News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

December 22, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Official military data shows a 54 percent decline in strikes across all US conflicts during Biden’s year in office.

There has been much speculation in recent weeks about what President Biden’s first year in office shows us about his foreign policy – and in particular whether he is ending 20 years of America’s so-called ‘forever wars’.

As 2021 nears its end, Airwars reached out to US combatant commands to request strike data for conflicts. Coupled with the long-delayed release of crucial strike data from Afghanistan, Airwars can assess for the first time what the ‘war on terror’ looks like under Joe Biden.

The biggest take-home is that Biden has significantly decreased US military action across the globe.

Overall, declared US strikes have fallen by 54% globally during 2021

In total, declared US strikes across all five active US conflict zones – Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – fell from 951 actions in 2020, to 439 by mid December 2021, a decrease of 54 percent. This is by far the lowest declared annual US strike number since at least 2004, and reflects a broader trend of declining US actions in recent years.

During 2021, the overwhelming majority of US strikes (372) took place in Afghanistan prior to withdrawal on August 31st. In fact, the United States carried out more than five times as many strikes in Afghanistan this year than in all other active US conflict zones combined.

If you were to remove Afghanistan from the data, the United States has declared just 67 strikes across the globe so far in 2021.

Afghanistan dominated US military actions during 2021

Civilian casualties also down

This trend is also reflected in far lower numbers of civilians allegedly killed by US strikes. During 2021, there were no credible local allegations of civilians likely killed by US strikes in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan or Yemen.

However,  at least 11 civilians were likely killed by US actions in Syria. In Afghanistan at least 10 civilians were confirmed killed by US actions. That latter figure is almost certainly higher, since we now know the US dropped more than 800 munitions on Taliban and Islamic State fighters during the year. At least some of those strikes were in urban areas where civilians are particularly at risk. However exact estimates remain elusive, due to ongoing confusion between US strikes and those carried out by Afghan security forces up to August.

In Somalia one civilian was locally reported killed by US strikes, though this occurred before Biden assumed office on January 20th.

Biden is partly continuing a trend seen in recent years – the number of strikes has largely fallen since 2016 when the war with the so-called Islamic State reached its apex. Below, we provide breakdowns of both US and allied airstrikes and locally reported civilian casualties – as well as emerging trends – for each individual conflict.

Over the length of the ‘War on Terror’, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 still marks the highest number of declared US strikes.

Afghanistan

On December 17th 2021, Biden’s administration finally released strike data for the final two years of the Afghanistan war. Such monthly releases were standard practice for nearly two decades but were stopped in March 2020, with the Trump administration arguing that their ongoing release could jeopardise peace talks with the Taliban. The Biden administration then chose to continue with that secrecy.

Now we can see why. The new releases show that despite a ‘peace’ agreement with the Taliban signed on February 29th 2020, under which the US was expected to withdraw in 14 months, the Pentagon continued its aggressive aerial campaigns in Afghanistan. Between March and December 2020, more than 400 previously undeclared strikes took place under Trump, while there were at least 300 US strikes in Afghanistan under Biden until August.

In total, almost 800 previously secret recent US airstrikes in Afghanistan during the Trump and Biden administrations have now been declared.

While Airwars does not track allegations of civilian harm in Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has done so for more than a decade. Yet the decision by the Pentagon to stop publishing strike data in early 2020 may have led the UN to significantly underestimate casualties from US actions.

In its report detailing civilian casualties in Afghanistan from January to June 2021, UNAMA found that 146 civilians had been killed and 243 injured in airstrikes. Yet it seemed to assume these were all carried out by US-backed Afghan military forces, instead of the US.

“UNAMA…did not verify any airstrike by international military forces that resulted in civilian casualties during the first six months of 2021,” the report asserted. Such assessments will likely now require a fresh review, in the wake of recent US strike data releases.

We do know for certain that ten civilians were killed by US actions after that six-month period, on August 29th this year in Kabul – in the final US drone strike of a 20-year war. The US initially claimed this was a “righteous strike” on an Islamic State terrorist. However investigative journalists quickly showed the victims were in fact an aid worker and nine members of his young family, forcing the military to admit an error. Despite this, it recently concluded no disciplinary measures against personnel were necessary.

After the ignominious US withdrawal on August 31, US strikes have stopped. While at the time Biden discussed the possibility of continuing “over the horizon” airstrikes from a nearby country, this has not yet happened.

