Civilian Lives and the Fate of Campaigns


Do civilian lives matter in war? Critics argue that any restrictions on the use of force beyond the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) are self-defeating and result in more American military deaths.

Some Republican presidential candidates have advocated torture, carpet bombing cities held by ISIL, and targeting family members of militant leaders. Top military officials have pushed back, noting that such actions would violate the laws of war. Other former officials, meanwhile, deride restrictions on the use of force in Iraq and Syria.

With 15 years of battlefield experience since 9/11, the military has the data to more effectively manage the complex interactions between strategic interests, force protection, and civilian protection. How the U.S. military uses this data will signal its seriousness about learning and adapting from recent conflicts.

The way forward is laid out in my new report with co-authors Rachel Reid and Chris Rogers from the Open Society Foundations, The Strategic Costs of Civilian Harm: Applying Lessons from Afghanistan to Current and Future Conflicts. My co-authors and I interviewed more than 60 senior U.S. and Afghan officers, diplomats, aid workers, and other experts, including  former Afghan president Karzai  and two former International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commanders — Generals David Petraeus and John Allen. We also took a deep dive into the academic literature and recent empirical studies to develop our findings and recommendations.

To me, this issue is more than a matter of academic interest.

Echoes in the Mountains


That is the address. I know the way by heart. The number and name is etched into the light gray granite, Thomas Gordon Bostick, Jr.

Staring at Tom’s name, my mind races to the mountains of Afghanistan on July 27, 2007. Tom’s unit, Bulldog (B Troop), was outnumbered three-to-one by an enemy that knew every rock and cave. I was at my tactical command post, set on a mountain ridgeline, six miles away, helping coordinate other ground forces, airstrikes, artillery, and attack helicopters. The hammering from large caliber weapons, the crash of grenades, and the thunder from airstrikes pummeling enemy positions marked the battle’s intensity. Apache helicopters swooped in with deadly rockets and machine guns.

The battle raged for several hours. Then it stopped. The insurgents broke contact.

Tom updated me over the radio. His platoons had consolidated their positions and evacuated all casualties. They were preparing to continue their patrol. Tom was a masterful tactician and an extraordinary leader. At 37-years-old, he was nearer in age to me than his peers. We were close friends.

Then I heard it.

A single explosion shattered the early afternoon calm. The fight erupted with renewed intensity. Tom placed himself in the line of fire to protect his men. The Bulldogs fought bravely. Their skill and the weight of airstrikes forced the enemy to break contact a few hours later. But two of my men were killed, and a dozen wounded.

The explosion I heard was the rocket propelled grenade that killed Tom. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry under fire.

8755, Section 60, Arlington National Cemetery. That is where he rests in peace.

Shattered Lives

That firefight and others before it made me question every assumption about the war in that area. I realized that the character of the conflict was much different than what we had been told and believed.

The LOAC is thoroughly ingrained in U.S. military training and education. Like most of my fellow warriors, I regarded civilian casualties as a deeply saddening but inevitable consequence of war. We did all we could to avoid them, striking valid and necessary military targets with discrimination and proportionality.

But seeing the war from the perspective of local civilians helped me understand why that view was inadequate. In wars among the people — where the real battles are for legitimacy — civilian harm, even within the bounds of LOAC, can have major negative impacts on the mission.

Tom’s replacement, Joey Hutto, and his team, intensified our outreach to Afghan villagers – an approach we would later call “armed diplomacy.” The elders spoke candidly and told us that they had welcomed the Americans in the hope of developing their economically poor district. Instead, they got fighting, dead and wounded family members, house and mosque searches, and a corrupt government.

The whole ecology of local civilian life was shattered. Instability increased the prices of food and goods. When civilian men were badly wounded or killed, families lost their breadwinners. When women and children were wounded and killed or their houses searched, the men were ashamed and felt honor-bound to seek revenge. Men could languish for months in detention facilities and were assumed to have been tortured, many of them guilty of no crime. Corrupt officials pilfered international assistance.

The elders were particularly upset at how some rivals had ingratiated themselves with U.S. forces years earlier. These people fed Americans “bad intelligence,” duping them into killing or capturing community leaders to settle old scores and amass power.

The most significant example was the targeting of a local elder who was a famous mujahideen leader in the Soviet-Afghan war. In the beginning, he had been a strong advocate for American presence in the district. After being hunted by U.S. forces based on trumped-up information provided by a personal rival, he fought back and began a deadly insurrection. That summer was our turn to fight it.

Across Afghanistan, such manipulation was widespread and had a disproportionately large impact. By 2007, U.S. civilian and military leaders began to recognize that civilian casualties were undermining the mission, and ISAF commanders issued tactical directives to better protect civilians. In 2008, however, international forces caused 828 civilian deaths, 39 percent of the total for that year and the highest total of the war for ISAF.

ISAF Reforms

U.S. Army General Stanley A. McChrystal, who took charge of ISAF in June 2009, communicated the importance of civilian protection to the command. Even before he took over, I made this point to him and he asked me to explore it further when we deployed.

In Kabul, I was fortunate to meet Rachel Reid (our report’s co-author, then with Human Rights Watch), Erica Gaston from Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), and many other advocates from the United Nations and NGOs. Together with McChrystal’s staff, we made recommendations on how Afghan civilians could be better protected.

These reforms improved over time and reduced ISAF-caused civilian deaths by 69 percent by 2012, while advancing the mission and protecting the force. Generals McChrystal, Petraeus, Allen, and Dunford made civilian protection central to their campaigns. Leadership, training, and data collection, analysis, and feedback made reductions in ISAF-caused civilian casualties possible without imposing unnecessary restrictions.

