U.S. Air Strikes and Civilian Deaths in the War on Terror

mosul-destroyed
Mosul, Iraq: Destroying the City to Save It?

W.J. Astore

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Drone Casualties: The New Body Count (Updated)

predator
A method of war, not a strategy

W.J. Astore

In President Obama’s drone wars, how many innocent civilians have been killed?  An official U.S. government report will suggest that roughly 100 civilians have been killed since 2009 in drone strikes, a surprisingly small number.  According to NBC News:

The Long War Journal, a project of the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank whose numbers tend to be the most favorable for U.S. policy-makers, tallied 207 civilian casualties since 2009 in 492 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. That does not include strikes in Somalia and Libya, which the Obama administration includes in its count of around 100 [civilians killed].

New America, a left-leaning Washington think tank, counted between 244 and 294 civilians killed in 547 attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that as many as 1068 civilians were killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the vast majority since 2009.

So it’s unclear whether the Obama administration’s drone strikes have killed 100 innocents, 300 innocents, or over 1000 innocents.  Part of the discrepancy involves who is a “militant” and who is an innocent civilian.  The U.S. government tends to count all military-age males killed in drone strikes as “militants,” effectively changing the meaning of civilian to “women and children.”

In one respect, this body count doesn’t matter.  Dead is dead, whether you’re talking about 100 people or 1000.  And isn’t the death of 100 innocents enough to provoke protest if not outrage?  Think of the reaction in the U.S. to the killing of 49 innocent civilians in Orlando.  Better yet, think if a foreign government was flying drones over our skies, taking out American “terrorists” while killing a few innocent civilians now and again.  Would we dismiss 100 dead American civilians as “collateral damage,” regrettable but necessary in this foreign power’s war on terror?

Of course not.  Americans would memorialize the dead, honor them, and make them a cause for vengeance.

For all the people the U.S. government is killing overseas in hundreds of deadly drone strikes, it’s not obvious that any progress is being made in the war on terror. The wars continue, with the Taliban gaining strength in Afghanistan.  ISIS is on the wane, until it rebounds or morphs into another form.  What is essentially terror bombing as a weapon against terror has little chance of ending a war on terror.  Meanwhile, hammer blows from the sky against fractured societies only serve to propagate the fractures, creating new fault lines and divisions that are exploitable by the determined and the fanatical.

Indeed, we really have no clear idea whether these multi-billion dollar air campaigns are making any progress in war. Much of the data and results of these campaigns are both classified and open to bias, with reports of casualties being manipulated or “spun” by all sides.  All we really know is that innocents are killed (whether 100 or 1000) as the wars persist with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, American exceptionalism rules.  As Tom Engelhardt noted back in May of 2015:

In his public apology for deaths [of innocents by drones] that were clearly embarrassing to him, President Obama managed to fall back on a trope that has become ever more politically commonplace in these years.  Even in the context of a situation in which two innocent hostages had been killed, he congratulated himself and all Americans for the exceptional nature of this country. “It is a cruel and bitter truth,” he said, “that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur.  But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

Whatever our missteps, in other words, we Americans are exceptional killers in a world of ordinary ones.  This attitude has infused Obama’s global assassination program and the White House “kill list” that goes with it and that the president has personally overseen.

Drone strikes are a method of war, but they’ve become the American strategy.  The strategy, so it seems, is to keep killing bad guys until the rest give up and go home.  But the deaths of innocents, whether 100 or 1000, serve to perpetuate cycles of violence and revenge.

We have, in essence, created a perpetual killing machine.

Update (7/2/2016): Well, the Obama administration has done it again, releasing its report on drone casualties on the afternoon of Friday, July 1st, just before the long Independence Day weekend, ensuring minimal media coverage.  The report excludes “active” war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, a convenient definition that serves to lower the death toll.

According to the report, U.S. drone strikes in places like Yemen, Libya, tribal Pakistan, and Somalia have accounted for about 2500 “terrorists” while killing 64 to 116 civilian bystanders.  The tacit message: We’re killing 25 times (or perhaps 40 times) as many “terrorists” as we are innocent civilians, a very effective (even humane?) kill ratio.

Talk about an exercise in cynical bookkeeping!  One can guess what happened here. Someone high up in the government began with the civilian body count judged acceptable: I’m guessing that figure was roughly 100.  Then, they worked backwards from that.  How do we get 100?  Well, if we exclude “active” war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and if we squint sideways …

Well, you probably know the saying: the very first casualty in war is truth.  Followed by an honest accounting of civilian casualties, as this latest report from the Obama administration shows.