Interview with Sarah Holewinski: Learning Civilian Protection

More than a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan taught US commanders the strategic importance of protecting civilians during wartime. This principle should guide future American policy. To learn more we spoke with Sarah Holewinski, a Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security and an expert on the responsible use of force in armed conflict.

An Iraqi military checkpoint near Sinjar in 2005.

This interview is the first in a two-part series examining the issue of civilian protection and prevention of civilian harm in wartime. The fight against ISIS has taken place in densely-populated urban areas, putting non-combatant populations in danger. Managing this type of counter-insurgency to minimize damage to non-combatant targets will be critical to ensure post-conflict stabilization. Here, Ms. Holewinski of the Center for New American Security discusses the lessons learned by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan with regards to civilian protection. In the second installment, we will speak with Sahr Muhamedally of the Center for Civilians in Conflict about efforts to avoid civilian casualties in Mosul. 


M. Schweitzer: While civilians have always been negatively impacted by violence during wartime, in modern conflict the prevention of harm to unarmed and non-combatant populations has assumed strategic importance. How do civilian casualties, if left unaddressed, impact a military’s combat effectiveness – particularly in environments like Iraq and Afghanistan where, for example, US forces fought drawn-out counterinsurgencies?

S. Holewinski: When a civilian casualty occurs in the age of 24-hour media, everyone knows about it – everyone. An individual with a cellphone can instantly share images or video of a neighbor who has been killed, or the site where a US bomb has caused damage to civilian buildings and infrastructure. The anger at the US or its partners creates an extremely difficult operating environment. That is true for troops on the ground, as military leaders may be reluctant to call in air support for ground forces or may have difficulty securing supply routes through communities impacted by coalition operations. It is also true for political leaders who have to work harder to prove US legitimacy.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, US commanders learned important lessons regarding the importance of civilian protection and, when they made changes to how they operated, saw military benefits.  Commanders in Afghanistan implemented a series of tactical directives that improved civilian protection and reduced civilian casualties resulting in more freedom of movement for US troops. Before these changes, the US military in Afghanistan had been threatened with expulsion from the country by then-President Hamid Karzai over the issue of civilian casualties and Afghan civilians protested US operations – never a good sign for the legitimacy and acceptance of a mission.

In Iraq, it is a bit tougher to determine the effect of civilian protection efforts given the many strategies deployed between 2003 and 2011.  In isolated incidents, the US military employed civilian protection tactics to their advantage.  In summer 2006, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli implemented new operating procedures for checkpoints, knowing that civilian casualties were rampant whenever US forces would establish a “hasty checkpoint” (in 2005, the US military had documented an average of seven civilian deaths per week at these checkpoints). Those civilian deaths naturally fueled local anger.  After the new operating procedures, civilian deaths went down – a win for civilians, and a win for a military mission that relied on the population not to oppose it.

What strategies for ensuring non-combatant protection have proven the most effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other environments – what should be included in an effective civilian protection policy guide?

Good doctrine and training for US forces on civilian harm mitigation is critical. The US Army is the only branch of the Armed Forces that has created a manual on this issue for its forces. In it, the authors outlined two broad spheres: prevention strategy and post-harm considerations. The Army stressed the importance of proper training for combat forces and outlining proper rules of engagement to minimize civilian harm. Then, the manual walked forces through what could be done to address civilian harm that has already happened – the goal being to dignify the losses and show that the US did not intend such a tragedy.

In the past, the US military would deny civilian harm or put off making any statement until the commanders had more information. That response only proved to anger local civilians and their political leaders.  Now, US best practice is to immediately acknowledge an allegation of civilian harm, launch an investigation, and whenever possible make the findings public.  Amends for any harm found may be made, such as apologies or payments or other types of aid. This last part is incredibly important to families who have lost loved ones or property, or suffered injury from US actions. The act of receiving an apology alone or information on what happened is dignifying.

Finally, tracking incidents of civilian harm and analyzing them over time helps the US military understand the causes of civilian casualties (“civcas”) and how to prevent future incidents. However, despite all the lessons learned, this process of self-reflection still is not done well enough or consistently enough.

Over the past eight years, the US has moved away from large-scale occupation increasingly toward aerial, counter-terror, and Special Forces-led efforts in places like Iraq and Syria. How has this shift impacted the US’ ability to protect civilians or compensate non-combatants harmed through US led or backed operations – is the importance of civilian protection as a US strategic priority diminished if American combat troops are not directly engaged among affected populations? 

Civilian protection will always be matter of strategic interest regardless of whether the US is engaged in counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, or land battle.  The question is whether the US military itself recognizes this to be true and will continue to use its best practices to spare civilian lives.

It’s difficult to know for sure whether the US is better or less able to protect civilians when fighting the way it does now in counterterrorism environments — through limited special operations forces, partner nation forces, and drones.  The pace of operations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia is not as fast as it would be if there were significant numbers of American troops on the ground, making the comparisons difficult.

