In Coalition Ops, Civilian Protections Are Only as Strong as the Weakest Link

A Coalition Forces member launches an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle near Hajin, Syria, Jan 8, 2019.

u.s. army photo by spc. christian simmons

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A Coalition Forces member launches an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle near Hajin, Syria, Jan 8, 2019.

New research suggests ways to help multinational groups reduce risks to civilians.

Multinational coalitions have become an enduring feature of American wars, from standing alliances like NATO to the ad-hoc coalitions fighting Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. Yet, for the frequency with which the US turns to coalitions as a preferred mode of fighting, remarkably little has been done to examine the relationship between coalition operations and civilian casualties. Without examining what makes them unique, it’s hard to know whether coalitions prevent or cause more civilian casualties than unilateral operations, and why.

Research recently concluded by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) suggests a somewhat unsatisfying answer: it depends. The political process of enlisting participation and buy-in from coalition participants can lead to greater accountability and collective restraint, but it can also produce compromises that facilitate or obscure harm. Meanwhile, the parallel chains of command and varied national preferences characteristic of multinational coalitions may allow more cautious members to veto operations that could cause casualties, while also introducing obstacles to preventing and accounting for civilian harm. Most importantly, our research suggests ways to help coalitions better prevent and respond to civilian casualties.

Understanding what makes coalitions different when it comes to civilian harm requires understanding their most important defining features: their parallel command structures and their political character. With very few exceptions, a country will never fully submit its own armed forces to the full authority of a commander from another country, and thus all participating forces report to some extent to both a national command and a multinational command. This makes it difficult to train all forces to the same standard of protection and response.

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Moreover, coalition partners inevitably have differing political goals. For example, countries that lack direct strategic interest in the mission are likely to commit fewer resources and have a lower appetite for risk – including risks to their own forces, political and reputational risks, and in some cases, risk of harm to civilians. This can produce wide variation in rules of engagement and — as in NATO’s Afghanistan operations — national caveats that limit what a country’s armed forces can do. These can be important tools for minimizing civilian harm: for example, during the NATO campaign in Kosovo, Canada declared that that it would only strike certain targets at night to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. At the same time, if coalition partners’ caveats, differing rules of engagement, and other sensitivities are poorly communicated or misunderstood, unforeseen complexities are likely to arise that may make civilian harm even more likely. Heavily caveated troops that do not anticipate seeing combat may also be less prepared to employ the tactics needed to minimize harm.

Varied appetites for risk and parallel command structures also affect transparency and attribution of civilian casualties. Technically, when a coalition lacks its own legal “personality,” the actions of any one state’s armed forces are attributable to that state. But recent experience suggests that coalition structures can enable states to avoid association with civilian casualties by attributing them to the coalition as a whole, effectively “hiding” the responsible party. For example, when Operation Inherent Resolve began, U.S. Central Command officials issued daily press releases summarizing airstrikes executed that day and which nations’ aircraft were involved. As Airwars and Remote Control have covered extensively, these policies changed as new nations joined the fight. In October 2014, following the first Danish strikes in the conflict, CENTCOM’s daily summaries stopped identifying which nations were involved in strikes “out of respect for participating nations.” By March 2015, daily releases also stopped distinguishing between U.S. actions and those of its partners, referring instead to strikes by “Coalition military forces.” Danish Col. Søren W. Andersen matter-of-factly confirmed Denmark’s intent to hide behind the coalition in a 2014 interview: “You shouldn’t be able to track one specific attack in one specific area back to a Danish plane. We prefer to hide in the crowd.” To date, Australia, the Netherlands, and the UK have joined the United States as the only Inherent Resolve participants to publicly acknowledge civilian casualties.

A lack of transparency can also hinder other forms of response to civilian harm, including investigations, acknowledgments, apologies, or, where appropriate, ex gratia — commonly known as condolence payments. Because many of these steps remain the purview of individual nations, when countries refuse to step forward and take responsibility for civilian harm, little else is assured. And as Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal documented in their groundbreaking New York Times report, varied and conflicting national policies on monetary payments also place an enormous burden on civilians already suffering the loss of loved ones, their homes, and livelihoods, who must often visit multiple embassies and headquarters to identify the nation that harmed them and its amends policy – perhaps finding that no policy exists at all.

If the U.S. government is serious about addressing civilian casualties that result from its operations, then it must develop strategies to contend with the unique challenges posed by coalitions. This will require the Pentagon and State Department to ensure that partners in future coalitions are adequately aligned on the purpose of the operation and explicit about how the coalition will prevent and respond to civilian casualties. Coalition partners must also be sufficiently aligned on parameters for the use of force, and clear-eyed about the risks they will or will not assume in order to prevent civilian casualties. Doing so will not only temper the risk of civilian casualties that may result from disparate ROE and caveats, but will also serve a broader array of objectives by ensuring unity of effort, reducing the likelihood of parallel tasking cycles, and avoiding surprises about what partners are willing to take on.

Coalition partners should also develop joint tactics and procedures for civilian harm mitigation, and train and test them during combined exercises, peacetime training, and pre-deployment training. Coalition operations should be resourced to host a multinational cell responsible for assessing all reports of civilian harm, investigating where necessary, acknowledging harm caused, and identifying lessons learned. Given the challenges inherent in attributing coalition operations to any one state, we also recommend the development of a coalition-wide amends fund, which would allow the coalition to provide ex gratia payments for civilian casualties even when the individual nation responsible remains unidentified – as we are seeing with OIR.

The U.S. military says it does “everything humanly possible” to avoid civilian casualties. But without a close look at the risks and opportunities inherent to its preferred mode of fighting, a coalition’s ability to mitigate civilian harm will only be as strong as its weakest link.

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