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They have names: Accounting for harm to civilians in Iraq in Syria

They have names: Accounting for harm to civilians in Iraq in Syria
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On Sept. 27, 2018,  the U.S.-led coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve, released a statement listing 50 confirmed incidents of civilian casualties caused by airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. First on the list, an incident in Iraq described in 23 words: “August 13, 2016, near Qayyarah, Iraq, via media report. During a strike on ISIS headquarters and fighting positions six civilians were unintentionally killed.” Thanks to the work of journalists such as Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, along with the civilian casualties monitoring organization Airwars, we know that the six killed included Ali Khalaf al Wardi, his 5-year-old son and two daughters, ages 18 and 14. 

The surviving family members have never been contacted by the U.S. military and, in spite of an annual $5 million appropriation from Congress, have not been offered any form of compensation for their loss. The Biden administration has committed to improving transparency around U.S. civilian casualties. It also should work with Congress to improve the government’s record of doing something about them.

The al Wardi family is by no means alone in their experience of inaction and silence. The U.S. government has neither contacted nor offered assistance to any family members of the 1,398 people listed by the Washington Post in its story from last November, “Behind the tally, names and lives.” This, in spite of the fact that the U.S.-led coalition itself has confirmed the casualties and has the precise details — including GPS coordinates — of their locations, many of which are in areas of the region that are now accessible. In most cases, journalists, local researchers and international nongovernmental organizations have made contact with the families to document their experiences, which means the government also could contact them if it desired. 

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Although we can’t know how many survivors would seek a condolence payment if offered, no process exists to file a claim. Moreover, the 1,398 lives listed represent a fraction of the total number of those likely killed as a result of coalition airstrikes.

Sadly, the Defense Department’s interim policy on condolence payments, issued last year, confirms what these facts together suggest — that the U.S. government has no interest in providing remedy for the harm it knows it has caused to individuals in Iraq or Syria. This might seem like a dramatic shift from policy in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military has regularly provided ex gratia payments (including 605 out of 611 such payments made in 2019). But the interim policy is consistent with the view within the Pentagon that compensation for civilian harm is primarily a weapon of war, to be used when local commanders see a strategic value in winning hearts and minds through small, symbolic payments. 

The policy makes clear that the program is intended to “help authorized commanders obtain friendly relations with and the support of local populations where U.S. forces are operating” — it is not a claims process for victims. Our organization, Center for Civilians in Conflict, believes that taking such a narrow and cynical view of the U.S. interest and its responsibilities in war is a mistake. It grossly understates the value that gestures of contrition can have in restoring some agency and dignity to war’s many victims, even if financial compensation can never replace a loved one.

The Biden administration and Congress would be wise to collaborate on an approach that more accurately reflects a commitment to repair the damage wrought upon civilians caught in conflict by taking some specific steps.

First, establish a working claims system that provides those harmed by the U.S. or U.S.-led coalition operations a working and reliable channel to pursue condolence payments if they so choose. The claims process should be accessible, and available in the languages where the U.S. has conducted operations. Next, in consultation with civil society and its partner governments, establish a task force to review all previously dismissed claims of civilian casualties or harm to infrastructure caused by U.S. and coalition operations, and expedite a process of offering condolence payments to the survivors and victims the task force can identify and find. The administration should support the governments of Iraq and Syria, as needed, to ensure that national and local systems and claims processes are working effectively. 

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The president will need Congress to support these initiatives but, by all accounts, they should be possible under existing law and authorities.

Finally, given the totality of the destruction wrought by war, and the disproportionate extent of harm suffered by civilians, the Biden team should work with Congress to find a more comprehensive way of estimating and addressing the humanitarian consequences of the global war on terror. Doing so would not only help our country reckon with the human toll of wars past, but also might temper any impulse to hasten the U.S. to war in the future.

Dan Mahanty is director of the U.S. program for the Center for Civilians in Conflict. He spent 16 years at the Department of State, where he was director of the Office of Security and Human Rights. He is an adjunct professor at Kansas University Center for Global and International Studies and a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.