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POV: US Military’s Plummeting Collateral Damage

Something to cheer about this Veterans Day: declining civilian deaths in Afghanistan


“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

Last month, in the week before the 12th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan, four US soldiers were killed, a stiff reminder, if one were needed, of the human toll of US fighting there.

Many assessments of the war and occupation of Afghanistan are negative, highlighting continued fighting, ongoing corruption, and the occasional G.I. who goes berserk, killing civilians. But something rather amazing also has occurred and deserves attention and credit.

Over the past few years, US military and civilian leaders learned not only that civilian protection in a war zone is important, but also began to systematically protect civilians. And they achieved results.

At the war’s start, some leaders minimized the importance of Afghan civilians. General Tommy Franks said, “We don’t do body counts.” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “…civilian casualties, however regrettable and however tragic…have to be secondary to the primary goal of eliminating the enemy.” Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that civilian casualties were inevitable: “Now in a war, that happens. There is nothing you can do about it.”

While the United States began the war promising to keep civilian casualties low and made some effort to avoid incidents of large-scale harm to civilians, in practice, the military necessity (killing militants) was prioritized over civilian protection. By my own conservative estimate, based on publicly available sources, some 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001. We and our allies are responsible for about a quarter of those deaths.

Incidents ranged from the unbelievable—the United States twice bombing the same clearly marked Red Cross building in 2001—to the spectacularly awful—American bombs killing more than 90 civilians, including 60 children, in Azizabad in August 2008 in the effort to kill one militant leader. More common were incidents when handfuls of civilians were killed during air support or night raid missions.

Meantime, Americans developed an unfortunate habit of initially disputing or denying Afghan death and injury tolls, only to later acknowledge and apologize for the harm.

But this is a good news story. The US military and civilian leadership eventually learned that killing civilians not only damages the image of Americans abroad, but also causes an uptick in militant activity. In other words, when the United States or its allies hurt or killed civilians, and then failed to acknowledge the harm, our soldiers were at greater risk. Protecting civilians, therefore, became a military necessity.

In 2008, General David McKiernan, then US commander in Afghanistan, reversed previous policy and created the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell to investigate instances of harm to civilians and gather the data that would make it possible to analyze trends. A Defense Department report in January 2009 stated, in typical Pentagon jargon, “Kinetic operations have to be carefully executed to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage that weaken popular support for international forces.”

McKiernan and his successors (Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus) made significant changes in the rules of engagement and tactics in an effort to reduce the likelihood of harm to civilians. The most important was the 2009 institutionalization of restrictions on air strikes. Further, US officials began to acknowledge and apologize for harming civilians and stopped blaming Afghans civilians for being in the way. By early 2012, the stated goal in Afghanistan was “zero” collateral damage deaths.

So while military actions still kill and injure Afghan civilians, the United States and its partners have increasingly taken greater care to avoid such harm. They have come to view collateral damage “accidents” as both predictable and preventable.

Overall, the United Nations has found that the percentage of civilians killed by US-led international and Afghan forces has declined—to 11 percent in 2012 from a high of 41 percent in 2007—even as the intensity of the fighting increased. Moreover, the US military has changed policy in Afghanistan and institutionalized greater care for civilians in upgraded Air Force targeting procedures and new Army manuals and training.

US procedures for drone strikes, however, have been slower to evolve. Although the numbers are hotly disputed, the United States has apparently killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians in its attempts to target militants in Pakistan and Yemen. Only in May of this year did President Obama articulate what might be called a “zero-tolerance” for civilian casualties in drone strikes: “Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilian can be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.”

Yes, we should take time now for somber reflection on the US war in Afghanistan. But, in fairness, we also must credit policy makers for learning from mistakes.

Neta Crawford, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of political science, can be reached at crawfor@bu.edu. This column originally appeared in Cognoscenti, WBUR’s online opinion page.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


6 Comments on POV: US Military’s Plummeting Collateral Damage

  • student on 11.11.2013 at 9:54 am

    Why are we hitting “militants” (Al Qaeda) in Yemen and Pakistan, but helping “rebels” (ISIS\ISIL\Al Queada) in Syria?

    • Stephen on 11.12.2013 at 4:53 pm

      Because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. There is no doubt that both sides in Syria are evil and our leaders have more information about it than we do. They believe that arming Al Quaeda is killing 2 birds with one stone. Hopefully, the rebels and Al Quaeda will kill each other.

  • DM on 11.12.2013 at 12:04 am

    This piece fails to mention the contributions of Al-Queda and The Taliban to the civilian body counts. This piece also conveniently fails to mention that senior leaders of both organizations surround themselves with innocent civilians like the petty cowards that they are. Ms Crawford clearly has not walked the streets of Kabul, visited the outlying bases in Nangahar or Logar provinces nor seen the brutality of the fighting there. Yes, all needless deaths are regrettable and should be avoided, but from the comforts of an office or dorm room overlooking Commonwealth Avenue or The Charles, it’s easy to forget that a moment wasted second guessing one’s own defense and self preservation can mean the difference between stepping off of a plane at a homecoming or being carried off the plane in a metal box.

    • student on 11.12.2013 at 11:16 am

      you are correct. I have seen numerous videos that show Al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq executing civilians via decapitation; just because they are not Sunni or have thought to have supported Assad. I have never seen SAA (Syrian Arab Army) or US troops doing that.

  • DM on 11.12.2013 at 12:07 am

    One other comment based on the headline to this piece. There’s always something to cheer about on every Veterans’ Day; the Veterans who have chosen to serve with honor, integrity and distinction to keep us all safe. What other reason do we really need to cheer on such a day?

  • Jim B on 11.12.2013 at 11:55 am

    Never in human history has a military force demonstrated such a high regard for the minimization of civilian casualties, often at the cost of exposing American military personnel to a heightened risk to their own personal safety. This has been our policy from Day One of this conflict, although – unlike President Obama – General Franks, Senator McCain and Secretary Rumsfeld were too honest to pretend that there can be such a thing as “zero-tolerance” for civilian casualties in war. That this is news to Professor Crawford is troubling, as is her uncritical citation of questionable and biased accounts of civilian casualties. The second bombing of the Red Cross building occurred in the first days of the war, and was a targeting mistake caused by human error. It is not in any way “unbelievable” to anyone who has the common sense to consider the inherent complexity of conducting precision strikes on particular buildings in Afghanistan – which ironically is a tactic necessitated by our military’s commitment to avoid collateral damage. Similarly, the US military investigated the allegations of having caused mass civilian casualties at Azizabad in 2008 and found them to be false. I did not have to do any special research to discover these facts – they are in the articles that Professor Crawford linked to. She is of course entitled to believe that Afghan accounts are more credible than those of the US military, but she might at least openly admit that she is doing that.

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