The expectation that civilians should be protected from the worst excesses of war is traditionally viewed as a moral or legal restraint, moderating the kind of violence that can be inflicted on the battlefield. But the shift towards counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq and its emphasis on population-centric warfare called for a radical rethink in how civilian casualties are framed. Rather than simply viewing them as the tragic but inevitable side-effect of military operations, civilian casualties were now seen as a ‘strategic setback’ that could jeopardise the overall success of campaign. In his 2011 tactical directive, Gen. John R. Allen stated that he was ‘absolutely committed to eliminating the tragic waste of human life amongst the law-abiding citizens of Afghanistan’, reminding soldiers that ‘every civilian casualty is a detriment to our interests’. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was equally adamant about the need to reduce civilian harm, insisting that coalition forces try to ‘avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage’.
Concerned about alienating the local population, the military introduced a number of measures to reduce the number of civilians killed, limiting its reliance on deadly airstrikes and controversial night raids whilst encouraging troops to exercise greater ‘tactical patience’ when dealing with locals. Data collected by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan suggests that these changes did have a positive impact on civilian harm, with deaths caused by pro-government forces falling from 828 in 2008 to 341 in 2013. As Neta Crawford argues in her recent book, ‘when the United States perceived the harm to civilians as posing a political-military problem, it attempted and succeeded in decreasing collateral damage deaths’ (see also). But a new report from the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) raises some important questions about the protection of civilians during this period, criticising the vague, unclear and imprecise language used to justify certain deaths (see also). In particular, it warns that conceptual flaws in the standing rules of engagement (SROE), combined with poor application in the field, resulted in ‘erroneous determinations of hostile intent’. To put it simply, civilians were killed and injured because soldiers mistook perfectly innocent behaviour as a threat to their safety.