Civilian Casualties in Kunduz: The Struggle to Mitigate Civilian Harm in Partnered Operations

The United States pays significant attention to mitigating civilian harm in its security partnerships with other states, and civilian casualties are often an unavoidable aspect of warfare despite best efforts to minimize risks. However, the aerial bombing of a school in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on April 3 by Afghan military helicopters is the latest in a line of recent incidents of civilian casualties involving a U.S. partner military that have caused local and international criticism. Such incidents can lead to repercussions for the operational integrity and leadership credibility of both the United States and its partner.

Despite initially rejecting reports of civilian deaths, the Afghan Ministry of Defense admitted that military airstrikes targeting what was thought to be a gathering of senior Taliban leaders at a religious school resulted in significant civilian deaths. Conflicting sources report between 50 and 100 dead, including between 18 and 30 Taliban commanders and dozens of young boys participating in a graduation ceremony at the seminary after having memorized the Quran. According to reports, initial strikes hit a meeting of Taliban leaders in a side room while the graduation ceremony commenced in the main seminary space; however, the Afghan forces continued to press on with the attack, which ultimately resulted in civilian deaths.

The resultant domestic uproar and international condemnation has eroded the credibility of the Afghan government, and along with it, the U.S.-Afghan partnership. The Taliban have already promised retaliation and will undoubtedly be using this attack as recruitment fuel. Although the U.S. military was not directly involved in this particular strike, its partnership with the Afghan military, including the provision of precision munitions, flight and target instruction, and training on avoiding civilian casualties, was cast in a negative light.

Kunduz was, by unfortunate coincidence, also the scene in 2015 of an accidental U.S. gunship strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital. The attack resulted in 42 deaths—including 14 Doctors Without Borders staff members—and was decried as a “war crime” by the humanitarian organization. The strike also prompted investigations into the incident, including a Pentagon report that detailed all the errors—human and mechanical—that led to the attack, and arguably prompted the U.S. military to review its current policies on targeting and engagement and to focus more intently on reinforcing its own efforts as well as those of its partners to mitigate civilian harm in combat.

Despite the lessons learned from incidents such as the 2015 strike and some training and best practice integration with U.S. partners, the United States must take greater strides with its partners to strengthen training, controls, and accountability to mitigate civilian harm. There are steps that the United States can take, based on the lessons from its own experience, that may prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future, to include:

  • Sharing best U.S. intelligence collection and verification practices with partners as part of the targeting process. Although the United States most likely already imparts this type of training as part of its assistance programming, U.S. trainers may consider placing a greater emphasis on mitigating civilian harm as a priority area, with the potential for conditions on future security cooperation if ignored.
  • Guiding partners to conduct a thorough internal review of their targeting processes. The United States has begun playing this sort of advisory role most prominently in Saudi Arabia, where the latter’s aerial strikes in Yemen have resulted in frequent civilian casualties, and where the resultant condemnation has forced the U.S. partner to focus more seriously on mitigating civilian harm. Other partners may benefit from similar reviews and U.S. guidance.
  • Reintroducing the concept of “courageous restraint”—withholding the use of lethal force in the interest of protecting civilian lives—calibrated to the U.S. partner context. Although the concept of “courageous restraint” introduced by General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan was the target of much consternation from U.S. forces on the ground, it resulted in the tangible reduction of civilian casualties—50 percent over the course of eight months. The concept became increasingly diluted as time went by, but a reintroduction to partners and calibration according to the local context—arguably an easier task when the partner forces come from the local population—could play a significant role in preventing civilian casualties.
  • Instilling the importance of mitigating civilian harm early in the partnership and continuing to monitor progress and reiterate the message throughout the various phases of the relationship. With the turnover of trainers and trainees through the security sector assistance apparatus, it is vital that the value and importance of mitigating civilian casualties are instilled in partners early on and then revisited regularly to ensure that these remain a priority for the partner. Arguably, training, advising, and institution building that underscores the importance of mitigating civilian harm can more effectively occur in the beginning stages of a partnership rather than being implemented during military operations.

Hijab Shah is a research associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Melissa Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS International Security Program.

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