Operational Security, Accountability, and Civilian Casualties

Since U.S. and coalition forces began the war against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014, officials have stated that the United States is conducting “one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.” However, on November 16, the New York Times Magazine published a startling article that detailed the difference between the civilian casualties reported and the actual number of casualties. After an 18-month investigation, where the reporters visited the sites of approximately 150 airstrikes, they ultimately concluded that one in five airstrikes resulted in a civilian death. According to the article, this was “a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition.” Following the publication of this article, there have been calls for increased transparency in reporting the civilian toll of U.S. military operations.

Q1: Inadvertent civilian casualties are a terrible cost of war that should be minimized, but why does it matter strategically for the United States?

A1: The U.S. military takes significant precautions in its training and planning for operations to minimize civilian casualties. The Department of Defense (DoD) has shown willingness to examine civilian casualties reports closely and adjust planning and targeting procedures, while preserving operational security. However, there are at least three compelling reasons why greater transparency and accountability is needed. First, in the truest sense, it is an absolute tragedy when a civilian is mistakenly killed during a military operation. Second, operations that end in civilian casualties serve as a recruiting tool for those that would wish to harm the United States or its coalition partners. Finally, failure—or perceptions of failure due to lack of transparency—to address gaps in intelligence and operational procedures that lead to civilian casualties damages U.S. leadership credibility.


Q2: What existing tools do Congress and the public possess to track civilian casualties from U.S. military operations?

A2: Congress and the public have access to several methods to track civilian casualties caused by military operations. First, Congress has the ability to convene hearings on specific or broad incidences of civilian casualties. By conducting in-depth investigations and asking probing questions, Congress can shine a light on inadvertent civilian casualties. As an example, earlier this year, Representative Ted W. Lieu (D-CA) wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, which asked 19 questions about recent civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. Second, through the legislative process, Congress can require DoD to track and report civilian casualties. The FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains a provision requiring the secretary of defense to submit an annual report to Congress detailing U.S. military operations that caused or were reasonably suspected to have caused civilian casualties during the previous year. The provision also requires DoD to consider “relevant and credible all-source reporting, including information from public reports and nongovernmental sources.”

The public can access different U.S. Combatant Command websites, which contain information pertaining to different military operations and inadvertent civilian casualties, with varying levels of transparency and ease of navigation. Notably, U.S. Central Command releases information pertaining to airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and reports on allegations of civilian casualties. The media and various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International monitor civilian casualties, though not always consistently. These reports are easily accessible on their websites. Additionally, journalist-led transparency organizations such as Airwars exclusively track civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Libya on their websites.

Q3: How can DoD and Congress better manage the balance between transparency and operational security regarding civilian causalities?

A3: U.S. national security and military leaders must instill a command climate in which civilian casualties are unacceptable. DoD has strong training and procedures in place based on these principles, but they may be worth reexamining considering these recent reports. Routine training for combat and train, advise, and assist missions should highlight scenarios that seek to mitigate risks to civilians and reduce civilian casualties while meeting security objectives. Procedures for ground and air operations should prioritize both the security of U.S. personnel and the minimization of civilian casualties. Contemporary precedents exist, although not without controversy. In February 2010, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General Stanley McChrystal, directed the implementation of “courageous restraint” by U.S. and allied forces, underscoring the use of nonlethal force at vehicle checkpoints and in interactions with Afghan civilians. Over the course of the next eight months, civilian casualties at checkpoints in Afghanistan decreased by 50 percent. While the general policy of “courageous restraint” held through the duration of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), subsequent ISAF commanders made tactical changes to allow more flexibility for U.S. and allied forces to defend themselves.

In addition, as congressional leaders consider a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), they might add a provision that requires the U.S. military to report on civilian casualties. The executive branch will almost certainly continue to push back against a repealing and replacing of the 2001 AUMF—let alone including an additional requirement to report on civilian casualties as part of a new authorization. However, in including this reporting requirement, it will elevate the priority of tracking civilian casualties. Moreover, if a new AUMF is subjected to a renewal period of several years—as opposed to the annual NDAA authorization process—a provision pertaining to the reporting of civilian casualties could be more enduring.

During OEF and Operation Iraqi Freedom, DoD had a policy and process established for “condolence payments,” money paid to the surviving relatives of wrongfully killed civilians. In today’s counter-ISIS campaign and in executing other counterterrorism operations, the guidelines and process for condolence payments is less clear. As reported by the New York Times Magazine, while the two most recent NDAAs have authorized DoD to make such payments, DoD has yet to implement guiding policies and procedures. Beyond the moral imperative to acknowledge surviving family members, implementing a renewed process for making condolence payments could mitigate terrorist recruitment. Consistently making these payments would subject civilian casualties to increased public scrutiny here in the United States.

Finally, through its power to convene and hold hearings, Congress should continually meet with NGOs and members of civil society to corroborate military reports.

Q4: How should the New York Times revelations change existing assessments of the operational success of the counter-ISIS campaign and U.S. strategy?

A4: DoD should examine the methods by which targeting intelligence is gathered for an airstrike or ground attack. In the counter-ISIS and broader counterterrorism missions, the United States relies on local partner security forces to assist in gathering information, among other sources. This approach mitigates the risk exposure to U.S. personnel, but it may create intelligence gaps and contribute to poor targeting. And while greater operational autonomy may provide greater flexibility to the war fighter to be adaptive in complex security environments, additional verification checks may be necessary at the tactical and operational levels to prevent civilian casualties. DoD should also consider ways to incorporate reports from NGO and civil society organizations earlier in the planning process to corroborate intelligence from traditional channels, rather than reacting to reports after an incident occurs.

The credibility of U.S. leadership is rooted not only in the protection of U.S. interests but also in the steadfast advancement of U.S. values, including upholding international norms for modern warfare. This is particularly important at a time when our competitors and adversaries are eroding these norms in places like Syria. This means taking steps to mitigate harm to civilians during wartime. Failure to do so may undermine partners’ trust in our ability to conduct precise military operations in their territory, serve as a recruitment tool for state and nonstate adversaries, and erode the moral foundations of U.S. leadership.

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

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Joseph Federici

Research Associate, International Security Program

Melissa Dalton