WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Mark Esper is working on a broad new policy to reduce civilian casualties caused by the US and the allies to whom it sells arms. The work, slated to wrap up next year, has brought together combatant commanders, policy experts, and human rights groups and is happening alongside a related effort to include new training for foreign partners who buy American weaponry.
The full contours of the plan remain under wraps, but years of harsh criticism from human rights groups and members of Congress over civilian deaths from US airstrikes in Afghanistan, and the continuing carnage in Yemen caused by Saudi aircraft sometimes using US-made bombs, have pushed the Pentagon to move.
“Secretary Esper fully supports the effort to evaluate and – where possible – improve our ability to minimize civilian harm in our military operations, and to be transparent when civilian casualties do occur.” Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Candice Tresch said.
The work began in 2017 on the order of then-Secretary Jim Mattis in response to congressional requirements for reporting civilian casualties and public blowback from a series of reports — including a searing November 2017 article in the New York Times, “The Uncounted” — which detailed in gruesome detail the deaths of innocent civilians by US-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq in the war against the Islamic State.
The Mattis push led the Joint Staff to release a redacted report in 2018 on civilian casualties attributable to US air and artillery strikes between 2015 and 2017 in the Middle East and Africa, but the new report will go further. It’s goal is to establish a new policy “that directs uniform processes for both reducing the likelihood of — and responding to reports of — civilian casualties,” Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Candice Tresch said in an email.
As it stands now, each global command institutes its own reviews and procedures for civilian casualties, an ad hoc approach that will change under the coming policy.
One official from a human rights group who has met with Pentagon officials told me, “this is certainly an issue DoD is taking seriously and there is a clear mandate from Congress to do so,” but the up and down nature of US concern makes the NGO community wary. “What we’d like to see is a systematic best practices approach because otherwise we’re just going to keep getting caught in these loops.
“The US is doing far more than its allies in coming to grips with causing civilian harm,” the person said.
Still, the gap between government estimates and those from groups on the ground is often wide.
Responding to a Central Command estimate in May that at least 1,302 civilians had been unintentionally killed by coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq between August 2014 and April 2019, Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera replied, “the Coalition remains deeply in denial about the devastating scale of the civilian casualties” caused by coalition bombs. Amnesty and Airwars estimate that at least 1,600 civilians were killed during the Raqqa offensive alone in 2017.
Pentagon officials maintain the delay in producing the new policy — it was slated to be released by the end of this year, but has been pushed back to 2020 — has been driven by an effort to make sure the study is thorough and encompassing. But the work has also likely been affected by leadership turnover at the top over the past year, and the abrupt departure of the official running the review.
Mattis ordered the work and then resigned in protest in December. He was replaced by his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, who took himself out of the running due to family issues in late spring. Esper then took over as the new acting SecDef until his Senate confirmation in July.
Despite the churn, “DoD’s commitment to limiting civilian casualties remains unchanged,” the Pentagon’s Tresch said.
The Pentagon’s principal deputy under secretary for policy, David Trachtenberg, who was leading the review, also stepped down unexpectedly in July, handing off responsibility to James Anderson, who, in the Pentagon’s often convoluted new parlance for describing officials temporarily filling vacant slots, is “currently performing the duties” of deputy undersecretary for policy.
The Pentagon’s effort comes after years of stinging criticism from Capitol Hill, which has repeatedly moved to block the Trump administration’s efforts to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two countries which have reportedly killed and wounded hundreds of civilians in Yemen using US-made aircraft and bombs. President Trump vetoed one such effort in July. A group of human rights organizations released a report in March estimating US and British-made bombs have killed over 200 civilians and injured hundreds more during the four year-old Saudi-led war against Houthi forces.
The ramped-up US air war in Afghanistan has logged a severe human toll. In the first six months of 2019, American and Afghan airstrikes killed and injured 519 people, according to a United Nations report, amounting to a 39 percent increase from the same time period last year, the report said. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed throughout the war in attacks by both sides. Just this week, Afghan government officials claimed that as many as 40 civilians, including children, are thought to have been killed in the course of an American-supported Afghan military raid on an insurgent stronghold in Helmand Province.