Obama Asked the Military For A Plan to Protect Civilians. Here’s One.

A Doctors Without Borders employee inside the charred remains of their hospital after it was hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 people.

AP Photo/Najim Rahim, File

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A Doctors Without Borders employee inside the charred remains of their hospital after it was hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 people.

We learned through experience the importance of preventing civilian casualties in today’s wars.

President Barack Obama last week issued an executive order directing the military to improve the protection of civilians in combat zones. As veterans who have commanded American forces in combat, we urge the Department of Defense to consider hard-won lessons from recent conflicts when implementing the order.

The military teaches its leaders to balance the needs of the mission with protection of the force. In some cases, this balance can present a difficult trade-off. The best leaders accomplish both to the greatest extent possible.

Some argue that any efforts to protect civilians beyond what is required in the law of armed conflict, or LOAC, constitute unnecessary restrictions on the use of force and could endanger our soldiers on the ground. Others argue that the United States military should go above and beyond the minimum rules of engagement to protect civilians. Both views have some merit; however, neither captures reality in all cases.

Today’s wars that are typically fought among the people often result in a third critical task – protection of the civilian populace. In the wars of the post-9/11 era, balancing the need to protect our force while minimizing civilian casualties has become increasingly difficult – and increasingly consequential to successful accomplishment of the mission. The enemies we and our partners have fought frequently have located in population centers – a phenomenon that has grown more commonplace with the increase in urbanization around the world. The guerrillas and insurgents (and even the Islamic State’s army) we have fought have often used civilians as shields, thus complicating the job of soldiers on the ground carrying out operations to capture or kill or clear the enemy from the populations we are seeking to secure.

It is frequently critical that we and our host nation partners gain the support of the people. Their active support is needed for host nations to win; by contrast, their passive or active support of our adversaries enables insurgencies to endure. Legitimacy in the eyes of the population is essential for success.

As we found in Afghanistan, an approach that places insufficient emphasis on civilian protection can undermine achievement of our strategic objectives and increase the risk to our forces. In a new report by Open Society Foundations, one of us, co-author Christopher Kolenda, argues that civilian harm in Afghanistan by members of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, and Afghan forces – particularly in the early-to-mid-2000s – played a significant role in the growth and sustainability of the Taliban and undermined the legitimacy of coalition and Afghan government. These problems, at a minimum, intensified the conflict and made joint objectives more difficult to achieve.

International military operations reportedly killed 828 Afghan civilians in 2008 – 39 percent of the total civilian fatalities that year. This prompted the Taliban to use civilian casualties as major propaganda and recruiting tools, reinforcing the perception that international forces were careless about Afghan lives. By 2009, Afghans were reportedly losing faith in their government and in the international mission.

We began to take serious action to address the issue in 2009. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new ISAF commander, went to great lengths to explain why civilian protection had to become central to the campaign. His directives required commanders to think more carefully about the consequences of civilian casualties on force protection and mission accomplishment.

As the first year of the directives was completed, however, there was substantial concern on the ground that force protection was being unduly limited by the efforts to avoid civilian casualties. The other of us (David Petraeus) was asked to address this issue during my confirmation hearing to command ISAF in June 2010. After taking command in early July, I reviewed the directives in force and concluded that, while they were generally sound, some commanders below COMISAF had been placing additional restrictions on the use of force, thereby increasing the risk of lost opportunities to engage the enemy and hampering the ability to do all necessary to protect our soldiers in difficult situations.  

After consulting our commanders and completing my review, I removed the freedom to add to the restrictions established at my level, and sought to reinforce both the importance of civilian protection to accomplishment of our mission and the right to employ all necessary measures in defending our troopers in difficult situations. The subsequent implementation of this intent went well, and we simultaneously helped refine pre-deployment training conducted for leaders and units in the U.S. And we also upgraded our collection and analysis of data that helped our commanders understand the extent to which civilian casualties affected achievement of both our strategic objectives and force protection.

Gens. John Allen and Joe Dunford, my successors as commander of coalition and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, further refined our procedures and processes as the campaign progressed.  The results were significant. From 2010 to 2012, the period of our surge in forces in Afghanistan, not only were there significant security gains in former Taliban strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar, but ISAF-caused civilian casualties were reduced by 41 percent. And U.S. military losses during ground engagements declined by 22 percent.  

In short, there were impressive achievements in security and civilian protection without compromising force protection.

It is important going forward that we continue to operationalize the lessons we learned. The U.S. government should strongly consider the recommendations of the Open Society Foundations report and use its conclusions to advance our national objectives while protecting the civilian population and protecting the members of our own force.

We would like to highlight three of the recommendations. First, the Department of Defense needs to incorporate the interplay of military objectives, force protection, and civilian protection at all levels of professional military education and training. Second, the military should improve its data collection and analysis capability concerning the strategic impact of civilian harm – using the systems we had in place in Afghanistan as a model. This will improve military decision-making tools and avoid unnecessary restrictions on the use of force. Finally, the U.S. government must encourage similar steps to improve partner nation performance and accountability – civilian harm by local forces can damage American interests and credibility.  

Enacting these recommendations will require resources. We urge Congress to support them. These measures are relatively low cost, but will have high impact on strategic performance and the protection of our own forces. In today’s wars, we can ill-afford to be repeating the same errors that have prolonged conflicts and undermined our chances of winning.

David Petraeus is former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and a retired U.S. Army general. He was the top commanding general of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was commander of U.S. Central Command. Christopher Kolenda, retired U.S. Army colonel, was a battalion commander in Afghanistan and senior advisor to three ISAF Commanders.

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