces to fight effectively in these operations. Senior Kurdish and Iraqi leadership have emphasized that security forces must “protect civilians and their property”; there is thus political guidance for forces to act responsibly. But it must be translated into action. A protection mindset focuses on minimizing—to the greatest extent possible—any harm to civilian life and property during operations, and on proactively protecting communities from harm from other armed groups.

Osman, a Sunni Arab from Ramadi, described the frustration and anger at all armed actors when he said, “The Iraqi government, Daesh [Arabic for ISIS], they don’t care about us civilians. They will use mortars and bombs against each other injuring and killing civilians, but not each other. They have no respect for human life.” Iraqi and Kurdish military commanders should actively work to counter this perception and curtail actions, which undermine protection. They should do so by inculcating a protection mindset approach that emphasizes restraint and patience in use of force, searching of homes, and at checkpoints.

Harm Mitigation Tactics

The United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq developed battle-tested tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), and theater-specific commanders’ guidance that limited civilian harm. These tactics were learned and adopted the hard way by the US and its allies to eventually reduced civilian harm in Iraq and Afghanistan. These practices can be adjusted for the context in Iraq and disseminated by coalition trainers affiliated with the anti-ISIS coalition.

For example, tactical restraint requires the disciplined protection of civilians and infrastructure by giving a situation time to more fully develop before taking action. This does not, of course, prohibit soldiers from taking measures for force protection when there is an imminent threat. Instead, when practiced by soldiers in appropriate situations it can allow for critical time to consider alternatives and to assess the second and third order effects of the use of force, including its impact on civilians.

Another harm mitigation tactic that the coalition trainers should teach is a sequence of questions that soldiers can use to help assess when to use force within their rules of engagement (ROEs):

  • Must I shoot? Forces are authorized to shoot if they or their fellow soldiers are facing immediate threat and there are no alternatives to neutralize the threat.
  • Can I shoot? If a threat is not immediate, forces should ask whether the threat is real, if the target is a valid military target, if use of force right now is necessary, and if civilians are present and likely to be harmed in the immediate target area.
  • Should I shoot? Even when force is authorized against a legitimate military target, an assessment should be made whether use of force is the best option. Is there possibility of unseen civilians in the area? Are fires directed at a home or business? Is there an approach short of use of force that would achieve the desired effect? Would the negative effects of engagement outweigh the possible benefits?

Some Iraqi and Kurdish forces suspect Sunni Arabs for the decision to stay in their villages rather than flee when fighting erupts. They assume those who stay behind do so because they are linked to ISIS and may be “sleeper cells.” A member of the Assayesh (Kurdish intelligence) told me, “When 95 percent of the village has left but only five percent remain, we have to assess who are these five percent and what are their motivations.” An Iraqi commander admitted, “We have a big problem with distinction. We can’t trust people who did not leave after ISIS took control of their town.” Another Kurdish commander expressed concern about Arabs, “These are civilians who support terrorists. I don’t trust them. There are sleeper cells in those villages. If Daesh advances then those people will turn against us and come from behind.”

Iraqi and Kurdish military leadership must work hard to counter such views as they may expose civilians to harm during operations when it comes to distinction. Such biases compound existing challenges local forces face in distinguishing civilian from combatant. Local forces need both operational guidance and tactical training such as learning how to positively identify an enemy before engaging a target to respect not only distinction, but to ensure biases against Sunni Arabs do not affect their actions on distinction.

Proactive Protection to Allow for Return

The tactics that ISIS uses when it retreats from towns under attack represent a serious challenge for both Peshmergas and Iraqi soldiers. ISIS often rigs buildings and roads with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which threaten pro-government forces as well as civilians returning to their communities. Proactively and safely disarming IEDs requires specialized counter-IED (C-IED) training and equipment. Kurdish forces have rudimentary explosive ordnance disposal units with little training and only the most basic equipment. Security forces, with support from the international coalition against ISIS, should focus on safely defusing explosive weapons from civilian structures and engage with community leaders to explain their efforts to clear and mark areas for the safe return of civilians.

Address Incidental Civilian Harm

Exercising restraint may reduce civilian harm, but will not eliminate it completely. Some amount of incidental harm may still occur, and it is essential that all allegations of harm be acknowledged, investigated, and addressed. Iraqi and Kurdish leadership should adopt and implement a standard operating procedure to receive, investigate, and respond to incidents of harm.

Addressing incidental harm through the provision of explanations, apologies, tangible assistance, and/or monetary assistance is critical to address civilian suffering. Ignoring harm and leaving civilians with no explanation or assistance breeds resentment and strengthens the armed groups that exploit such grievances. The Iraqi government came to understand this. In 2009 it enacted a compensation law to assist victims of terrorism going back to 2003. The government should ensure that the law also covers harm from current operations, and Kurdish authorities should enact similar policies.

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Enacting preventive measures before major military operations to retake populated areas from ISIS would better protect civilians and strengthen the government’s mission against ISIS. Iraqi and Kurdish authorities must work hard to ensure this outcome and to provide the building blocks for a stable Iraq.