People carry the body of a man they uncovered from under the rubble of a Houthi-held detention center destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017

People carry the body of a man they uncovered from under the rubble of a Houthi-held detention center destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 AP / Hani Mohammed

Reducing the Human Costs of ‘By, With, and Through’

Partnered operations put civilians at risk, which puts U.S. goals at risk. Here are some options for addressing the issue.

“By, with, and through” — a common phrase for describing partnered operations in the U.S. defense lexicon — is the new normal of U.S. military operations around the world. Partnered operations can lower the costs of achieving U.S. security goals, and, if designed well, can also improve security for civilians. Yet, even after decades of experience, too little is understood about how partnered operations can be best planned and implemented to mitigate harm to civilians. Nor is there sufficient policy guidance for circumstances in which the risks to civilians outweigh the benefits of continuing the partnership.

In recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the four-star commanders of U.S. Central and Africa Commands described “by, with, and through” as the preferred approach for securing U.S. interests in their theaters. Examples of U.S. contributions to such operations include training, leading joint planning, intelligence-sharing, accompanying partner forces on counterterrorism missions, and providing air support to partner ground operations. 

These partnerships can be less costly and risky to U.S. personnel than more direct forms of participation and are generally intended to emphasize the importance of local ownership for security operations. Partnerships may be viewed by policymakers as preferable to more remote forms of fighting such as drone strikes, when unilateral actions can create resentment, and where limited access can impede the ability to conduct investigations into civilian casualties. The unique capacities of national and local partners, such as knowledge of local culture and language, can help reduce joint operations’ harm to civilians.

But “fighting together” can also put civilians at risk. Recent experiences — among them the counter-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria, the U.S.-supported Saudi campaign in Yemen, drone strikes in Libya and Somalia, or growing U.S. involvement in the Sahel — show that these risks include civilian casualties, mass displacement, damage to civilian infrastructure, human rights abuses, and a lack of accountability for harm.

A variety of factors make it difficult to mitigate these risks. Decision-making is distributed at the tactical and operational levels, creating risks to civilians over which U.S. forces have less direct control but from which they cannot be fully extricated. Partnered operations can distort the means and incentives to implement measures of distinction, proportion and precaution, and obscure responsibility for attribution and accountability for harm among partners, with legal, policy, and strategic consequences. The lack of transparency in many partnership activities further aggravates this phenomenon, especially in places where the government restricts civil society from engaging on security issues. The implications of partnering with abusive forces are more well-recognized; the preponderance of U.S. policy and legislative initiatives, such as the Leahy Laws, are designed around this particular risk.

Sharing intelligence can also impart risks, especially in lethal operations, when relying on partner-sourced intelligence may expose the United States to errors in fact or judgement that lead directly or indirectly to civilian harm. Entering into partnerships (such as with Saudi Arabia in Yemen) may also be driven by real or politically manufactured urgency, giving little room to assess institutional safeguards and compensate for their limitations. Finally, U.S. forces may be tempted into a more direct role in certain partnered operations, not only risking the lives of U.S. personnel, but also chancing escalation and possibly drawing the United States into more conflicts.

Robust, upstream security-sector assistance can reduce these risks by increasing professionalism and/or the capacity of partner forces. However, given the near-term operational realities of many of these partnerships, and the range of factors resulting in risk to civilians, it is unlikely that the United States can simply train its partners out of the problem.

The U.S. government should reflect on its growing body of experience to consider a much more complete set of options for how best to construct a range of partnerships with a mind toward mitigating the attendant risks. In a recent policy brief, we laid out key issues and questions as the basis for a policy framework to reduce civilian harm in partnered operations. In general, policymakers and defense officials should:

  • Define U.S. responsibilities to prevent, monitor, and account for harm incurred during its partner’s operations;
  • Assess the risks involved, including a comprehensive analysis of the political dynamics, security governance, accountability, and oversight mechanisms available to regulate security force conduct;
  • Encourage its partners to incorporate practical measures to mitigate and investigate instances of civilian harm in their operations;
  • Cultivate open channels of communication with civil society for sharing intentions, reporting incidents, preventing problems, and addressing civilian protection-related concerns;
  • Identify conditions that would prompt limits on or suspension of the partnership.

Whether working “by, with, and through” partners, on balance, improves military effectiveness and achieves broader policy objectives is the subject of much debate. So, too, are important legal questions about the obligations and liabilities created by circumstances of shared responsibility. Calls for attention to the risks in partnered operations globally have come from other organizations such as the ICRC and Oxford Research Group. The issue is particularly urgent and salient for U.S. policymakers and lawmakers, given the unrivaled breadth and scope of U.S. partnership activities, the array of legislative authorities that govern them— and the United States’ ability to set the bar for others.

At a minimum, policymakers should recognize that extensive civilian harm in armed conflict demands a concerted and deliberate approach to reduce risks to civilians. In this regard, U.S. security partnerships are not without costs, even if the costs are less visible to the U.S. public.