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How Many Iraqi and Syrian civilians is it acceptable for the U.S. to put at risk of injury or death in air strikes against ISIS militants? One would think that the answer should be zero, because since 2010, U.S. policymakers have said it is. But in a dramatic switch revealed last week, the Pentagon has reversed a trend of decreasing tolerance for collateral damage that began in the 1990s in U.S. operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. The U.S. is now prepared to risk many more civilians in military operations — as many as 50 in a single attack — against ISIS than during the war and occupation of Iraq and during the war in Afghanistan.
America's regard for civilian lives in conflict zones is what makes us different. On June 5 of last year, Lt. General John Hesterman said in a Pentagon press briefing:
"...we do go out of our way to protect innocent civilians because it's the right thing to do and it's one of the things that separates us from the terrorists we're fighting, who kill anyone who isn't them."
Indeed, ISIS deliberately kills civilians in the name of liberating them. ISIS can even, as we have recently seen, order a son to kill his own mother.
...in a dramatic switch revealed last week, the Pentagon has reversed a trend of decreasing tolerance for collateral damage.
The current war against ISIS started in August 2014 as an attempt to save thousands of civilian Yazidis in northern Iraq from ISIS. Since then, the U.S. has made approximately 7,400 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in Operation Inherent Resolve. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized the care the U.S. has taken to avoid harming civilians:
"We plan with proportionality and we execute with discrimination in terms of the targets we are going after. We’re very careful in terms of civilian casualties, and some have criticized us for that. I will not apologize for that, because we are fighting the long fight, and for us to do otherwise would be shortsighted."
But there is almost always some risk to civilians. The U.S. military has a term of art — the "Non-Combatant Casualty Cut-Off Value," or NCV, to describe a threshold above which the U.S. will hesitate to strike because there is a likelihood that too many civilians will be killed or injured. In Iraq, following the 2003 invasion, that value was set, according to U.S. documents released by Wikileaks, at 30 civilians. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or President Bush was required to authorize any airstrike in which it was estimated that 30 or more civilian casualties were likely, with the standard of "likely" being above a 10 percent or greater chance.
Permission was sought and given more than 50 times in the early months of the Iraq war. If strikes are authorized, even when it is known that there is a greater risk that civilians will be harmed, and civilians are harmed in those strikes, it is because the Pentagon decides that the unintended harm to civilians is worth it given the value of the target.
In the mid-2000s, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq came to believe that civilian casualties were counterproductive, that they were prolonging the war by increasing resistance to the occupations. In response, they lowered the standard NCV for risking civilians and modified operations to reduce risk to civilians. In mid-2009, General Stanley McChrystal limited close air support airstrikes and changed other rules of engagement in a further attempt to reduce civilian casualties. In late 2010, ISAF Commander General John Allen articulated a goal of reducing civilian casualties in Afghanistan to "zero." General Allen put the following in boldface type in a tactical directive released on November 30, 2011:
"My intent is to eliminate ISAF caused civilian casualties across Afghanistan, and minimize civilian casualties throughout the area of operations by reducing their exposure to insurgent operations."
In May 2013, when he made public the administration's new standards for drone strikes against terrorists, President Obama also set the threshold at zero: "...before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilian can be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set."
These tighter standards for risking civilian lives and the operational changes paid off in Afghanistan. The United Nations found that the U.S. killed more than 550 civilians in Afghanistan by airstrikes in 2008. In contrast, with tighter rules, the U.S. killed 126 Afghan civilians in 2012. And with greater care, fewer civilians were killed and injured in air and ground operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan through 2014.
It appears that the U.S. set out to keep the threshold at zero when it began to bomb ISIS targets in 2014. Nevertheless, the U.S. military's investigation of a U.S. airstrike in March 2015 that killed four civilians at a checkpoint in Iraq revealed that, "The NCV= 0 objective was not met." (Boldface emphasis is the military's.)
Now is not the time to relax the higher moral and tactical standards the U.S. had adopted...
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that the U.S. was "prepared to change" the rules of engagements and tactics against ISIS.
In planning to strike the money held by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq with two, 2,000 pound bombs, the U.S. considered the issue of civilian casualties and organized the timing of the attack to minimize them. While most of the attention to the strike has been on the cash that it destroyed, reporting by CNN's Barbara Starr revealed something else very important: "U.S. commanders had been willing to consider up to 50 civilian casualties from the airstrike due to the importance of the target. But the initial post-attack assessment indicated that perhaps five to seven people were killed."
Starr also noted that, "In recent weeks, the U.S. has said it will assess all targets on a case-by-case basis and may be more willing to tolerate civilians casualties for more significant targets."
One wonders if the Pentagon, reversing years of its own analysis and directives, is no longer concerned that increasing civilian casualties creates more enemies. Now is not the time to relax the higher moral and tactical standards the U.S. had adopted and institutionalized in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NCV should still equal zero.