When it comes to drone warfare, an issue that has receive much attention and concern, my view is the drone itself is a weapon like any other. The question of how it is used is the one that matters in terms of civilian protection. Drones can offer more intelligence, more “eyes on” the ground, which can help identify where civilians are and, hopefully, avoid them.  When drones are used according to the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) for action against terrorists outside the US or combat zones — developed by the Obama Administration in 2013 — commanders must have near-certainty that there will be no civilian casualties caused by a drone strike. They are thus are extremely careful about causing civilian harm. There remain, however, larger questions about whether the drone and other remote weapons lower the threshold for nations to consider armed conflict and, importantly, whether the American public understands that they are at war.  Finally, the perennial question about “who is a civilian?” continues to concern the human rights community, particularly if nations such as the US expand the categories of people it believes can be targeted by remote weapons.

Finally, the US’ increasing reliance on local forces to conduct operations creates challenges for civilian protection. The US is not in command of these forces, but Washington still has a responsibility to ensure partners are not going to cause civilian harm.  The best way to do this is through extensive training of those partner forces and embedding accountability for any abuses within the force, ensuring they follow American best practices. There is a lot of work left to be done here.

As the Pentagon focuses on training foreign militaries in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to fill the primary combat role, how can planners impart their best practices to foreign counterparts?

There are myriad training programs developed by the US. The FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act put all human rights training programs under one umbrella, which will hopefully ensure a standardized and more effective training program for partners. In terms of civilian protection specifically, US training programs are disparate — each of Washington’s security partners receives a different quality of training. Ultimately, it is in the US’ best interest to see that all partners receive the same training as US troops, given that the behavior of partners is directly tied to America’s reputation and legitimacy. However, the US military is nowhere near that standard yet.

In July 2016, the Obama Administration issued an executive order outlining “Measures to Address Civilian Casualties in US Operations Involving the Use of Force.” Is it significant that the “best practices” developed over the course of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were formalized by the President in this document – did the Obama Administration’s understanding of civilian protection differ from its predecessor’s after 2008?

President Obama placed a high priority on civilian protection and government transparency, as evidenced by this Executive Order. The best practices codified in the 2016 Executive Order were born from those developed by commanders on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  Those lessons were learned and known during the Bush Administration, but there simply was not the political will to make them into policy.  Yet, it is important to note that the US is the only nation that has such a policy on civilian harm mitigation — a step that I hope other like-minded nations will follow.

It is unclear what the Trump Administration will do to follow or change current policies on civilian protection. During the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump said worrying things about how he intends to conduct military operations, including bombing oil fields, targeting ISIS families, and using torture in detentions – all of which are illegal. Our job, in civil society or in government, is to help the new Administration understand why policies like the Executive Order on Civilian Casualties and the Presidential Policy Guidance are so important to American leadership and maintaining the global order that keeps us safer.

In environments like Iraq, Syria, or Yemen, multiple groups claim ownership over territory, resources, and governance. How does the proliferation of non-state security providers (many of which are not fully accountable for their actions) impact efforts to ensure civilians are unharmed – how can policymakers address these developments in such a fractious environment, and what role can international organizations play to protect civilians in conflict zones and regions where there is not a clear delineation of force or factions?

Civil society has always played a significant role training and working with non-state actors. Groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Geneva Call, for example, use creative messaging to teach armed groups about the Geneva Conventions and the strategic importance of protecting civilians. When considering the US Government’s role, the issue of civilian protection should be included in any plans for training and equipping armed groups — whether they be state or non-state actors. Washington has an obligation to ensure that these entities abide by its best practices if they receive US assistance. If a group abuses civilians or does not abide by international humanitarian law (IHL) in any way, the US should rescind its assistance or, depending on the situation, put in place a stepped process of advising and accountability to see if Washington can turn the group around.

Ultimately, local forces have a major incentive to protect local populations; sometimes they understand this incentive inherently and sometimes they do not. So many factors contribute to abuses of civilian populations and the challenges facing those trying to enact civilian protection policies, including corruption, bad training, and so forth. The job of civil society and government actors is to make the case to local security forces that liberated populations should be protected as a matter of legitimacy and “mission success”, even if those in the human rights community are motivated mostly by the desire to protect human dignity.

In counterinsurgency environments, the need for civilian protection seems to extend beyond the context of immediate conflict. Is it important for governments and international organizations to remain engaged among impacted populations after open fighting has ceased – how can planners implement sustainable policies to ensure civilian security, livelihoods, and dignity?

In a place like Mosul or Raqqa, operations to defeat ISIS are supposed to be based on a whole-of-government approach — meaning that the State Department, Department of Treasury and Justice, and USAID all have roles to play in ensuring stability following a “liberation.”  This does not mean military planners cannot be focused on the political aftermath of combat operations. In fact, the way that they conduct their operations will have a big impact on how other agencies can help establish stability after the military mission is complete.  Bombing infrastructure is a bad idea, for obvious reasons.  Training the Iraqi or other forces on how to not harm civilians during the operations will help the population recover and give security forces tasked with policing more legitimacy. It is crucial to ensure that all security actors in the fight or after the fight are ultimately supporting civilian efforts to ensure rule of law and reconstruction.

This interview was originally posted at the Post-War Watch.

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