President Trump will likely soon announce the US military and its allies have pushed the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) out of its so-called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. However, the defeat of IS has come at a terrible cost; the massive civilian casualties caused by the campaign has serious consequences which the USA and its coalition allies cannot afford to ignore.
As Amnesty International researchers who have carried out in-depth field investigations into the conduct and impact of US strikes on the ground in Raqqa, Mosul and elsewhere, we have been pointing this out for some time. This week we learned that the Pentagon agrees.
Congress also agrees. Concern in Congress was such that in its 2018 National Defense Authorization Act lawmakers pushed the Pentagon to increase transparency around monitoring civilian casualties resulting from its operations. David Trachtenberg, who is coordinating this review, is due to deliver Pentagon’s first 180-day progress report today.
Earlier this week a Washington Post scoop revealed that by late 2017 concern about civilian casualties in the Pentagon “had reached boiling point.” The secretary of Defense at the time commissioned a study to find out what was going wrong. Around the same time, the U.S.-led Coalition to combat IS was concluding its bombing campaign in Raqqa, which blew the Syrian city – and far too many of its trapped civilians – to smithereens.
Both initiatives are limited and flawed, as also pointed out this week. Their significance lies in the acknowledgement from two branches of the U.S. government that there are issues which need addressing.
The first and most obvious question is, why did it take until late 2017 for the Pentagon to become concerned about the level of civilian casualties in its wars in Syria and Iraq? With the end of hostilities in both Mosul and Raqqa by October 2017 the U.S. military had concluded involvement in its most intense urban battles since WWII. These operations left thousands of civilians dead and maimed.
Concerns over the scale of civilian casualties were already being expressed during the Mosul campaign, while the Raqqa operation was being prepared. But the Pentagon failed to change course based on lessons learned in Mosul, and thousands more civilians were needlessly killed and injured in Raqqa as a result. The US military has been carrying out air strikes in Iraq and Syria as part of the Coalition since 2014 and before then under different guises. Was it ever too soon to place priority on the lives of the next round of vulnerable civilians by engaging with the decisions of the past?
Instead, when we raised concerns about civilian casualties in both Mosul and Raqqa in the summer of 2017, Coalition Commander US General Stephen Townsend accused critics of “relying on scant, phoned-in information” – even though we, as Amnesty International’s investigators, were on the ground collecting first-hand information from those directly impacted. Even though an April 2018 Pentagon report recommended seeking additional sources of information about civilian casualties, Coalition spokesperson US Colonel Sean Ryan still saw fit to dismiss the findings of our in-depth June 2018 report on scores of civilian casualties in Raqqa as “more or less hypothetical.” This, despite the fact that Amnesty International had once again presented solid evidence from on-the-ground investigations in Raqqa – evidence which the US-led Coalition – without any fanfare – deemed credible just weeks later.
Was it that the Pentagon report had failed to filter down to the commanders responsible for decisions over civilian life and death in the field? Or did Coalition commanders discount its findings and recommendations? Either way, something is wrong with a military culture that pays lips service to caring about civilian casualties while top commanders scoff at the prospect of taking them seriously.
This week’s revelation on the Pentagon’s hand-wringing over civilian casualties raises another difficult issue for the U.S. military. The laws of war accept that civilian deaths and injuries during armed conflict may be unavoidable, but they still require warring parties to take all feasible precautions to limit this to the maximum extent possible. Launching tens of thousands of artillery shells – which are inaccurate to the point of being inappropriate for use in urban warfare – into residential neighborhoods and using large payload air-delivered bombs which have an impact radius much wider than their targets will almost certainly cause heavy civilian casualties.
The Pentagon’s anxiety over how many civilians were killed suggests that not enough was done in the past to prevent these deaths. Weapons technology has not improved to such an extent since 2017 that today’s civilians can be afforded greater protection than those killed in Raqqa and Mosul. In those theatres of war, more precise, smaller-impact radius munitions existed and better monitoring and verification of targets was possible. These efforts to protect civilians living or sheltering in harm’s way would have been more costly and labor-intensive, but saving countless lives is worth the investment. The issue appears to be one of will.
As the Pentagon considers ways to better protect civilians in future conflicts, how does it explain to the families of those it killed in 2017 that it failed to do enough – as required by the laws of war – to protect their loved ones? Coalition forces already had a legal obligation to carry out meaningful investigations into all allegations that they killed civilians unlawfully in Raqqa and Mosul. This week’s revelations buttress that imperative.
A lot is now riding on how Congress responds to David Trachtenberg’s report today. The tragedies of mass civilian casualties we documented in Mosul and Raqqa need not be repeated. Guarding against this future means forward-thinking change that goes far beyond current initiatives. There is also another important and overlooked aspect – putting the future right means facing past demons.