A Fail-Safe Plan to Reduce Civilian Deaths From US Operations

Friday, 22 May 2009 10:56 By Robert Naiman, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

A Fail-Safe Plan to Reduce Civilian Deaths From US Operations
Two young Pakistani refugees outside their temporary home in the Chota Lahore relief camp. (Photo: Getty Images)

    If civilian deaths from US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan were CO2 emissions, perhaps we'd be having a more effective discussion about reducing them.

    The pattern seems to be this: When there are complaints about civilian deaths from US airstrikes and night raids, first the Pentagon denies there are any. When civilian deaths are documented, the Pentagon says the deaths are regrettable, but we are doing everything we can possibly do to reduce them. When the complaints grow too strong to be dismissed in this way, the Pentagon announces that we are taking new steps to reduce civilian casualties (passing over the fact that this contradicts the previous claim that we were doing everything we could before to reduce civilian casualties.)

    Then the cycle repeats.

    If reducing civilian deaths from US military operations were a priority, it would be a benchmark. After all, according to the repeated statements of US officials, it's all about "hearts and minds" and securing and maintaining the allegiance of the population. So, it seems obvious that an objective benchmark of progress is this regard would be the degree to which civilian casualties are reduced, since it is generally acknowledged that killing people's friends and relatives is extremely unpopular.

    If civilian deaths from US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan were CO2 emissions, people would be arguing that we should cap them at a percentage of their current level.

    For example, we could tell the Pentagon: each month you have a cap for how many civilians you can kill. The cap is seasonally adjusted, and is equal to, say, 90 percent of the average for the previous year.

    No doubt, the idea of a quota for civilian deaths will make some people squeamish. But governments make such calculations all the time; if deaths due to auto accidents or drug overdoses were reduced 10 percent, this would be considered very good news. Imposing a cap would kill fewer civilians, so if killing fewer civilians is truly a US goal, this policy would be objectively preferable to the status quo. Call it "harm reduction."

    If the Pentagon reached its monthly quota before the month was out, it would be required to cease offensive military operations for the rest of the month. Since the Pentagon won't like this, it would give them a strong incentive to stay within their quota all the way along.

    If US forces are attacked while they are standing down from offensive military operations because they had reached their quota, of course they could defend themselves. But if they killed civilians while doing so, the civilian deaths would count against the next month's quota.

    Of course, such a plan would require the Pentagon to keep a tally of civilian deaths from US military operations. But that would be a good thing. It's hard to think of many "metrics" for "success" more worthy than "killed fewer civilians."

    Note that in order for this plan to be successful, it isn't necessary that the Pentagon's tally of civilian deaths be totally accurate. In many cases, it will have to estimate because the precise tally of civilian deaths will be in dispute. But what matters here is the trend, and even if the Pentagon systematically underestimates civilian deaths due to US military operations, if it does so in a consistent way, it will have no effect on the plan. Suppose that the Pentagon's estimate is consistently equal to one-half of the true number: It will still have to reduce future deaths by the same proportion as if its estimate were totally accurate. Indeed, this plan will give the Pentagon an incentive not to low-ball its estimates of civilian deaths, since a low tally today will lead to a smaller quota in the future.

    Note that the plan is compatible with, and supportive of, every other means of reducing civilian casualties. It doesn't "micromanage" the military any more than "cap and trade" micromanages polluters. It leaves up to the military how to stay under the quota.

    And it would incentivize diplomacy. Since taking actions that would lead to more civilian deaths would no longer be an option, US officials would work harder at achieving their objectives by other means.

Last modified on Friday, 22 May 2009 11:30