By John Ramming Chappell and Ari Tolany
Recent months have seen a flood of revelations concerning civilian harm resulting from U.S. military operations. The last U.S. airstrike of the war in Afghanistan, which killed ten civilians including an aid worker and seven children, was soon followed by news of U.S. operations in Syria targeting and endangering civilians. Reporting from The New York Times found that the Department of Defense (DOD) failed to investigate properly several civilian casualty incidents in Syria, including the March 2019 airstrikes in Baghuz that killed as many as seventy civilians. This reporting, along with five years of other in-depth New York Times investigations, illustrates the systemic failures of accountability for civilian casualties which have plagued U.S. air wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
These recent revelations and DOD’s apparent inability to investigate itself have renewed demands for increased congressional oversight over DOD civilian harm policies. Meanwhile, Congress has spent much of the last few months considering the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual must-pass defense bill containing some of Congress’s most important national security measures. This year, the road to NDAA passage was particularly difficult, with gridlock and competing priorities delaying the process. Last week, although many of the most promising amendments on civilian harm issues were cut in negotiations, the Senate finally passed the bill with a vote of 88-11, sending it to the President’s desk for his signature. While the NDAA takes some important steps towards congressional oversight of civilian harm, especially in the amends process, it does not go far enough in preventing and monitoring the U.S. role in civilian harm, particularly through its security partnerships. Further legislative action is needed, then, not only to investigate and make amends for civilian harm, but to implement strong policies concerning the protection of civilians in U.S. and partner military operations.