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Guest Editorial, Patrick Leahy: Understanding the ‘toll of our own actions’

In “The Uncounted,” their article in The New York Times Magazine last week, Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal laid bare a tragic reality of American military operations against the Islamic State: the untold harm inflicted on civilians.
That the Islamic State is guilty of horrific atrocities is common knowledge. But most Americans seem unaware of the human toll of our own actions, the consequences this has for our national security and our reputation, and that too often the civilian casualties we cause are the result of avoidable mistakes. This must change.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of violent extremist groups has grown across multiple continents. From Syria to Somalia to Pakistan, the United States is combating many of these groups — usually with bombs and missiles. Large numbers of innocent people are invariably caught in the middle.
There are practical ways that we can improve how we protect civilians as we fight violent extremists. These changes will improve our military operations and make our country safer in the long run.
Contrary to what some believe, taking all reasonable and feasible precautions to protect civilians, and mitigating the resulting anger when we harm them, does not need to impede military operations. In fact, the United States military has recognized that doing so is critical to our success, and it has rules of engagement designed to avoid harming civilians. But while the accuracy of our weapons has steadily improved, too often they hit the wrong targets.
The Pentagon says that only 89 of approximately 14,000 airstrikes in the air war against the Islamic State have killed civilians. But The New York Times Magazine’s reporters — conducting extensive on-the-ground and satellite research — found that more than 2,700 airstrikes resulted in civilian deaths. As shocking as this disparity is, the number is almost certainly a low estimate because it does not reflect the heavy bombing of Mosul and other densely populated areas that have taken place this year.
The truth is, the military is not doing all it can to avoid killing and wounding civilians. It relies on information that is too often flawed or incorrectly interpreted. Pentagon officials, who point to their extensive procedures for distinguishing military targets from civilians, too often rely on skimpy, outdated and inconclusive intelligence gleaned from informants of dubious reliability and surveillance conducted from high altitudes, or from video analyzed half a world away by people without expertise about the country or its culture. Even the Pentagon’s logs of its actions are unreliable and incomplete.
These are solvable problems. It is incumbent on our military leaders to urgently address them…. We can also do a lot more to assist innocent victims of our airstrikes.
Soon after the invasion of Afghanistan, in response to repeated instances of American bombs killing scores of civilians, Congress created the Afghan Civilian Assistance Program, a $10 million annual appropriation implemented by the Agency for International Development.
Marla Ruzicka, a young activist from California who traveled to Afghanistan to call attention to civilian casualties, was the inspiration for that program. When the military shifted its focus to Iraq, Ms. Ruzicka followed the bombs. Based on information she collected, I worked with her as Congress created the Iraqi War Victims Fund. Ms. Ruzicka died in a car bombing in Iraq in 2005. The fund was renamed after her.
But after most American troops withdrew from Iraq, the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund, a $7.5 million program replenished annually to provide assistance to innocent victims of American military operations, was redirected to address other needs in Iraq.
Given the large number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed or wounded as a result of the United States’ bombing, the Marla Fund, now implemented by the State Department, should be reactivated…. In 2014, I wrote legislation providing clear authority and guidance for future condolence payments. While the Pentagon recently reaffirmed that such payments “are an important tool for DOD,” the military says it has not made a single monetary payment to innocent victims of American military operations in Syria, and none in Iraq since 2011.
This is inexcusable and it is counterproductive. The Pentagon has explicit authority to provide amends to civilians harmed by our mistakes, as it did before 2011, in accordance with the new guidance that I negotiated with the Pentagon three years ago.
In order to identify eligible victims, the Pentagon needs to improve the accuracy of its own airstrike data and overhaul the often perfunctory way it investigates reports of civilian casualties…. No one disputes that civilian casualties are inevitable in war. At the same time, it seems that the United States military will be fighting violent extremists for the foreseeable future. This means the lives of more civilians will be put at risk. The way we conduct our operations and how we react when mistakes are made will be critical to our success.
This is not only a moral imperative, it is in America’s interest. If we harm civilians when it could reasonably have been avoided, and if we fail to fairly and promptly help the innocent victims, the local population will turn against us — and make the fight against violent extremists even more difficult.
As hard as the Pentagon already tries to avoid civilian casualties, it is clear that it can and must do better.
Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Middlesex, is Vermont’s senior senator and the longest-serving lawmaker in the U.S. Senate.

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