U.S. and Coalition forces have seriously undercounted the number of civilians killed in air attacks against ISIS. That is the key finding of an 18-month-long investigation led by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal and published this week in the New York Times Magazine. Khan/Gopal surveyed 103 sites of air strikes in northern Iraq, extrapolating from these attacks into other regions in which the Coalition launched air attacks against ISIS since 2014. They conclude that between 8000 and 10,000 civilians have been killed in these attacks, far higher than the U.S. government’s estimate of roughly 500 civilians killed (or the 3000 civilian deaths estimated by Airwars.org over this same period).
Does it matter to Americans if the true count of civilian deaths is closer to 10,000 than 500? To most Americans, sadly, I’m not sure it matters. Not if these air strikes are described and defended as saving American and Coalition lives as well as killing terrorists.
Airwars.org keeps a running tally of U.S. and Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Their website today (11/19/17) records 28,380 strikes over an almost four-year period, using 102,082 bombs and missiles. It would be remarkable if only a few hundred innocents were killed by such an astonishing number of bombs and missiles, and indeed they estimate that nearly 6000 civilians have been killed in these attacks.
Why are U.S./Coalition figures so much lower than those estimated by Khan/Gopal and Airwars.org?
In March 2013, I wrote an article for TomDispatch in which I explained that airpower and bombing missions are neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive. More recently, I lamented the horrific euphemism of “collateral damage,” a term often used to elide the realities of death by bombing. There are good reasons why officialdom in Washington is content to undercount the number of civilians killed in bombing and drone attacks overseas. Some are obvious; others perhaps less so:
- It’s not in the best interests of the U.S. military to give a full and honest accounting of civilian casualties, so they don’t.
- A full and honest accounting requires direct investigations (boots on the ground) like the ones conducted by Khan/Gopal. These are not generally done, partly because they would expose U.S. troops to considerable risk.
- A full and honest accounting might suggest that air attacks are too costly, murderously so. The Coalition and the U.S. military prefer to advertise airpower as a “precise” and “decisive” weapon, and of course the Coalition relies on airpower to keep their casualties limited.
- Related to (3), as airpower is sold as “surgical” and decisive, there are billions and billions of dollars riding on this image. Think of the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in warplanes, drones, and munitions. Is the U.S. willing to suggest that this approach is often not that effective in the “war on terror”? Even worse, that it results in the death and grievous wounding of thousands of innocent men, women, and children? That it may, in fact, exacerbate terrorism and intensify the war?
- Another possible angle: Do you want to tell pilots and other crew members that their bombs and missiles often kill innocents rather than the enemy? What would that do to morale?
When civilian deaths are mentioned in the U.S. media, they are often explained, or explained away, as the byproduct of ISIS/ISIL using innocents as human shields, or of the messiness and unpredictability of urban warfare in densely packed cities like Mosul. But the Khan/Gopal study notes that civilian deaths from the air war are often due to poor intelligence – a failure of process, the result of insufficient resources and inadequate understanding of events on the ground. In a word, negligence.
Again, do Americans care about civilian casualties in Iraq or Syria or other faraway places? We seem to have a blasé attitude toward foreign peoples being killed at a distance in air strikes. I suppose this is so because those killings are termed “accidental” by military spokesmen even as they’re attributed to a nefarious enemy or to technological errors. It’s also so because these deaths have been both undercounted and underreported in America.
In showing that the U.S. government seriously undercounts civilian casualties and by highlighting systemic flaws in intelligence-gathering and targeting, the Khan/Gopal study makes a major contribution to our understanding of the true costs of America’s endless war on terror.