Talking Points

Why the Pentagon can't put an end to civilian deaths

Following the botched U.S. drone strike that killed 10 members of an Afghan family last year, the Pentagon has announced a new plan to reduce civilian deaths in America's wars abroad. The Defense Department will set up a "civilian protection center of excellence" to develop policies and rules, institute new reporting requirements, and make the issue a priority in battle planning. 

Preventing the deaths of innocents "is a strategic and moral imperative," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memorandum to senior defense officials. 

This is commendable. I'm just not sure if the new rules will work.

The New York Times has recently produced a series of investigative reports focusing on the U.S. war against ISIS in Syria, documenting a number of incidents in which civilians were killed or threatened. There was a 2017 strike on a dam that risked the lives of tens of thousands of people living downstream, and a 2019 bombardment that killed dozens of Syrian civilians. Both events were part of a broader pattern of U.S. forces unleashing deadly force with only the barest discrimination between terrorist fighters and the civilians who deserved protection.

The problem in each of those cases was not an absence of regulations. Indeed, the Syrian dam was very explicitly on a "no-strike" list kept by American forces and their allies. Instead, the Times revealed in December, U.S. operators often made flimsy invocations of self-defense "which enabled them to move quickly with little second-guessing or oversight, even if their targets were miles from any fighting."

"It's more expedient to resort to self-defense," a former Pentagon adviser told the paper. "It's easier to get approved."

Such rule-bending is routine in war. The U.S. has laws and treaties against torture; smart lawyers found a way to ignore them after 9/11 and indeed, they found it imperative to do so. American soldiers suspected or convicted of committing war crimes are celebrated on Fox News and sometimes even pardoned by presidents. American forces go abroad to battle the country's enemies on our behalf — for our freedom and safety, we're told — so we're naturally inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt or even encourage them to play fast and loose with the rules. Civilian deaths and injuries are the natural results.

Maybe Austin's efforts will bear fruit. As my colleague Ryan Cooper has pointed out, the Biden Administration has massively pared back America's drone wars. But history suggests that wherever war is happening, civilians suffer and die. A bit of bureaucratic shuffling probably won't change that.