Figure 1 ISAF Troop Levels and ISAF-caused Civilian Fatalities

If efforts to protect civilians resulted in more American troops being killed, we should have seen a sustained increase in fatalities during firefights, which is when U.S. forces would have been most likely to call for airstrikes and artillery in self-defense. But the available evidence suggests that this was not the case. The normalized rate of troop fatalities during ground engagements actually decreased 7 percent when comparing 2006 (before the first tactical directive in 2007) to 2012 (the last full year of ISAF-led combat operations). The most likely explanation for the significant spike n 2009 and 2001 is that newly arrived U.S. forces were fighting their way into Taliban strongholds of Wardak, Helmand, and Kandahar.

After determining that some commanders were adding restrictions to McChrystal’s tactical directive, General David H. Petraeus revised the directive in August 2010 to lift such restrictions. He also raised standards of civilian protection by requiring that no civilians were present before using air and artillery strikes, unless in self-defense. Afghan civilian fatalities from international military forces declined 41 percent from 2010 to 2012. U.S. military fatalities per deployed soldier during ground engagements declined 26 percent from 2010 to 2011 and 22 percent from 2010 to 2012 (see chart below). Meanwhile, ISAF made significant security gains in former Taliban strongholds such as Kandahar and Helmand.

Figure 2: Source data from Brookings Afghanistan Index

Afghan civilian casualties overall, however, continued rising through 2014. According to UNAMA, this increase was primarily caused by the Taliban and other insurgents. Since taking over lead for security operations in 2013, however, Afghan National Security and Defense Forces have been responsible for increasing amounts of civilian harm due to their use of artillery and mortars in populated areas. This is most likely due to two factors. First, is tactical decision-making: ANDSF leaders have struggled to protect civilians while achieving military objectives and protecting Afghan forces. Second, ground engagements and exchanges of small-arms fire have become both more common and more protracted in the absence of more decisive and precise ISAF capabilities on the ground and in the air.  The sad result? More civilians are getting caught in the cross-fire.

LOAC + Impact

In the nine years that I have been involved in Afghanistan, I am struck by the strategic penalties the United States paid for civilian harm inflicted by international and Afghan forces and militias. It was a key factor in the growth and sustainability of the Taliban, it sorely damaged U.S.-Afghan relations, undermined legitimacy of both parties, and alienated the Afghan people.

Studies show that insurgencies succeed when an they attain sustainable internal and external support, or when the host nation government loses legitimacy. Civilian harm tends to accelerate both problems — it is like burning a candle at both ends with a blowtorch.

Civilian harm inflicted by local partners using “Made in the U.S.A.” weapons, training, equipment, and support can also damage U.S. strategic interests while undermining host nation legitimacy. Sectarian, kleptocratic, racist, and ethno-centric governments are at highest risk of using military force in predatory ways. U.S. skills at training and equipping security forces have outpaced its ability to hold governments accountable.

At some level of accumulation of incidents, human suffering, and perceptions of indifference, unique to each conflict, civilian harm inflicts irreversible damage to the prospects of success. I use imprecise language — “at some level of accumulation” — deliberately. The United States has no institutionalized method to collect, measure, and analyze the strategic impact of civilian harm and the effects of amends. We could be repeating errors, imposing unnecessary restrictions, and losing critical opportunities.

Has civilian harm by the United States and its partners damaged our interests in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere? Are U.S. restrictions strategically beneficial or harmful? We have no systematic way to answer those questions.

This is not an issue of whether to “take the gloves off” against an adversary — it is a more fundamental question of when do we wear gloves and which ones are best?

The findings in our forthcoming report suggest that the United States can more effectively integrate LOAC and strategic impact. The U.S. military has made important strides to improve doctrine, tactics, and procedures. Advancing civilian protection and battlefield effectiveness would include a uniform policy on protection of civilians at the Department of Defense, standing civilian casualty tracking cells — with a multi-layered data gathering and analysis capacity — and integration of civilian harm into combat training centers and professional education. This issue is too important to be left to the lawyers.

Even better civilian protection, however, will not overcome an absent or bankrupt strategy. Why did the United States take so long to recognize that protecting Afghan lives mattered to the outcome of the campaign? Failure to understand the nature of the conflict and to devise a credible strategy to succeed risks prolonging a conflict and the human suffering.

Some damage can be ameliorated. The insurgent leader mentioned above stopped fighting about six months later due to the efforts of B Troop with local elders. He eventually made peace with the Afghan government. I have since met with him nine times. Unfortunately, reconciliation experiences like this were too few and far between.

Civilian harm shatters lives. The cost in American casualties from the consequences of civilian harm has never been calculated. Success in Afghanistan should not have been a close call — civilian harm is a key reason why it hangs in the balance 15 years later.

The U.S. military may be eager to put Afghanistan in the rear view mirror, but so-called wars amongst the people are likely to be with us for many years. We need to wage them more effectively. The military has a unique opportunity to improve the way it manages the complex and delicate interactions between strategic interests, force protection, and civilian protection.


Christopher D. Kolenda is a former task force commander in Afghanistan and senior advisor to three ISAF Commanders and to Under Secretaries of Defense for Policy Michèle A. Flournoy and James Miller. This article has been adapted, with permission, from the Foreword to: “The Strategic Costs of Civilian Harm: Applying Lessons from Afghanistan to Current and Future Conflicts.”

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nathanael Callon