The Strategic Impact of Civilian Harm in Afghanistan

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About the Report:

The Open Society Foundations and Christopher D. Kolenda, a former ISAF battalion commander and Pentagon senior advisor, have written a 'lessons-learned' report about civilian harm in Afghanistan to help the United States and NATO improve civilian protection in conflict without undermining force protection and strategic interests. The report will be released in early June; this event will preview its findings.

Civilian harm tends to be seen as a legal or moral imperative, but less appreciated is the report’s finding that civilian harm which occurs in accordance with the laws of war can still cause irreversible damage to tactical objectives and strategic aims —risks that also apply to counter-terrorism operations and assistance to foreign security forces. The reforms made by ISAF in Afghanistan demonstrated that better civilian protection is strategically advantageous and can be achieved without unnecessary restrictions or sacrificing force protection. These lessons have not been fully institutionalized. The standard tools used by militaries to evaluate the impact and manage the risks of civilian harm are inadequate.

This shortcoming has heightened the risks of errors and lost opportunities places such as in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Fifteen years of battlefield experiences and reporting in Afghanistan combined with recent academic research provide an opportunity to develop policies and procedures that more effectively manage the complexity of contemporary conflict.

About the Speakers: 

Christopher Kolenda - Senior Military Fellow, King’s College, London and President & CEO, Kolenda Strategic Leadership

Chris was recently Senior Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Department of Defense senior leadership, and served four tours in Afghanistan. In 2009 he was selected by the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy to develop a new U.S. strategy for the conflict; he later drafted the groundbreaking McChrystal assessment and counterinsurgency guidance. He served as senior advisor to three commanders of ISAF. 

Rachel Reid - Advocacy Director, Middle East, North Africa, Southwest Asia, Open Society Foundations

Rachel was previously at Human Rights Watch, where she was based in Afghanistan, with a strong focus on civilian casualties. Prior to her move into human rights work, Rachel spent more than a decade with the BBC. 

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