In the Wake of the Kunduz Hospital Bombing: Where Do Civilian-Military Relations Go From Here?

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, after the bombing  © MSF

This guest blog comes to us from Professor David Polatty. David teaches military strategy, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) in Newport, Rhode Island, serves as director of NWC’s new “Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Program,” and is a co-founder and co-director of the NWC-Harvard School of Public Health “Joint Civilian-Military Humanitarian Working Group.”

2015 was a dangerous and tragic year for humanitarian aid workers, keeping with the trend in recent years of significant increases in both discriminate and indiscriminate attacks against humanitarian organizations and aid workers. In perhaps the most egregious and heavily publicized incident by a conventional military force, the October 3rd bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan stole headlines around the world for the intensity and duration of what a U.S. military investigation later determined was a “tragic mistake” caused by human error. The U.S. military has taken initial action by suspending several American personnel from the crew of the aircraft involved and is looking into additional disciplinary steps. While internal accountability is crucial, many from the humanitarian community continue to advocate that these measures alone are not enough to prevent future such incidents from occurring.

Indeed, Kunduz was one among many other attacks by militaries and non-state armed groups against aid organizations. Understandably, humanitarian organizations have condemned horrific attacks like these, and are demanding more effective measures to ensure the safety of civilians and aid workers as protected by international law. As Julia Brooks writes in a recent ATHA blog, specific concerted efforts are needed to better protect aid workers, including the prevention of such violence and mitigating its impacts on humanitarian access and operations. While the international humanitarian community looks to take action on its side – whether in the form of improved data collection and analysis, awareness and advocacy campaigns, improved operational security measures, or engagement with armed groups - it is clear that international militaries have a critical role to play. Indeed, armed forces can and must do much more to improve safeguards for their use of force in conflict settings, where humanitarian organizations frequently find themselves in harm’s way.

Despite the understandable recent anger, mistrust, and lack of confidence that the Kunduz bombing and other attacks have created between humanitarian organizations and militaries, we absolutely cannot afford to stop, or even reduce, the tremendous progress that has been made in overcoming tensions that existed within civilian-military coordination and communication activities over the past decade. The safety and security of civilian aid workers is paramount, and must be kept front and center as an overarching strategic objective of all organizations operating in the humanitarian space, regardless of their missions and motives. Horrible incidents like Kunduz only further underscore the need for more effective coordination and engagement between militaries and humanitarians in order to better prevent future incidents from occurring. As such, this blog lays out a number of key challenges and recommendations for improving civilian-military engagement in order to avoid civilian and aid worker causalities in conflict settings.

Military Targeting Processes to Avoid Civilian Casualties

Most international militaries use somewhat similar methodologies and frameworks for determining whether or not to use force in a given situation. Many of them employ advanced technologies, coupled with human input and oversight, to examine a broad range of key targeting considerations, including “collateral damage estimates” (CDEs) that allow senior decision makers to authorize the use of force while ideally taking the greatest care to avoid civilian casualties. CDEs are critically important to help ensure that militaries adhere to the law of war, or international humanitarian law (IHL), which requires reasonable safeguards to ensure that only legitimate military objects are directly targeted and for humanitarian reasons, limits the impact on civilians. Under the principle of distinction, IHL requires combatants to refrain from directly targeting civilian or noncombatant populations or facilities, or launching indiscriminate attacks. Under the principle of proportionality, the law further specifies that the expected injury or loss of life to civilians/noncombatants, and the expected damage to civilian/noncombatant property incidental to attacks, must not be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage that can be gained from an attack against a lawful military target.

In addition to the general protection for civilians, IHL also grants a degree of special protection in armed conflict to particular persons and objects, including medical personnel and facilities, Red Cross/Red Crescent personnel, and certain other categories of aid workers and civilians. The dangers to humanitarians are exacerbated by violent extremist organizations that intentionally embed themselves with noncombatants and near protected structures and objects in disregard for IHL. While civilian objects may lose their protection from attack under IHL if they are being used for military purposes – hence the debate over the presence of Taliban fighters in or near the MSF facility in Kunduz – a number of safeguards remain in place. In the case of civilian hospitals, for instance, Article 19 of the fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that the protection afforded to such facilities “shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after due warning has been given […].”

In conflict environments, the U.S. military maintains a comprehensive “no strike list,” which is a detailed database of objects determined to be protected from the effects of military operations under international law and/or rules of engagement. Yet the use of arguably one of the most technologically advanced, rigorous, and risk-averse processes in the world does not always prevent incidents like the Kunduz bombing from occurring; indeed, as has been widely reported, the MSF Hospital in Kunduz was on the no strike list for Afghanistan.

