For most Americans, the wars being conducted on our behalf are something that receive little more than an occasional mention on the nightly news or make a fleeting appearance in our social media feeds. That gap becomes even larger when the Department of Defense (DoD) keeps from us accurate information about the real human costs of war (or lacks the information altogether).
Civilian Casualties Under-Reported
A recent investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal in the New York Times Magazine reveals that the number of civilians killed in operations against ISIS is actually much higher than we’ve been told. In Iraq, U.S. and coalition forces claim their strikes killed 466 civilians since the U.S. began the war against the Islamic State in 2014. The New York Times Magazine investigation found one in five strikes resulted in civilian deaths, “a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition.” There was no evidence the Pentagon was willfully misleading, but their investigation found “a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all.”
Not only are these civilian deaths deeply troubling from a humanitarian perspective, they also risk undermining our efforts in the region and increasing retaliation against our troops. Moreover, not knowing the real cost of these strikes also undermines the ability to make appropriate policy decisions about our objectives and tactics. The New York Times Magazine investigation found many of these civilian deaths were the result of “flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants.”
Risks of retaliation may only be increasing due to two recent policy changes. The first, which the Times pointed out, is a change regarding condolence payments. In Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the U.S. makes payments to civilians for property damage and family members killed. Despite Congress authorizing funding for these condolence payments, the Times found “not a single person in Iraq or Syria has received a condolence payment for a civilian death since the war began in 2014.”
The second cause is the decision to loosen the rules of engagement. Rules of engagement specify how and when deadly force may be employed by the military in a particular zone of operations. They generally include restraints on disproportionate actions that would violate the law of war, such as guarding against harm to civilians or their property. Political leaders and military commanders put these rules in place to ensure the national policy objectives match the actions of the troops on the ground. They are meant to ensure the means used in war match the ends being sought and prevent the unintended consequences that may arise from an excessive use of force.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the Armed Services committees last month that pilots may now target suspected Taliban and Islamic State militants in Afghanistan, even if these individuals are not engaging U.S. troops. These expanded rules of engagement will increase the opportunity for error, especially when combat actions are based on bad intelligence.
The Times investigation makes clear there must be more oversight and transparency for how we count casualties in combat, and Congress should hold the military accountable for these numbers as they assess proposals to increase troops and spending for these wars.
Child Sexual Abuse by Afghan Forces
A recent report by the DoD Inspector General (DoD IG) raises concerns about U.S. forces’ knowledge of sexual abuse of children by Afghan defense and security forces. While there was no official policy or guideline discouraging reporting, some of the people interviewed by the IG said they were informally told to basically mind their own business. “The DoD did not conduct training for personnel deployed or deploying to Afghanistan before 2015 on identifying, responding to, or reporting suspected instances of child sex abuse,” the IG wrote. This training was mandated by the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. The IG identified 16 allegations of child sexual abuse between 2010 and 2016, but could not confirm that no other allegations had been reported.
The investigation was sparked by the Army’s decision to discharge Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland for beating up an Afghan police commander who was sexually abusing a boy. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) challenged the decision to discharge Martland. “[H]e and others felt they could no longer stand by and allow the [Afghan Local Police] to commit atrocities,” Hunter wrote in a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. “To intervene was a moral decision, and SFC Martland and his Special Forces team felt they had no choice but to respond.” The Army later reversed the decision, and Hunter introduced legislation to mandate reporting sexual abuse on U.S. bases.
More questions were raised after Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley was murdered after he expressed concerns about an Afghan National Police Commander’s alleged sexual abuse of boys. “The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” Dan Quinn, a former Special Forces captain told the New York Times in 2015. “But we were putting people into power who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did—that was something village elders voiced to me.”
Under the “Leahy Law” the U.S. government is prohibited from using funds for security forces who commit gross violations of human rights. DoD officials told DoD IG that child sexual abuse by Afghan National Defense and Security Forces could rise to that level. But the Leahy Law is rarely enforced. “DoD decisions to withhold funding or apply the notwithstanding authority for [Gross Violations of Human Rights], including instances of child abuse committed by [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces]…only occur about once a year,” the DoD IG found.
“[D]espite the valiant efforts of whistleblowers like Buckley and Martland, Afghan child abuse appears to be an interminable feature of America’s forever war,” Jared Keller noted in Task and Purpose.
There have been myriad efforts to try to avert Americans’ gaze from the real human costs of war. President George H.W. Bush banned photographs of military coffins, a policy left in place for 18 years and only lifted in 2009. Service members and their families have had to fight DoD to admit the health risks at places like Area 51, Camp Lejeune, and at open-air burn pits on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The DoD is classifying noncontroversial information as well. For example, Defense Secretary James Mattis has resisted providing the public with specifics about the number of troops deployed. What we do know, according to recently published data, is our troop presence in the Middle East in the last four months has increased by a third, from 40,517 to 54,180. The DoD has also blocked the release of data about Afghan Forces.
If we want to have an honest debate about our decisions to go to war, the American people need to have a full accounting of all of the consequences of those decisions.