Sunday, March 26, 2017

Some Thoughts on the Civilian Casualties in Mosul

The press reports and images are horrific--over 100 Iraqi civilians killed in an apparent U.S. airstrike in Mosul last week.  The U.S. military has confirmed that they engaged targets in this part of the city while providing close air support to Iraqi ground forces that were in  a firefight with ISIS, and has announced an investigation.

I thought that this might be a good opportunity to discuss the Laws of Armed Conflict, Rules of Engagement, and the reality of modern warfare.  Given that the investigation is just underway, I won't have much to opine about what occurred here.  I am confident, however, based on what I know about how the U.S. manages air war, that this was a horrific mistake and not the result of intentional targeting of civilians.

So first a brief primer on the Law of Armed Conflict.  As a result of several international agreements (to which the U.S. has been an active participant), there are rules that govern the conduct of warfare.  These rules are not at all alien to the U.S.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued the so-called Lieber Code that ordered the Union Army to comply with the same basic principles found in these international agreements.

The thrust of the Law of Armed Conflict (or "LOAC" if you want to be cool) is to protect civilians in armed conflict.  The basic rules are these.  First, you can only target military targets, and not civilian targets.  Second, you must take reasonable steps to prevent civilian casualties even as you target legitimate military targets.  Third, if civilian casualties are likely even after you take reasonable steps to prevent casualties, the value of the military target must be proportional to the likely loss of civilian casualties.  This last point deserves some emphasis: LOAC reflects the reality that there may be civilian casualties in war, but insists that large numbers of casualties only come when targeting very important military targets.  (If you want to see the U.S. view of the obligations under LOAC, the best place to look is the DoD Manual on LOAC.)

In the Combined Air Operation Centers that run the Navy and Air Force air war (for both U.S> forces and our allies), there are always lawyers present to make sure that the rules of LOAC are followed.   In the current wars we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the Commanders demand more than compliance with LOAC.  They issue "Rules of Engagement" that impose far stricter rules for when force will be used in an effort to avoid civilian casualties altogether.  This is not done out of humanitarian concern alone.  The Commanders recognize that civilian casualties greatly hurt our effort to defeat the enemy.  For example, General Stanley McChrystal  did not hesitate to use lethal force against the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he imposed a near zero tolerance for civilian casualties in his Rule of Engagement.  As you can see from the picture to the left, there are lots of intelligence analysts, lawyers, and weapons experts advising the commander on every target.

So that is the law, but it is imposed in the realities of the battlefield.  While military leaders work hard to comply with LOAC and the Rules of Engagement, there is much that can go wrong.  Intelligence can be wrong, human beings can transpose numbers in a targeting location, equipment can fail, and human emotions can result in incorrect information.  By and large the U.S. military has a great record for planned attacks (targets chosen days in advance) because it has time to assess likely civilian casualties and double check intelligence.  Most of the civilian casualties, therefore come not from planned attacks, but instead calls for assistance from ground troops in a firefight with the enemy.

It appears that the Mosul airstrike was the result of the U.S. providing air support to Iraqi forces that were under attack from ISIS.  What we don't know is why so many civilians were killed.  Did the Iraqi forces not know that the civilians were in the building (press reports suggest that were hiding in the basement)?  Did Iraqi forces instead fail to tell the U.S. about the presence of civilians?   Were the civilians present because ISIS itself violated LOAC by using the civilians as human shields?  These are all questions for the investigation.

So what are the "take aways" here?  First, to a remarkable degree war is fought subject to clear legal principles recognized by the entire international community and strongly endorsed by the U.S. government for well over a century.  Second, the U.S. takes these legal requirements quite seriously, and in recent Rules of Engagement, the U.S. has been even more protective of civilians than the law requires.

But third, war is a messy business, and errors in information and human mistakes can cause large civilian casualties, which is why we need to not be cavalier about suggesting the use of military force.


  1. Good and interesting post. As I read it, I kept thinking about Israel in Gaza. From what I know, the Israeli army honors these rules to the max yet is hugely criticized for every casualty (some not even caused by their side). If an Israeli bomb had killed 100 civilians in one shot, the worldwide outrage would have been extreme and no excuse or investigation would have sufficed.

  2. I'm not altogether in agreement with the parallel drawn with Israel. Israeli forces may adhere strictly to legal limits on combat, but Israeli civil authorities have repeatedly defied UN resolution on encroachment into Palestinian lands in Gaza. It's not the military that encourages settling on land owned by Palestinians, burning orchards and fields that feed the populace, but, when a bomb goes awry, it's addimg insult to injury and pushes the general narrative of injustice.

  3. You both might find interesting this quire thorough report by the Israeli Foreign Ministry about the application of LOAC to the 2014 Gaza War.

  4. Thank you for the excellent link. What was not mentioned was the fact that the IDF also incorporates religion into the teaching of the LOAC. The message is that Jews have a special responsibility to preserve life as a religious matter.

    As for "encroachment" in Gaza, Israel withdrew entirely from Gaza, including all settlements, decades ago.

    I don't mean to hijack your blog post on a different and controversial subject, so I intend to leave it here.