With specific instances of human errors notwithstanding, it is clear that all actors in the humanitarian space need to think through and act on renewed efforts to improve civilian-military collaboration at all levels in these settings. The following section provides four recommendations for moving this dialogue forward and making every possible effort to prevent such attacks.

A Way Ahead: Accelerated and Focused Civilian-Military Engagement

Ongoing conflicts and complex emergencies across the globe demand urgent action at the international and national levels to improve civilian-military dialogue and interaction. While a full agenda to protect aid workers needs to be developed as soon as possible, there are some crucial first steps that can be taken to begin to improve damaged relations from Kunduz (and other recent attacks) and get discussions moving in a positive direction:

  1. Due to the current lack of strategic engagement, develop and hold a high level conference to bring key leaders from NGOs, IGOs, governments, and militaries together to discuss meaningful mechanisms for improving tactical and operational coordination in conflict areas. This could also serve as a springboard for additional symposia, workshops, conferences, and other venues. There are a number of organizations that can quickly collaborate and convene stakeholders in a neutral setting in order to ask hard questions and to formulate tangible recommendations for improving coordination. Such questions include: what actions can be taken to enhance procedural and technological safeguards to prevent indiscriminate attacks against civilians, and what actions can be taken to deter combatants from using noncombatants or protected places as cover, in disregard for IHL. Thanks to their global relationships and recent collaborations, UN OCHA’s Civil-Military Coordination Section, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and the U.S. Naval War College are uniquely positioned to help the international community rapidly advance discussions in this area by hosting an event.
  2. Overcome hurdles to information sharing and technological coordination. While militaries primarily use classified technologies and processes to conduct operations, humanitarian organizations will never operate on these same systems. Because of this, we should explore unclassified technologies that enhance the speed and effectiveness of coordination, and perhaps even a formal emergency contact means for quickly establishing a connection with regional military commanders when humanitarian organizations find themselves under attack. As highlighted in an internal MSF review, during the Kunduz bombing, MSF made at least 18 attempts over the course of an hour, via phone and SMS text, to contact U.S., NATO, UN OCHA, ICRC, and Afghanistan government personnel to notify them of the attack. Despite the wide-ranging network MSF had built throughout Afghanistan, the calls for ceasefire were unsuccessful. By leveraging the Internet and global telecommunications systems, we should explore new options for establishing more responsive regional emergency humanitarian-military contact mechanisms that can quickly pass “ceasefire” orders from the strategic to tactical levels within military command and control structures.
  3. Due to a relative lack of strategic-level dialogue on these tragedies, more world leaders should publicly reiterate their nations’ commitment to ensure that their militaries make every effort to protect humanitarian aid workers and noncombatants who operate in harm’s way, and to ensuring accountability when violations occur. This applies especially to the leaders of militaries involved in current operations around the globe, but any leader whose nation maintains a forward deployable military capability could do so, as well as the leaders of countries where the most attacks against aid workers occur. While there may be some political obstacles to this occurring, especially in countries with ongoing internal conflicts, these simple strategic-level statements from leaders, along with meaningful discourse in forums like the UN Security Council, can go a long way in ensuring that militaries do everything in their power to minimize attacks against humanitarian and civilian targets.
  4. Avoiding future incidents like Kunduz has been made increasingly difficult by armed groups like ISIL and the Taliban specifically using protected places as cover and/or refuge, with disregard for IHL. By placing themselves near medical facilities, mosques, schools, and historical/religious sites, these actors significantly increase the possibility of direct or collateral damage to these facilities and the civilians in their vicinity. There is thus a pressing need for the international community, IGOs, NGOs, and political leaders to continuously call out this unlawful behavior, and to engage with armed groups and affected populations to encourage changes in this conduct, which is often at the heart of endangering humanitarian personnel and objects in the first place. 

Unless we take urgent, sincere, and collaborative action now, the previous trust and confidence that has been established over many years between humanitarian actors and militaries will continue to erode, and will undoubtedly impact our ability to work effectively together when it is needed most. This lack of engagement may in turn increase threats to the safety and security of aid workers and civilians in conflict settings. To borrow a time-tested U.S. Navy saying, this requires an “all hands on deck” approach to get things moving in a positive direction quickly, so we can begin to take the necessary actions at all levels to prevent attacks against aid workers and civilians from occurring.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the Naval War College.

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