As part of the Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice project, funded by the Research Council of Norway and under the umbrella of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, Astri Suhrke (Senior Researcher at CMI) has recently written the policy brief Protection of civilians: Why they die in US strikes. Following the devastating US military airstrike on the MSF hospital in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan (see NCHS blog post on the issue), Suhrke brings into light the tremendous cost inflicted on civilians by specific Western military operations and reflects on ways to reduce these kinds of costs of war. Focusing on US strikes, mainly in Afghanistan, she notes that even one of the most technologically advanced militaries of our age has not been able to prevent large civilian casualties. US airstrikes have failed to adequately discriminate civilians from combatants, causing so-called “collateral damage”, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the objective of providing security and safety for the Afghan people. While unintended, such civilian casualties may constitute violations of international humanitarian law and, in some cases, possibly war crimes. To date, investigations conducted by the US military have not been transparent, while investigations by external bodies have been limited by lack of access to information, Suhrke writes.
Nevertheless, unlike the situations in Iraq and Syria, there have been significant reductions in civilian casualties caused by allied air strikes in Afghanistan due to external monitoring, political pressure and changes in strategic doctrines adopted by the US military. Particularly important, according to Suhrke, was the switch in US military doctrine to an approach based on “winning hearts and minds” of the local population.
In conclusion, Suhrke notes that the risk of civil casualties is inherent in the use of airpower in asymmetric conflicts, and highlights three policy implications: (i) “the path of least resistance would be to accept collateral damage as a systemic and inherent dimension of external military interventions of this kind”; (ii) “a more active approach would stress political action to improve monitoring and accountability and change ‘system design’ through better targeting and related measures”; and (iii), though it is warned that political solutions are not easily found, “to employ means of statecraft other than military force to manage conflicts in weak or collapsing states”.
Read the full policy brief, published by CMI, here.