(U//FOUO) U.S. Army Afghanistan Civilian Casualty Prevention Handbook

Center for Army Lessons Learned

  • 140 pages
  • For Official Use Only
  • June 2012
  • 3.2 MB


The U.S. military has long been committed to upholding the law of armed conflict and minimizing collateral damage. This includes the killing or wounding of noncombatant civilians — described in this handbook as civilian casualties or CIVCAS — as well as damage to facilities, equipment, or other property. Due to several factors, the impact of CIVCAS has increased to the point that single tactical actions can have strategic consequences and limit overall freedom of action. These factors include: the increased transparency of war, where tactical actions can be recorded and transmitted worldwide in real time; increased expectations for the United States’ conduct of war in light of improved precision and overall capabilities; and the enemy exploitation of CIVCAS to undermine U.S. legitimacy and objectives.

Because of these factors, CIVCAS became a key operational issue in Afghanistan beginning in 2005. Despite efforts to reduce civilian harm caused by coalition forces, initial initiatives in Afghanistan1 were not successful in mitigating the issue. Several high-profile CIVCAS events in 2008 and early 2009 highlighted the lack of progress in effectively addressing CIVCAS. The Bala Balouk CIVCAS incident in May 2009 resulted in increased emphasis and focus by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) leadership on the reduction of CIVCAS. Since mid-2009, ISAF leadership has consistently and strongly emphasized the importance of reducing CIVCAS, both by modifying procedures and policies and by urging tactical patience when feasible to aid discrimination. The COMISAF continues to stress to currently deployed forces the importance of minimizing CIVCAS, and recently emphasized to ISAF contributing nations how they must better prepare incoming forces to deal with the issue of CIVCAS.

The ISAF has made significant progress in reducing CIVCAS, with a 20 percent reduction in ISAF-caused CIVCAS in 2010 and 2011 compared to 2009. At the same time, CIVCAS reduction and mitigation is a strategic as well as a tactical issue. Single CIVCAS incidents continue to negatively impact the ISAF mission and curtail necessary freedom of action. Because of this, continued vigilance is required in reducing CIVCAS during ISAF operations.

LTG Scaparotti (former Commander, ISAF Joint Command) shared a number of overarching principles for reducing and mitigating CIVCAS in Afghanistan with ISAF tactical forces. These principles, based on lessons from hundreds of CIVCAS incidents, include:

  • Consider tactical alternatives. In decisions regarding the use of force, consider the best means of achieving the desired effects with minimum CIVCAS. This can include exercising tactical patience when feasible.
  • Partner with Afghans to the fullest extent possible. Historically, partnered operations are less likely to result in CIVCAS. Partnering also helps to develop mature Afghan forces, a key to successful transition.
  • Learn what is “normal.” Behavior that seems inexplicable to U.S. forces can be normal for Afghans. When positive identification (PID) comes from perceived hostile intent, take every opportunity to confirm PID and consider if the behavior could be that of noncombatants.
  • Improve shared situational awareness. Clearly and objectively share details with other forces and higher headquarters about potential threats, the operating environment, and your own status. Avoid leading language.
  • Leverage relationships with Afghans before, during, and after operations to share responsibility, gain information, and reduce/mitigate CIVCAS.
  • Conduct battle damage assessment (BDA) whenever possible. Detailed BDA of effects on the civilian population is essential for effective consequence management. There are many options for determining ground truth.
  • Be fast and not wrong. Communicate information as soon as available but, to avoid damaging credibility, do not report details that are speculative.

This handbook describes the general principles listed above and provides concrete steps that Soldiers can include in their operations. In addition to avoiding CIVCAS, effective consequence management of CIVCAS is critical — the longest chapter of this handbook is devoted to this topic to provide a blueprint on how to respond when CIVCAS occurs. Importantly, these principles and steps are not meant to be burdensome, but rather are critical tools to enable success in the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. The experience of prior ISAF soldiers has shown that efforts to reduce CIVCAS — and mitigate their effects when they occur — can be a win-win scenario, both reducing harm to civilians and maintaining mission effectiveness.

Tactical Alternatives

In cases where Soldiers have the opportunity to consider various options and ask the question “Should I shoot?,” they can consider tactical alternatives. For example, some forces had a procedure of calling in close air support (CAS) whenever they were in a troops-in-contact situation. But the tactical directive caused them to re-evaluate their use of air platforms as the default response, and they started using organic fires and maneuver as an option that was more discriminate. In general, forces considered three types of tactical alternatives:

  • Shaping. Soldiers can plan for potential situations and proactively shape the environment to prevent a situation before it occurs. One example is the thoughtful placement and design of a checkpoint. Positioning a checkpoint at a place of limited visibility compresses timelines for decision making and determination of intent, which can contribute to a faulty assumption of hostile intent. Conversely, designing a checkpoint with plenty of visibility or with physical barriers (either natural barriers or artificial ones like T-walls) to channel and slow down traffic buys time for decision making as well as increases the safety of forces.
  • Alternate tactics. Soldiers can consider different options to deal with the situation. One example is a unit deciding to use its sniper to neutralize an insurgent instead of using indirect fire or CAS. Similarly, some units use nonlethal weapons before they resort to lethal force. Sometimes this means acting in such a way that force is not necessary. In one incident, Soldiers were standing at the side of a road and trying to cross through local traffic. The Soldiers signaled oncoming vehicles to stop so that they could cross. One vehicle did not respond to their signal, so the Soldiers escalated force, which ended by them firing at the vehicle, causing a CIVCAS. An alternate tactic in that situation could have been for the Soldiers to let the vehicle go by and then cross the road.
  • Tactical patience. When Soldiers are not facing an immediate threat, they can exercise tactical patience and take additional time to confirm PID and situational awareness. This is especially valuable when PID is based on perceived hostile intent, as many Afghans have been shot because they were behaving in a way that was unexpected or misunderstood by coalition forces. If Soldiers are coordinating with other forces to obtain fires, this can also involve confirming the known facts with those forces to ensure that all involved have a common understanding of the situation.

Ground BDA is not always feasible due to ground force location and threat considerations. Where air platforms are involved or available, full-motion video from airborne platforms can be used as a surrogate for a ground BDA. Recorded video can be declassified, if necessary, and shared with Afghan leaders in key leader engagements (KLEs). However, video from air platforms does not always capture needed details on the ground — such as identifying CIVCAS inside buildings or under rubble — so this should be a last resort. On-the-ground BDA should always be the default option. If ISAF soldiers are not available to conduct a BDA, some forces have called on Afghan security forces to quickly conduct BDA for them.

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