Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Protection of Civilians 2.0

The following video is circulating on the YouTube and was publicized yesterday by the Associated Press. It is said to be cell phone footage taken of the civilian victims of "stray" US bombs in Azizabad, Afghanistan. If genuine (it was reportedly filmed by a local doctor) the film would appear to weigh in on the side of the Afghan government's claim that scores of civilians were killed in the attack, and refute the US argument that only 7 civilians and 35 "militants" died.

Some quick thoughts. First, does being "militant" make a person a legitimate military target? This appears to be another semantic construction in the Bush Administration's GWOT discourse. I wonder if it means that any military-age male suspected of involvement with the insurgency is a military objective at all times. This would fly of course in the face of the laws of war: you battle those who are actually armed and fighting back, not just anyone who supports a movement.

On the other hand, if these were actual fighters their location would have constituted a valid military objective. The question then is whether the military weighed the expected collateral damage against the military necessity of hitting that target then. Considering that the civilians killed were apparently attending a funeral service in the vicinity, this is unlikely. While their deaths wouldn't constitute war crimes unless they were intentional, failing to take measures to avoid collateral damage is still a violation of the laws of war - determining whether many civilians are massed together for a funeral and waiting until they dissipate would be an example of the type of command decision that is expected of US military officers in such an instance. Another terrible possibility is that the deaths actually weren't wholly unintentional. While the US generally has an excellent record all told when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties, there are famous examples where soldiers go haywire - often in circumstances very similar to the events of that day, which included an ambush on the Special Forces in the area.

At any rate, when the USG denies and attempts to quash an investigation, that is usually a sign that someone really screwed up in authorizing a course of action (or worse), that they know it, and that they hope to do damage control. (They have now cut their losses in light of emerging evidence.)


mark said...

Was "militant" a verbatim quote or was that a Reuters editorial change from "terrorist" or "al Qaeda/Taliban fighters" or whatever?

Some wire services use "militant" to describe both armed and non-violent extremists. It is not, as far as I am aware, the preferred nomenclature of the Bush administration.

On the substantive point, members of an armed group and their safe houses or buildings from which they are engaged in military activity are legitimate military targets. Whether it is worth the civilian casualties incurred in striking a legal target are tactical, political and moral questions.

Diodotus said...

Ah, good point on the term "militants." Yes, I pulled that from the news article, not from a direct quote by a military official or government representative. Will get back to you after I've confirmed the etymology of the term.

For now I'll note that it's also used in DOD press releases, though, like this one.

hank_F_M said...



a) The presenting of “factually enhanced” information is not the exclusive practice of any side.

b) he news organizations tend to use unvetted and unsupervised stingers in that part of the world, and have been in the past the unintentional carrier of others deliberate misinformation.

Do we have some sort of independent verification?

Cleitus the Black said...

All this commentary misses the real point. This attack was completely contrary to the principles of jus in bello.

"On the other hand, if these were actual fighters their location would have constituted a valid military objective."

Actually, no, according to the principle of discrimination. A target may have military value and still not be subject to attack by indiscriminate means due to the presence of civilians, or historical significance. And using a 500 lb bomb to kill a handful of unarmored humans can hardly be called proportional.

If you wish to reduce a city, use bombs, cannons, or a mangonel. If you wish to kill a few particular people in a crowd, use some hard lads armed with edged or ballistic weapons. Not pretty, and yes, some of your chaps may get it in the neck, but that's why they call it war.

This latest atrocity was simply that, a disgrace to all warriors, and yet another example of state-sponsored terrorism, which is what we would call it if Libya detonated a bomb that killed 35 Americans along with some other civilians that had been deemed "militant."

Diodotus said...

Hmm... Cleitus, I'm afraid I may have to side with Mark on this one... the jus in bello principle of discrimination as I read it isn't absolute, it's weighed against military necessity. No, civilians aren't legitimate objectives, but civilians may be in the vicinity of a legitimate military objective (like a barracks) and if they die regrettably in an attack on that objective (rather than on them directly) it's legitimate under the principle of "double effect."

But you're right that the onus is on military planners to a) take civilian lives into the equation (did they? or were they just plain trigger happy after their guys were ambushed earlier that day?) b) minimize casualties (did they aim to do this? could they have possible waited until the crowd attending the funeral dispersed?) and c) to make the case that they had done so.

Instead what we see is the US initially denying the casualties, rather than justifying the attack as legitimate collateral damage, which is what I suspect points in the direction of a laws of war violation.

Cleitus the Black said...

Diodotus, I noticed you did not choose to address the 2nd jus in bello norm that I mentioned, which is of course proportionality. Leaving out for a moment the small matter that funerals are generally conducted in the vicinity of churches vice barracks; supposing whatever building had been associated with these so-called 'militants', how is it proportional to attempt to kill 7 people with a 500-lb bomb? It seems a bit like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. And if it's OK to use a 500-lb bomb on a barracks (although, since the opposition is not a regular military unit, and hence HAS no barracks, I suppose what we're really talking about is someone's house, but no matter...) In any case, why not use a 2000 lb bomb? What if the house is, in fact, an apartment complex? You can rapidly see the slippery slope one proceeds down as soon as you start to try justifying breaches of the laws of war. Consider the following; had this act occurred in 1942 in occupied France; had the 'militants' been French partisans and had the Nazis used Stuka dive-bombers to eliminate them (along with assorted bystanders) rather than sending a platoon of soldiers in to arrest and try them (or kill them, if they resisted) how would we have judged the German commander? This raises further questions about our conduct. A partisan who is found in an unauthorized area, is armed, and resists the occupying force should expect to be shot out of hand. The same partisan, caught unarmed (or choosing to surrender) ought not be summarily executed. He or she should at least expect a cursory trial before execution or imprisonment. However, when you bomb men and women from above, who are not actively engaged in combat, you negate this basic right to choose surrender and trial. Food for thought.

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