I was recently asked to reflect on the progress the United States has made on civilian protection after two decades of war and counterterrorism operations since 9/11. I got down to the business of writing a list – but I should have poured a scotch first, because the results are depressing.
We at Human Rights Watch and our many partners inside and outside of government have worked for years to lessen civilian harm in U.S. operations. We showed that tracking harm is mission critical. We dug into data to prove that analyzing casualty trends improves operations. We brought to light stories of civilian victims to show that recognizing the harm caused by American actions can bolster American legitimacy. We visited civilian homes and displacement camps in Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, and Pakistan to hear their stories. We tried to find solutions to the harm they experienced. We offered our recommendations in reports, briefings, and even draft policies ready to be copied and pasted.
Don’t get me wrong: Some progress has been made thanks to concerned officers, good work inside the Departments of Defense and State, and pressure from Congress. But when I look back over 20 years, the big picture remains bleak.
Here’s my list.
The United States…
- Still doesn’t have a good sense of how many civilians it has killed or injured.
- Still doesn’t publish all civilian casualty data.
- Still doesn’t consider all civilian casualty data offered to it or analyze trends with the data it has.
- Still knee-jerk denies civilian harm allegations, especially the big events covered in the media.
- Still targets buildings where civilians are likely to live or hide – and fails after strikes to determine conclusively who has been killed.
- Still hasn’t paid compensation to or even acknowledged most civilians harmed.
- Still doesn’t teach operational planners about civilian harm in operational plans (OPLANS) for any conflict including future ones.
- Still doesn’t have a standard for investigating civilian harm.
- Still doesn’t adequately consider witnesses accounts or civil society information on casualty events.
- Still doesn’t have anyone with expertise in charge of civilian protection or harm.
- Still doesn’t understand how critical harm to infrastructure is for civilian populations, nor is such harm a standard part of collateral damage estimates or battle damage assessments.
- Still misidentifies targets for lethal action and doesn’t acknowledge that misidentifying targets is a problem that risks civilian lives.
- Still doesn’t, as a matter of standard practice, consider larger human rights patterns of partners before arms sales or offering security assistance.
- Still only has one human rights unit at a combatant command (SOUTHCOM, where the United States is not involved in any conflict).
- Still hasn’t acted on the large majority of recommendations from Pentagon-commissioned studies on civilian harm.
The Biden administration should course correct. Advocates for civilian protection have put forward extensive recommendations to do just that. In fact, many Americans already serving inside the U.S. military and government agencies have the knowledge to do what’s needed. Many of them want to be the agents of change. They just need the leadership and the resources.
I have hope that these next four years can do what the last 20 have not.
Image: KABUL- OCTOBER 1: Prosthetics for trauma patients are seen stacked against the wall in the therapy room at the ICRC Orthopedic Center on October 1 2019 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan, now in its 20th year, continues to inflict significant harm on the country’s civilian population. The months leading up to the September 28, 2019 presidential election were particularly deadly, as the Taliban went on the offensive during peace talks and US and government forces responded with increased air strikes and night raids. The Islamic State has also claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks on civilians, including a suicide bombing on August 18 that killed 92 people attending a wedding in Kabul. A UN report from earlier this year indicates that civilian casualties were down from the same period the year before, but “the published figures almost certainly do not reflect the true scale of the harm,” according to Fiona Frazer, human rights chief for the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). She added that UN data indicate that Afghanistan sees more civilian deaths due to armed conflict than anywhere else on earth. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images )