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A wounded Afghan boy, who survived a U.S. air strike on a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, receives treatment at the Emergency Hospital in Kabul October 8.Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

Lessons From Kunduz: The Next Steps in Preventing Civilian Casualties

A wounded Afghan boy, who survived a U.S. air strike on a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, receives treatment at the Emergency Hospital in Kabul October 8.Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama’s apology for the horrific U.S. airstrikes in Kunduz, Afghanistan was an important and necessary response to the global outrage sparked after the U.S. military bombed a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital October 3, killing 22 Afghans including doctors and nurses.

Whatever really happened in Kunduz, a city in Northern Afghanistan, the deaths are tragic, and they come on the heels of 15 years of U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which thousands of civilians have been accidentally killed in lawful military operations.

However despite the justifiable anger, many would be surprised to learn that in the last decade, the U.S. military has put in place the world’s most advanced system to prevent, account for and make amends for civilian casualties that includes recognition, apologies and often monetary payments.

While there have been big steps forward, more still needs to be done, as Kunduz tragically shows. The U.S. military can use this horrific incident to continue to improve its methods for avoiding and responding to civilian casualties. But that’s not all- we must call for other countries to do the same.

This year alone, thousands of civilians have been killed by militaries and other armed groups who make no effort to account for and avoid civilian deaths or worse yet actually target civilians as a strategy. Leaving aside international pariahs like Bashar al Assad who use crude and inherently indiscriminant weapons such as barrel bombs in residential neighborhoods killing tens of thousands, civilians are also harmed by governments allied with the US, like Turkey in the Kurdish region, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, whose bombing of Yemen this year has led to more than 2,000 civilian deaths since March.

Back in 2001, at the onset of the US engagement in Afghanistan, the U.S. military did not conduct regular investigations into civilian deaths or reliably offer compensation; it often denied responsibility for them. Collateral damage, as it was so insensitively called, was considered an inevitable byproduct of the fog of war.

Activists on the ground began to change that, led by CIVIC founder Marla Ruzicka, a 26 year old woman from California who drove around Afghanistan and then Iraq documenting the impact of U.S. operations on civilians, and bringing the cases to soldiers to push for compensation. Over several years, she not only showed the military (and the media) that you could casualties and assess loss, but she put names and faces to “collateral damage.”

Marla’s documentation helped persuade Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy in 2004 to establish one of the first U.S. assistance funds specifically for innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005, Marla herself became a casualty of war when a suicide bomber detonated himself alongside her unarmored car.

Nonetheless, the issue picked up even further after her death, as forward thinking military officials recognized that harming thousands of innocent civilians was not only problematic in itself, but was also causing them to lose the “hearts and minds” campaign, and driving an insurgency wrought on retribution against US and international forces.

In 2008 for example, the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan created a “Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell” to better monitor incidents of civilian harm. Between 2007 and 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, the American ISAF commander, made reducing civilian deaths a cornerstone of his command, issuing several tactical directives instructing all forces to adopt a number of policies and safeguards intended to sharply reduce civilian casualties, including one on airstrikes like the one we saw in Kunduz, all specifically intended to minimize civilian casualties. Overall, civilian casualties caused by NATO dropped in the following years.

The tracking cell was a key component of this work and was significantly expanded in 2011 to enable ISAF not only to monitor but, crucially, to analyze patterns of harm and recommend changes in policies, tactics and training to reduce incidents.

And yet, we still witness horrific incidents like Kunduz and many others.

So what’s important now is that the U.S. recognize in this incident an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to protecting civilians. It can’t undo what’s happened, but it can proceed with a public investigation and a strong and appropriate response. Currently, two investigations are underway, by NATO and the U.S., with promises to make findings public. Such investigations should explain clearly and transparently what happened including how and why this target was chosen, the role of the Afghan military in launching the attacks, and why the bombardment didn’t stop sooner.

Most importantly, the U.S. military must be clear on steps that will be taken to properly address the Kunduz tragedy.

That means once the investigation is complete and publicly presented, the U.S. should explain why its advanced processes to protect civilians failed in this instance, and put in place safeguards to prevent this from happening again. President Obama’s apology was a step in the right direction, and the appropriate post-harm assistance to the victims and their families must be made. If evidence of wrongdoing is uncovered, the appropriate legal mechanisms should be activated.

Beyond Kunduz, the U.S. should implement its policies across the world so that as new operations are launched against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the same careful high standards is applied.

The community of activists who once pushed so convincingly for the U.S. government to address and redress civilian casualties now needs to move that campaign abroad. All nations exercising the use of force- including Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states- must adopt the highest possible standards to prevent and address civilian casualties.

The U.S. must lead by example. This leadership must start with a convincing response to the Kunduz tragedy. The whole world is watching. If the U.S. doesn’t demonstrate leadership on this issue, there’s little hope that other countries will take minimizing civilian casualties seriously, and we will go back to old beliefs, such as that “collateral damage” is an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of war.

Federico Borello is Executive Director of CIVIC: Center for Civilians in Conflict, a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve protection for civilians caught in conflicts around the world.

Christina Asquith is a foreign correspondent who has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan, is also the founder of The Fuller Project for International Reporting, a news bureau dedicated to covering how foreign policy affects women globally. 

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