Lawyers Review Airstrike Plans

An extra check on actions when there is the risk of civilian casualties.

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COMBINED AIR AND SPACE OPERATIONS CENTER, MIDDLE EAST—Among the 50-plus troops analyzing intelligence on the floor of the combat operations center, there is a military lawyer on hand around-the-clock. If there is a question about the legality of a strike, particularly when it endangers civilians, the lawyer provides advice reflecting the Law of Armed Conflict—the international treaties that prohibit the intentional targeting of noncombatants and require militaries to minimize risks to civilians. "And yet it's war," says Air Force attorney Col. Bill Carranza, the chief JAG officer here.

In counterinsurgency wars, the line between civilians and insurgents gets blurry, since insurgents and noncombatants live side by side. As a result, says Lt. Col. Walt Manwill, chief of combat operations here, rules-of-engagement questions abound. Just having someone standing by to consult on legal issues, he adds, can give commanders a useful check on their options.

Abundant caution. Some U.S. Army officials complain, though, that the Air Force is too cautious and that measures to avoid civilian casualties may increase the danger to U.S. troops. The Combined Air Operations Center "is a bureaucracy really in charge of covering its ass," says one Army general. "To make sure there are no Air Force prints on anything."

Carranza is empathetic to the frustrations of soldiers on the front lines of an amorphous battlefield. "The guys on the ground are always concerned about somebody second-guessing them when they're getting shot at," he says. "My job is to give them options." He recalls an incident in which a helicopter was down, and U.S. personnel knew someone was nearby and that he was a threat. "The question was, do we blow the guy up?" Carranza says. "You really are talking about a human life. My recommendation was that you have enough intelligence to shoot, if you feel it's appropriate." In the end, the commander didn't order the strike.

Such uncertain scenarios are increasingly common, particularly in Afghanistan. That why the JAG officer on call sits through the shift next to the Afghanistan duty officer, where they can consult easily, says Manwill. Just as he points in their direction, the JAG lawyer across the room bows his head in frustration and begins to gently bat himself with an empty water bottle.