Flawed or factual? Which is Amnesty International’s report about Mosul?

When the press reaches out for a diversity of views on controversial issues, it’s something to cheer about.  Consequently, when Merrit Kennedy, a reporter for NPR, contacted me yesterday about a new Amnesty International report, “At Any Cost: The Civilian Catastrophe In West Mosul, Iraq” I was happy to share some views in response to the allegations it contained.  Here’s a summary from the report:

Based on its research, which covers events from January to mid-May 2017, Amnesty International concludes that IS committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes. Iraqi government and US-led coalition forces appear to have committed repeated violations of international humanitarian law, some of which may amount to war crimes.

The report also claims that pro-government forces employed “unsuitable” weapons, conducted “indiscriminate or disproportional” attacks, and “failed to take feasible precautions to protect civilians.”

Merrit’s article, “Amnesty Says U.S.-Led Coalition May Have Committed War Crimes In Mosul,”  includes  a couple of quotes from what I gave her.  Here are a some additional thoughts beyond those she used:

I’ve long believed that urban combat is inherently hazardous for civilians, but particularly so in city-fights against ISIS.  ISIS is an enemy who explicitly embraces the massive use of human shields, a loathsome tactic whose lethality to noncombatants is compounded in densely-populated ‘civilian’ terrains.  It is this strategy which I believe is behind most of the civilian deaths.  ISIS actually wants civilian deaths because they hope that such deaths will erode political support and the will to fight among the coalition partners. 

It is, of course, always terribly tragic when civilians are killed or injured, but Amnesty International goes too far in concluding that simply because civilian casualties occurred, even in significant numbers, that the law of war was necessarily violated.  As Amnesty International should know, the law – even in this context – carries a presumption of innocence and typically demands evidence of the information and resources reasonably available to the commander (or other attacker) prior  to the attack, as well his or her intent at that point, before ascribing criminal liability.  I didn’t see much of that in the report.  

I believe that accusations of “repeated violations of international humanitarian law” are extremely serious and should not be made unless the evidence of criminality is fully developed and quite clear – something I didn’t find reflected in the Amnesty International report.  Amnesty International has a lot about the impact of various operations on certain civilians, but the law doesn’t assess criminality strictly from outcomes, however tragic, because, as we all know, hindsight can be 20-20.

And we should also not forget that the law anticipates and, indeed, tolerates civilian losses in combat so long as they are not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Liberating a city like Mosul, which was once home to over 650,000 people, from the horrors of ISIS is vitally important “military advantage anticipated,” especially to those civilians still trapped there.   

People may differ about what is or is not “excessive” in a given instance, but I am sad to say that under the circumstances, the deaths of the 3,706 civilians (between 19 February and 19 June 2017) which Amnesty International cites do not strike me as inarguably excessive in light of the priority that must be given to save what could be many tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilians who were likely still in Mosul under ISIS’s thumb at the beginning of the campaign.  

In Mosul pro-government forces faced a situation in which any delay in their advance would leave civilians in the grip of ISIS.  I don’t think that even Amnesty International would dispute that doing so would inevitably put civilians in peril from any number of ISIS depredations, let alone the peril that vanishing supplies of food, water and medicine posed.  In other words, if the pro-government forces halted a lawful attack out of the fear of hurting civilians, that in no way would mean that civilians would be spared.  I believe inaction creates its own moral hazards, and can be fatal to the most vulnerable in armed conflict. Again, delay can mean death for noncombatants waiting to be rescued.

Amnesty International may think pro-government forces did not take all feasible precautions, but they are in no real position to say what was or was not, from the commanders’ perspective, feasible under the complex circumstances of this offensive. In a perfect world, more highly-trained counter-terrorism units in the pro-government forces and more advanced weapons might have obviated the need to use mortars, artillery, or even airstrikes in some situations. But the law does not demand the most elite troops or the most sophisticated weapons.  In combat, the ideal is not always available. The Iraqis had to go with what they had, and do the best they could to free the city while limiting the harm to civilians. I rather doubt the pro-government forces were deliberately indifferent to the plight of civilians.  

As an aside, I note that Amnesty International relies heavily on “confidential” sources, even those they say are in the humanitarian community.  Unfortunately, this lack of transparency means these sources’ accounts cannot be independently verified, or even be shown to exist.  

Still, I would recommend that the leaders of the pro-government forces – to include U.S. advisers – carefully review the Amnesty International report to see what might help them in future operations.  While the report is flawed, there are always things to learn, and the report might be a source that could be useful in their effort to improve. 

Merrit’s article has this important addition:

Speaking from Baghdad, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft responded to the report’s accusations in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition. He said the coalition has “done, in my view, the absolute best job we can to avoid civilian casualties.”  Here’s more:

Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft

“I’ll tell you that, from the way we do our airstrikes, we use the most precise and discriminate weapons that we can ever use and are available in the world to avoid targeting civilians. We have direct control and conversations with the Iraqis minute by minute on exactly what’s happening on the ground, and we have an unprecedented number of unmanned vehicles over the top of the fight to see exactly what’s happening. And I’ll tell you, if there’s ever a doubt of whether or not there’s a civilian involved, we will not strike.”

He adds that civilian casualties are “going to happen, just based on the nature of the war, but I can tell you that to be effective we’ve got to support the Iraqi security forces and that’s what we’ve done.”

A troubling aspect of the Amnesty International report is the impression it gives – to me anyway – that there is some sort of moral equivalence between the pro-government forces and the ISIS terrorists they were fighting.  The report spends about twice as many pages discussing alleged violations by pro-government forces as it spent on those of ISIS.  Could Amnesty International consider pro-government forces actually more responsible for inflicting suffering on civilians? (Read it yourself and make your own judgment but we’ve all heard and seen the brutality and savagery of ISIS fighters with beheadings,  kidnappings, and torture. )

Of course, this is not to suggest that illegalities or mistakes by pro-government forces ought to be ignored or overlooked.  Rather, it is to say that any critique needs to more fully take into account the urgency of the fight to rescue innocents from a truly evil cult-like enemy in determining what is “feasible” in a given circumstance.

It may be useful to recall the words of former President Obama in a May 2013 speech.  He was discussing U.S. drone strikes, but the underlying message continues to resonate:

[I]t is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war.  And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss.  For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.  To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties — not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold.  Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.  So doing nothing is not an option. (Emphasis added).

So what do you think?  As we say on Lawfire, gather the facts, examine the arguments, and make your own decision!

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