opinion | Pentagon leaders welcome the new focus on civilian casualties

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When General Richard D. Clarke retires as head of US Special Operations Command this month, he will leave with a chest of hard-earned battle medals – but also with the realization, now widely shared by his peers, that too many civilians are unnecessarily died in America’s two-decade war in the Middle East.

This reckoning with the costs of the war is overdue. For too long, the Pentagon has dismissed reports of civilian deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as false claims or hostile propaganda. But it is an admirable quality of the US military that leaders like Clarke have now acknowledged that something went wrong with the casualty assessment and are trying to fix the problem.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week announced a new plan to “mitigate civilian damage” to avoid disasters like the August 2021 strike in Kabul, which was supposed to kill an Islamic State terrorist but instead found a van carrying an innocent NGO worker and seven met children. That was just a notorious incident. Senior Pentagon officials know there were dozens, maybe hundreds, more.

For officers like Clarke, who commanded the warriors at the sharpest point of America’s military spear, this rethinking of civilian casualties goes to the heart of their profession as soldiers. He told me in an interview Friday that he recognized that avoiding civilian harm is both an operational and a moral imperative. The United States cannot fight like Russia is doing in Ukraine without being aware of the civilian cost and succeed.

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Clarke started our conversation by explaining the combat logic to avoid civilian deaths. “When we work in and among the populations in places like Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, we have to trust that our people on the ground, usually with partnered forces, are doing the right thing,” he said. “We cannot create another generation of terrorists because we have been lax in our procedures and caused needless harm to bystander civilians.”

Clarke then spoke about the moral cost, not just to the victims, but to the Americans who pulled the trigger. “They are hurting the people who are requesting these airstrikes,” he explained. “They have to get by with themselves for the rest of their lives. Living with it can sometimes have long-term effects that lead to behavioral and psychological issues that our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines don’t have to go through.”

Clarke recalled the commander’s dilemma from his days as a two-star army general, overseeing US and Iraqi troops driving Islamic State fighters out of the Euphrates Valley. He wanted to trust that Iraqi partners were accurate when requesting fire support against the enemy. “Time is of the essence, and you’re looking at targets through a drinking straw to see if they’re valid targets,” he recalled. These assessments were not always correct.

The Special Operations Forces led by Clarke, known as “SOF” in Pentagonese, have borne the heaviest burden in America’s wars in the Middle East. They did the hardest work of fighting and killing in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. At times, as in the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, the combat cycle had a corrosive effect. Gallagher has been convicted by a military court for posing in a trophy picture with the body of a dead ISIS prisoner in Iraq. But he wasn’t the only SOF warrior to push the boundaries in those 20 years.

“I believe our special operations forces did the right thing over 99 percent of the time,” Clarke told me. “They made tough decisions and dealt with the results afterwards. But mistakes are sometimes made within our community. Humans are fallible.” The burdens were exacerbated, he said, “because SOF’s abilities were held in high esteem. We were pretty thinly spread and constantly deployed in combat zones.”

After the Gallagher case made headlines in 2019, Clarke ordered a full review of SOCOM — SEALS, Army Rangers, Marine Raiders and other special forces. I wrote in a column last December how this review — and an intensive internal effort by SEALS Commander Rear Admiral H. Wyman Howard III — helped restore standards within this elite naval force.

America’s wars in the Middle East took a terrible toll. It is good that one result is a new code that, in the words of Austin’s directive from last week, states: “The protection of civilians is both a strategic priority and a moral imperative.” War changes countries, usually for the worse. But here’s a change that’s for the better.

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