Air strikes that cause civilian deaths undermine counterinsurgency efforts, as the US learned painfully in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yemenis must have sighed with relief when, on April 21, the Saudi government announced they would end their air campaign against the Houthi rebels. In a bit more than a month, the strikes have reportedly killed 1,000 civilians and injured many thousands more. Facing mounting criticism of the high civilian toll, Saudis abruptly renamed the campaign Operation Renewal of Hope, but noted that they reserved the right to continue the use of force. The next day their jets hit targets in Yemen yet again. Yemeni civilians—already the victims of years of conflict and suffering every day as hostilities and the humanitarian crisis escalate—continue to be a secondary thought.
The United States, which is providing intelligence and logistical support for the air operations, knows all too well how ignoring civilian harm can undermine mission success. It learned that lesson in Iraq and Afghanistan: indifference toward the plight of civilians generates lasting resentment among the civilian population and strengthens armed groups, at enormous strategic cost. That is why the United States should ensure that Saudi Arabia, a key ally in the Middle East, prioritizes civilian protection in its Yemen operations.
Under international humanitarian law, all countries taking part in coalition military operations, as well as the Yemeni armed forces and armed groups, must comply with the principles of distinction and proportionality, and take all feasible precautions to avoid harm to civilians and damage to civilian objects. But use of force should also be calibrated to ensure that civilian harm is minimized – not as a matter of luck but as a result of careful planning. To underestimate the importance of avoiding civilian harm is to risk mission failure.
In conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and coalition operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. and its allies adopted additional tools and tactics to reduce civilian harm. They learned the importance of carefully vetting human intelligence, when making pre-strike collateral damage estimates and post-strike battle damage assessments. They also saw the value of keeping a central database to track civilian harm to help analyze the effects of operations on civilians. They learned the virtue of tactical patience, waiting when possible to garner more information on possible civilian presence before using lethal force. Taken together, these practices allowed commanders to adjust tactics to decrease civilian harm. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. also instituted policies to acknowledge and aid civilians harmed in the crossfire.
Many of these lessons are readily transferrable to the Saudi-led operation, whose participants include Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Sudan, and Morocco. Saudi officials maintain they are targeting only military bases, but some of these bases are near residential areas. Credible human rights groups report that civilian locations have also been hit, including a refugee camp, a dairy factory, hospitals, and schools. Houthi fighters have also reportedly installed anti-aircraft weapons atop residential buildings. Along with civilian deaths, much of Yemen’s decrepit infrastructure, including the health service, has collapsed. Humanitarian agencies say the Saudi-led operation has blocked aid.
Meanwhile, Arab leaders have pledged to create a joint ground force to battle the insurgency. If ground forces enter Yemen, the civilian death toll will rise. While Arab armies may be well equipped, they are unlikely to have the training to fight rebel forces in an urban environment, where the battle is as much about avoiding harm to civilians as it is about routing opposing forces. These armies may not know how to effectively mitigate civilian harm—that is, to tactically reduce the chance of harm, and to investigate and address it when it happens.
The United States should advise the Saudi military to issue clear policy guidance down the chain of command—and encourage coalition members to do the same—emphasizing the responsibility of military forces to reduce civilian harm, investigate allegations, and acknowledge and assist those harmed. This could begin creating a “mindset” favoring civilian protection amongst coalition members. This should come from the top, but should constantly be nurtured at all levels.
The U.S. should also recommend incorporating “positive identification” in coalition Rules of Engagement and encourage “pattern of life” observations of civilian presence before using lethal force. Intelligence reports and threat assessments should include information on whether civilians are near military objectives. This information should be used to support decision-making on whether and how to engage a target, or decide or whether more information is needed. The US should ensure that its Saudi counterparts understand that just because a target can be engaged doesn’t always mean it should be.
Finally, the U.S. should encourage the Saudi-led coalition to conduct battle damage assessments for immediate review. This information should be housed in a central database for analysis of tactics, investigations of allegations of civilian harm; when operationally feasible, it should also be used to identify and assist civilians who may have been harmed.
The United States is well-versed in policies and tools to reduce civilian harm and used them effectively in Afghanistan, and more recently as part of the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria. It should now share them with its allies fighting in Yemen.
A name change alone does not translate to a viable strategy to avoid civilian harm. The Saudi-led coalition should pause and develop a strategy for avoiding civilian harm now, and accept some of the critical technical advice available from their U.S. partners. The world is watching how Saudi Arabia and its allies use force and judging whether their intervention will do more harm than good for civilians in Yemen. Unless the coalition quickly develops a strategy to minimize civilian harm, it may find that joining a war is easier than winning one.
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