Update – US defends strikes that killed civilians in Syria
When asked to explain how this could have happened, in light of strict and widely publicized US rules of engagement that seem to require “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed,” NSA spokesperson Caitlin Hayden clarified that:
The “near certainty” standard was intended to apply “only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,” Hayden said in an email. “That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.”
In Gaza Israel has often issued warnings before launching its attacks, but has still faced harsh criticism from the US. But the reality is that the US has not warned anyone before launching its own attacks in Syria and Iraq, thereby employing far looser rules of engagement than Israel.
What the United States or other Western democracies would do in a similar situation is purely speculative, since none of these countries have recently been rocketed by a neighboring country, or even face the prospect of their civilians being directly targeted in such a way.
But the United States has been fighting in various Near Eastern countries in recent years, so how has the US carried out this fight, and what have been the US rules of engagement? Of course, as noted above, this is clearly an imperfect comparison, because if US cities and towns were being attacked as Israeli ones have been, the American reaction would almost certainly be far more vigorous than what is allowed by US rules of engagement when the battlefield is thousands of miles from home.
Despite this, it turns out to be an instructive comparison, because under the United States rules of engagement in effect until just a few months ago, any male of military age near a combatant was considered on that basis to also be a combatant and therefore a legitimate target.
In addition, in what were termed “signature strikes,” the US also targeted people because they appeared, often from a drone camera, to be behaving like terrorists, but without any specific supporting evidence, and without having any idea who the people actually were.
Specifically, according to a 2012 New York Times article – “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will” – the US considered all males of military age in the proximity of combatants to also be combatants, unless there was specific, detailed evidence to the contrary. However, this evidence was evaluated after the fact, meaning after the person had already been killed. That is, the presence of possibly innocent civilians, and lack of evidence of guilt, would not cause a strike to be cancelled.
Simply put, under the US rules of engagement during most of the Obama years (and perhaps the Bush years as well), instead of a presumption of innocence, there has been a presumption of guilt:
… Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.
This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.
These rules of engagement were so extraordinarily broad one could hardly imagine the outrage from the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc., if Israel were to act similarly.
Additionally, it is notable that the US disputes claims that its strikes have caused numerous civilian deaths as based on “false propaganda claims by militants.” But, of course, claims of mostly civilian deaths in Gaza are also largely based on data from the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health, so would not the same grounds for doubt apply?
Especially considering the explicit instructions from Hamas to residents of Gaza to label as “innocent civilians” all those killed, regardless of the facts:
Anyone killed or martyred is to be called a civilian from Gaza or Palestine, before we talk about his status in jiha
d or his military rank. Don’t forget to always add ‘innocent civilian’ or ‘innocent citizen’ in your description of those killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza.
As mentioned above, a few months ago, in May of this year, the US adopted more restrictive rules of engagement, which it outlined in two documents: U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities and a Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the President’s Speech on Counterterrorism.
In the first document a new policy is outlined, which includes the requirement that before lethal action can be taken there must be a “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed” and which updates the working definition of non-combatant:
Non-combatants are individuals who may not be made the object of attack under applicable international law. The term “non-combatant” does not include an individual who is part of a belligerent party to an armed conflict, an individual who is taking a direct part in hostilities, or an individual who is targetable in the exercise of national self-defense. Males of military age may be non-combatants; it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.
Two things are notable in this updated definition: First, it is no longer the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a combatant are assumed to also be combatants. And second, besides the obvious combatant categories of those who are members of a belligerent party to a conflict, and those taking a direct part in hostilities, also included as combatants are those individuals “who are targetable in the exercise of national self-defense.”
The last category seems to be, again, extraordinarily broad, and would include anyone the administration deems a threat to national security, whether they are or were directly taking part in hostilities or not.
Moreover, it’s also crucial to note that the new more restrictive policies apply only “outside the United States” and outside “areas of active hostilities,” implying that inside areas of active hostilities, the rules of engagement would still presume proposed targets are guilty until proven innocent.
Also, despite the new policy being announced in May of this year, according to President Obama the previous policies, including “signature strikes,” will apparently still apply in Afghanistan until the final withdrawal of US forces scheduled for later in 2014:
In the Afghan war theater, we must support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. That means we will continue to take strikes against high-value Al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. However, by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core Al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.”
So despite the announced policy change, while they are still needed the previous extremely permissive rules of engagement will still apply.
In addition, notice that “signature strikes” – the strikes based solely on behavior – where people were targeted because they seemed, perhaps just by drone observation, to be acting like terrorists, were not being phased out because they were wrong or caused the death of many innocent people. Instead they were being phased out because they were deemed no longer necessary, the implication being that if the situation changed the signature strikes could be reinstituted:
The policy reasons driving the change, aides said, are that the core group of Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan is all but defeated and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. That means there is less reason to hit massed groups in Pakistan under a tactic known as “signature strikes,” in which the CIA fired missiles at groups of suspected militants whose identities were unknown.
It is also important to note that such expansive rules of engagement are actually not new: under President Clinton, during fighting in Somalia, both the United States and the United Nations adopted similar policies when faced with “fighters” who hid among civilians.
