Measured by the metrics for success set by the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence community, the removal of ISIS’s leader — Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi — from the battlefield is an important achievement. President Joe Biden and other senior administration officials’ emphasis on minimization of civilian casualties in an operation against such a high value target accordingly deserves special attention.
“I directed the Department of Defense to take every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties. Knowing that this terrorist had chosen to surround himself with families, including children, we made a choice to pursue a special forces raid, at a much greater risk than our — to our own people, rather than targeting him with an air strike. We made this choice to minimize civilian casualties.”
– President Joe Biden, Remarks in White House Roosevelt Room
“Let me take this opportunity to note that the Department takes seriously our commitment to avoid civilian harm in the course of our operations. This operation was specifically designed and conducted in a manner to minimize civilian casualties. We know that al-Qurayshi and others at his compound directly caused the deaths of women and children last night. But, given the complexity of this mission, we will take a look at the possibility our actions may also have resulted in harm to innocent people.”
– Secretary of Defense Loyd J. Austin III, Statement
“The way in which the president and the commanders chose to go about this mission reflects a desire to the greatest extent possible minimize civilian casualties and to do that not by dropping munition from the sky but by putting troops in harm’s way at great risk to our own forces.”
– Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer, Interview with Andrea Mitchell
“It was a significant decision because it involved putting our troops at much greater risk in order to do it this way. But that’s in keeping with a long-standing desire by us to try to minimize civilian harm as much as possible.”
– Pentagon Spokesperson John F. Kirby, Press briefing
We draw a few points from these statements.
First, these statements indicate that the administration is listening and sensitive to the issue of civilian casualties. That is welcome and should be lauded.
Second, the President’s statement shows why instructing the military “to take every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties” is not simply possible, but possible in the most important of military operations. That underscores how regrettable it is that the Department of Defense’s Law of War Manual has taken an unnecessarily narrow (and ultimately self-defeating) approach by asserting the anomalous claim that the laws of war require the adoption of “feasible precautions” instead of “all feasible precautions” as Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the military manuals of close U.S. allies otherwise instruct (including the UK, Israel, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand, among others). Once again, the DOD’s Manual is inconsistent with not only the law of armed conflict but sound policy and what senior executive branch officials emphasize to the public in moments such as these.
Third, President Biden, the deputy national security advisor, and Pentagon spokesperson notably went a step further in stating that the decision was made to put U.S. troops in harm’s way to reduce the risks to civilians. Some may be skeptical of those claims, and might note the operation still resulted in thirteen civilian casualties (it appears al-Qurayshi’s detonation of his own explosive vest caused several casualties). Moreover, there are policy reasons to conduct a ground raid against such a high value target that have nothing to do with avoiding civilian casualties. As with the ground operations against Osama Bin Laden and ISIS’s former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, U.S. forces may prefer to try to capture such a high value target and, at the same time, ensure that if the individual is killed in the operation, there is an immediate, high-level, forensic confidence in that outcome, and the ability to exploit any materials of intelligence value found at the site (known as sensitive site exploitation). That said, at least according to initial reports, the ground operation here appears to have saved civilian lives: U.S. forces were able to evacuate 10 civilians, including several children, according to Kirby.
Fourth, in terms of what the laws of war demand, experts might argue about how much risk an attacking force must accept if available alternatives would result in greater loss of civilian lives. The al-Qurayshi operation does not appear to raise that issue, though it is worth further discussion whether Biden’s and the other officials’ statements are a reflection of pure policy choices or decisions shaped in part by such legal constraints. Much more information about the specifics of the operation and the intelligence information acquired in advance of it would be needed to render an assessment.
Finally, the administration officials’ framing of their calculus to resort to a ground operation against al-Qurayshi is almost tantamount to an admission of the greater costs to civilians and civilian populations that have come with U.S. airstrikes as well as the gaping credibility gap that now exists with such drone operations and post-strike civilian casualty assessments. It is worth reflecting on how the botched nature of U.S. drone strikes and valid concerns about the drone program may end up placing greater weight on the shoulders of U.S. troops who put their lives at risk, and whether that might in turn prompt deeper reflection on when use of military force is truly necessary.