We’re just beginning to learn the details of the American serviceman who went on a rampage, killing at least 16 civilians in Afghanistan. The news is deeply disturbing and there will certainly be ongoing speculation as to what happened and why.
As a human rights advocate dedicated to civilian protection, my first thoughts are with those that lost their lives, and the families, friends and community that have been impacted by this violence.
We should be appalled by the attack, which amounts to war crimes, and the United States should be prepared to respond in a way that prioritizes the needs of the victims and survivors, including everything from reparations to justice.
I also can’t help but wonder if there weren’t steps that the U.S. military could have taken to prevent such a tragedy (e.g.: providing better psychological services for American soldiers in combat). The U.S. should undertake any and all measures to prevent similar violence in the future.
Additionally, I’m reminded that civilian casualties in Afghanistan are nothing new. While some are certainly less intentional than others, it doesn’t change the fact that civilians are drastically impacted by the war in Afghanistan, as well as conflicts elsewhere around the world.
It’s imperative to remember the unintended consequences that even “well-intentioned” military campaigns will inevitably have on civilians. The most recent example of which is NATO’s response to the crisis in Libya. I’m not saying that military intervention should be taken off the table outright–in fact, military intervention is included in the third tenant of the responsibility to protect–but it’s the last resort for a reason.
Even as the last resort, military intervention is not always a viable option, particularly given the inherent difficulties of protecting civilians by shooting around them (or increasing the ability of others to shoot around them). This is why every situation must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
What we’re really talking about is the escalation of conflict–whether done to protect civilians exclusively or in COIN operations–and that needs to be recognized. For the sake of innocent men, women and children, this is absolutely something that should be at the forefront as the international community considers next steps to address the protection of civilians in places like Sudan and Syria. And, as the United States, NATO and others consider the way forward in the war in Afghanistan.
The bottom line: When weapons come into the equation, civilians always bear consequences.