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Preparedness in urban operations: a commander’s planning checklist to protect civilians

Analysis / Humanitarian Action / Law and Conflict / Religion / Urban warfare 12 mins read

Preparedness in urban operations: a commander’s planning checklist to protect civilians
Implementing international humanitarian law’s (IHL) precautionary measures for both defending and attacking forces is a challenge in urban conflict. Urban battles pose heightened risk to civilians and critical infrastructure and much is needed to prepare forces to engage military objectives only and avoid incidental civilian harm. In this post, part of our special series on urban warfare, Sahr Muhammedally, Director for MENA & South Asia at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), outlines a checklist on ways to protect civilians for commanders preparing for urban operations.

Protecting civilians in urban operations is complex. Separating military targets from civilian populations is hard in any environment, but in urban areas, the density of the population, civilian objects – such as homes and schools, hospitals, electric power grids, and water sources – magnifies the challenges. Urban environments make detection and identification difficult, as surface and subterranean areas can cover and conceal military objectives and can be used to launch attacks from and reduce effectiveness of present-day military technologies. Preparedness and planning on intelligence, maneuver, use of force, training, and humanitarian assistance is essential to foresee risk of civilian harm from the effects of attack by those attacking a city and those defending it.

International humanitarian law (IHL) requires that parties to armed conflict take a range of precautionary measures in attack and against the effects of attack to protect civilians and civilian objects. Some of these precautionary requirements are a necessary corollary to ensure compliance with the principles of distinction and proportionality, though IHL also requires to avoid or at least minimize incidental civilian harm even in situations where distinction and proportionality are respected. More generally, parties must take constant care to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects from harm in the conduct of military operations, and not just attacks. Rules on distinction require that parties to a conflict distinguish between civilian persons and objects on the one hand, and combatants and military objectives on the other. Proportionality prohibits attacks which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

Precautions in an attack, which are considered customary IHL and applicable to both international and non-international armed conflict, require doing everything feasible to verify that the target is a military objective. Commanders are obligated to: take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack, with a view to avoiding, and, in any event, minimizing, the expected incidental damage; refrain from launching an attack that may be expected to violate the rule on proportionality; cancel or suspend an attack if it becomes apparent that the target is not a military objective or is subject to special protection, or that the attack may violate the rule on proportionality; and provide effective warnings to the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit.

The rule concerning precautions against the effects of attacks obliges defending forces to the ‘maximum extent feasible’ to remove civilian populations and civilian objects under its control from the vicinity of military objectives; to avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas; and to protect the population and civilian objects under their control from the dangers resulting from military operations. These are preventive measures that can be taken in peacetime and during operations.

How commanders – both from attacking and defending forces – seek to comply with the constant care obligation given unique challenges in urban operations requires integration of protection of civilians (PoC) in all aspects of preparedness, not just attacks. Below, is a commander’s checklist on PoC, which is by no means exhaustive.

1. Integrate PoC into commanders’ intent, rules of engagement, and other guidance.

From a strategic lens, PoC should be integrated into commanders’ intent and operational plans and tied to the end state of the operation. This sets the framework that minimizing harm to civilians and civilian objects is a legal, policy and strategic objective, and would ensure follow-on resources, trainings, tools, and coordination with external actors, to enable implementation of commanders’ intent.

2. Adapt tactics, trainings, and equipment for urban areas.

Preparedness for urban operations for attacking or defending forces needs commanders to adapt tactics, trainings, and equipment to the challenges posed by urban areas. What is operationally effective in rural areas won’t necessarily work – or be sufficient – for urban areas where critical infrastructure, terrain (subsurface and subterranean), and density of population are always at play. Commanders need to understand the urban environment and adapt tactics for operational effectiveness and to minimize civilian harm.

3. Train for urban operations from a PoC lens.

Urban warfare training should be prioritized for all ranks with realistic scenarios on terrain, infrastructure, civilian presence, presence of civilian/humanitarian agencies, as well as judgment trainings on rules of engagement, and operationalization of core IHL principles such as distinction, proportionality, and precautions, as well as military necessity and humanity.

4. Learn from past urban operations on how to avoid incidental harm.

Examining past urban operations either conducted by one’s own military or that of another nation on ways to avoid incidental harm to civilians and civilian objects can inform new tactics, guidance and preparedness to deal with the complexities of urban operations to better protect civilians both during an attack and from the effects of attack.

5. Know the impact weapons will have on urban areas and equip forces accordingly.

Much has been documented about the impact of explosive weapons with wide area effects on civilians and infrastructure, with estimates that 90% of casualties are civilians when such weapons are used in populated areas. As such, strict fire control support measures including requiring a positive identification (PID) of targets in all engagements and establishing no-strike lists, use of precision fires should be employed. Emphasis on using direct fire weapons in close combat, snipers where possible, less lethal IHL-compliant weapons, and tactical alternatives should be studied and applied. Precautionary measures are ‘technologically neutral’ and apply to all weapons, including precision guided munitions (PGM), cyber, and other possible future weaponized technology. Thus, the means and methods of warfare in urban operations will require constant analysis to inform ways to avoid or at least minimize incidental civilian harm.

6. Invest in resources to better see what is inside a building.

Many militaries observe patterns of life and use intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) or off-the-shelf drones, satellite, and remote sensors to enable them to locate military objectives and assist in targeting processes. Yet, we know mistakes happen and civilians have been found inside buildings which had been approved for engagement (see 2017 coalition strike in Mosul al Jadida).