For example, in one incident on June 13, 1993 more that 20 Somali civilian demonstrators were killed by UN troops from Pakistan:
The attacks have fed resentment and anger among Somalis against the Americans and the United Nations. The tensions were made worse when more than 20 civilians were killed in two demonstrations on Sunday when Pakistani troops opened fire after snipers aimed at them … (New York Times, June 18, 1993)
The UN envoy in Somalia, retired US Admiral Jonathan Howe, laid the blame for civilian deaths squarely on the Somali warlord General Aidid:
Admiral Howe accused General Aidid of using women and children as shields for gunmen, saying that the general’s faction had organized the demonstrations and that he would be held responsible for the deaths. (New York Times, June 18, 1993)
• UN calls for “Armoured Personnel Carriers, Tanks and Attack Helicopters”
On June 6, the day after the initial deadly attacks on UN Pakistani soldiers, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 837, which:
condemned the unprovoked armed attacks against [UN] personnel … which appear to have been part of a calculated and premeditated series of cease-fire violations …
[urged] member states to contribute, on an emergency basis, military support and transportation, including armoured personnel carriers, tanks and attack helicopters to provide … the capability appropriately to confront and deter armed attacks …
Thus while Israel has been condemned by the UN for its relatively limited use of such weapons, the UN itself called for increasing use of such weapons in Somalia.
• US Helicopters rocket meeting of Somali leaders, killing at l
Attacking on July 12, 1993 what was described as the “command and control” of Aidid’s militia, US helicopters fired “16 missiles and more than 2000 rounds of 20-mm cannon rounds” into a Mogadishu villa where Aidid aides and other Somali leaders were meeting (New York Times, July 13, 1993). According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, at least 54 Somalis were killed in the raid and another 174 wounded, while Somali sources claimed that the dead totaled 73, included 10 children and 22 women. (Agence France Presse, July 13, 1993) Four Western journalists who rushed to the scene were killed by a Somali mob outside the villa. (AFP, July 13, 1993)
• In September battle “free fire zone” declared, 100 Somalis killed by US Cobras
In a September 9, 1993 battle sparked by a Somali attack against a US bulldozer crew, US Cobra helicopters fired anti-tank missiles and 20-mm rounds at “the crowd that came to see the shooting, killing nearly one hundred people” (Black Hawk Down, p 76; in the text the date for the battle is erroneously given as September 19; the correct date of September 9 is given in the notes, p 360).
Apparently the crowd had begun to help Somali militiamen in the battle, leading UN Military Spokesman Major David Stockwell to defend firing on civilians:
Everyone on the ground in the vicinity was a combatant, because they meant to do us harm. (Manchester Guardian Weekly, September 19, 1993)
According to a diary account of one of the US units involved in the action:
… the Cobras killed as many as 100, they were shooting into crowds where they were taking fire. Remember it was a free fire zone… [The Somalis] use women as cover and concealment for when they shoot at us to make it harder to see who is doing the shooting, if we can see them at all. Then they call us killers of women and children when we shoot the very same people who are shooting at us and we kill some of the people that they are using for cover. (Black Hawk Down, p 360)
• After botched raid, 18 US Soldiers and up to 500 Somalis are killed in half-day battle
Firefights and ambushes continued for several months culminating in an ill-fated attempt on October 3rd by US Rangers and Special Forces to capture dozens of Aidid’s senior aides. The raid went awry when first one and then another Cobra helicopter was shot down by Somalis using RPG’s (rocket propelled grenades). Refusing to abandon the body of a dead pilot trapped in the wreckage of one of the helicopters, US forces instead formed a perimeter around the crash site, attempted to extricate the body, and called for reinforcements. The soldiers trapped near the downed choppers soon faced a withering assault from Aidid’s men, who were armed with AK-47’s and RPG’s. The reinforcement attempts and the effort to hold the position, while heroic, caused massive casualties. The eventual rescue, employing tanks and armored personnel carriers, added to the bloodshed. According to one report:
At least 300 Somalis are believed to have been killed during the street fighting in Mogadishu on October 3, and hundreds of women and children were among the 700 treated in hospitals after the battle…. “There was tremendous carnage involved,” a Pentagon official said.(New York Times, Oct. 14, 1993)
The author of the definitive book on the battle estimated that the toll had been even higher, up to 500 Somalis killed and a thousand injured (Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden, p 310).
Many of these casualties were due to fire from US helicopters, which were reported to have let loose with 75,000 rounds and 63 anti-tank missiles in the 14 hour battle (Gannett News Service, November 22, 1993).
• Despite high casualties, US spokesmen deny excessive force was used in raid
US Army spokesmen asserted that, high civilian casualties notwithstanding, the US had not used excessive force, nor breached international laws, and the Somalis themselves bore the ultimate responsibility, since they used civilian shields and had started the firefight:
From all reports, the nature and degree of force used … did not exceed what was necessary to counter this escalating fire and was consistent with the right of self-defense under international law…
It has been our experience that the Somali gunmen who have opposed us have frequently used women and children and, at times, have worn women’s clothing, to cover their movements and to protect them from attack. These gunmen do not wear uniforms or distinctive insignia; they do not carry arms openly; they are not led by accountable military leadership; they are not subject to military discipline and they do not comply with international law. It is they who initiated the firefight and who bear ultimate responsibility for this tragic loss of life. (Statement by US Central Command as reported in New York Times, October 14, 1993; emphasis added)