The density of the terrain enhances concealment giving the defending forces an advantage. For example, the Islamic State group used simple tarpaulins, created mouseholes between buildings, and dug subterranean structures to avoid detection. In Iraq, aerial visibility by coalition forces was also thwarted by the Islamic State group by smoke from burning oil.

Being able to see through walls and affirmatively determine who is inside has yet to be developed, although there appears to be progress on this and would be a game changer if easily adaptable and affordable. Until then, when conducting operations in urban areas, commanders should assume civilian presence, and targeting teams should continue to question and ‘red team’ actionable intelligence to verify military objectives and civilian presence inside a building prior to attack.

7. Assign urban experts to targeting team.

Many militaries have legal advisors counseling the commander, which is critical to ensuring IHL compliance. Having urban planners and engineers familiar with a terrain where operations will take place can also provide necessary advice to commanders and targeting teams on munitions choice, during the weaponeering process, to better foresee impact both subterranean and above surface. Recent battles in Mosul showed that precision strikes of intersections to stop vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), which was necessary for force protection and to protect civilians, damaged the underground sewer system.

8. Bypass populated areas where feasible.

Defending forces, where feasible, can limit military convoy movements in cities and set up camps and positions outside cities, ensuring zones are clearly marked with restricted access, and communicate to civilians of such restricted areas.

9. Plan to reduce risk to force and civilians by exploring options to build defenses.

The use of ditches, berms, walls, and bulldozers by Iraqi forces as areas were cleared of the Islamic State group were effective defenses to protect civilians and for force protection. US forces built concrete walls in parts of Baghdad for force protection, but also to protect the local population from attacks.

10. Plan for evacuation and safe route options for civilians who wish to leave voluntarily.

Civilians can be more effectively protected when they are not in crossfire of battle. Although temporary evacuations may be necessary, and even legally required, such evacuations must not amount to forced displacement. Evacuees are to be informed in advance of destination site and evacuation processes should be agreed upon by conflict parties. Attacking forces should identify safe routes for civilians to use, informed by the impacted community given risk of such routes being attacked. Commanders should develop protocols for screening of persons, who cross frontlines, in adherence with IHL and human rights law. For example, in Marawi, civilians heeded directions to evacuate and many Iraqi civilians fled Fallujah and Mosul, risking their lives as they were attacked by the Islamic State group.

11. Talk to communities.

Planners should recognize that civilians have agency. Question assumptions regarding civilian behavior and don’t assume they will leave because they may be physically unable to, prevented from leaving, or afraid of risks of movements and treatment by receiving parties. Talk to conflict-impacted communities to anticipate risk to civilians and critical infrastructure that sustain life and livelihood and how civilians would behave during conflict. Those who are defending the city often have better information about the present location of civilians and civilian objects than the attacking force and are therefore positioned to avoid knowingly putting them in harm’s way. Learn from civilians about what can be done to not put them in harm’s way and acknowledge mistakes.

12. Procure resources to track and analyze the impact of operations.

Set up capabilities to track, analyze, and investigate all incidents of civilian harm and damage to civilian objects even when such harm would be prima facie lawful. Such a tool has proven to be effective, when properly resourced and staffed, to identify root causes of harm, inform lessons, training, and mitigation measures during operations. This would better enable pre- and post-strike assessments to be matched more closely to reduce civilian harm.

13. Study and analyze opposing forces tactics that threaten civilians.

Anticipating how civilians will be put at risk during operations by opposing forces is as essential as foreseeing risks to civilians from one’s own actions. Understanding if civilians are attacked when trying to leave or being used as human shields or being attacked due to their religion, sect, or ethnicity can better inform a military’s own tactics and procedures to not exacerbate risk of harm and to plan to take actions to protect them from attack from others.

14. Plan to integrate and empower civil affairs advisors to allow for critical injections to support civilians and commander’s intent on PoC.

Support to displaced persons should not be set up after operations, but prior to anticipated movements of civilians in order to pre-position shelter, food, water, and medical resources. Should siege-like measures develop, civil affairs should support humanitarian actors’ ability to provide crossline food, water, medicine to civilians, or negotiate with the other side to allow civilians to leave safely.

15. Plan to restore essential services, clear explosive remnants of war (ERW), and manage human remains.

How soon civilians can return home and resume their lives safely is critical to stabilization. Detailed planning must include how soon essential services can be restored and human remains removed to prevent spread of disease. Planning for clearance of ERW would enable safe returns of the civilian population. A lack of planning for rebuilding cities will perpetuate grievances and pose renewed risk of violence.

16. Share good practices on civilian harm mitigation in partnered or support operations.

If in partnered or support operations, agree with your partners to adhere to good practices to mitigate civilian harm through policies, rules of engagement (ROEs), trainings, equipment, capabilities at the operational and tactical level.


This is not an exhaustive list of what can be done to better prepare armed actors to foresee and mitigate civilian harm in urban operations, but highlights some key recommendations based on my on-the-ground observations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, observing impact on civilians and infrastructure, and engagement with host nation and coalition forces. I am cognizant that force protection considerations weigh heavily on a commander, especially in urban battles. But protecting either the force or civilians is not a binary choice to achieve the mission. Rather, the constant care obligation to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects from harm especially in urban battles must animate all strategic, operational, and tactical decision-making to reduce risk to civilians and be operationally effective. This requires a comprehensive understanding of the operational environment and integrating ways civilians and infrastructure can be protected in all phases of operations.

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