“The skies over Afghanistan are free of US war planes for the first time in two decades. A whole generation grew up under their contrails, nobody looks at the sky without checking for them,” Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group told Airwars. “Their absence heralds the start of a new era, even if it’s not yet clear what that new chapter will bring.”

Iraq and Syria

During 2020, the number of air and artillery strikes conducted by the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State – Operation Inherent Resolve – has continued to fall, alongside an ongoing reduction in civilian harm allegations.

OIR declared 201 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2020, and only 58 strikes by early December 2021. This represents a reduction of around 70  percent in one year, and a 99 percent reduction in declared strikes between 2017 and 2021.

In Iraq, Airwars has tracked no local allegations of civilian harm from US led actions during 2021, down from an estimated five civilian fatalities in 2020. At the height of the Coalition’s war against ISIS in 2017, Airwars had tracked a minimum of 1,423 civilian fatalities.

In Syria, however, civilian harm allegations from Coalition actions actually increased this year, up from a minimum of one death in 2020 to at least eleven likely civilian fatalities in 2021. This does still represent a low figure compared to recent history: in 2019, Airwars had identified a minimum of 490 civilians likely killed by the Coalition, a reduction of 98 percent to this year.

Since 2019, Afghanistan has replaced Iraq and Syria as the primary focus of US military actions.

One key concern in Syria is that most recently reported civilian deaths have resulted not from declared US airstrikes, but from joint ground operations with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), often supported by US attack helicopters.

These include a raid on the town of Thiban in Deir Ezzor, carried out by the SDF with the support of the US-led Coalition at dawn on July 16th 2021. Eyewitnesses reported that a “force consisting of several cars raided civilian homes, without warning, accompanied by indiscriminate shooting between the houses with the aim of terrorising the ‘wanted’”. Two civilians, a father and son, were killed in the raid, reportedly shot outside their home.

Separately, on the morning of December 3rd 2021, a declared US drone strike killed at least one man and injured at least six civilians, including up to four children from the same family. Multiple sources reported that the drone targeted a motorcycle but also hit a passing car that the Qasoum family were traveling in. Ahmed Qasoum, who was driving, described the incident; “the motorcycle was going in front of me and I decided to pass it, when I got parallel to it, I felt a lot of pressure pushing the car to the left of the road….It was horrible.” His ten-year-old son had a fractured skull, while his 15-year-old daughter sustained a serious shrapnel injury to her head.

On December 6th, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the strike had targeted an Al-Qaeda linked militant but “the initial review of the strike did indicate the potential for possible civilian casualties.”

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A dashboard camera captures the moment a US strike also hits a passing civilian vehicle. 

Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen

Under Donald Trump, there had been a record rise both in declared US airstrikes in Somalia, and in locally reported civilian deaths and injuries – with the last likely death from a US action tracked by Airwars on the final day of Trump’s presidency.

Since then, Airwars has tracked no locally reported civilian deaths in Somalia under Biden. For the entire year, AFRICOM has declared nine strikes so far, four of which occurred under Biden. When he came to power, his administration implemented a six-month moratorium on strikes, multiple sources said. This meant that both AFRICOM and even the CIA had to have White House permission before carrying out strikes in either Somalia or Yemen.

On July 20th 2021, the day the moratorium ended, AFRICOM declared the first Somali strike of the Biden era – targeting the Al-Shabaab Islamist group. Multiple militants were reported killed, though no civilians were among them. A small number of additional strikes against Al-Shabaab occurred in the weeks afterwards, the most recent of which was on August 24th. Since then, there have been no declared strikes.

In Yemen, where the US has carried out periodic strikes against alleged Al-Qaeda affiliates since 2009, there have so far been no reliable reports of US strikes under Biden. In August, Al-Qaeda itself claimed two of its fighters had been killed in a US action, though there were no details on the date or location of this event.

Responding to an email query from Airwars on November 18th, the US military denied carrying out any recent attacks, noting that “CENTCOM conducted its last counterterror strike in Yemen on June 24, 2019. CENTCOM has not conducted any new counterterror strikes in Yemen since.”

However, in a more ambivalent statement to Airwars on December 16th, CENTCOM spokesperson Bill Urban noted only that “I am not aware of any strikes in Yemen in 2021.” Airwars is seeking further clarity, particularly since it is known that the CIA carried out several airstrikes on Al Qaeda in Yemen during 2020.

In both Libya and Pakistan, long running US counter terrorism campaigns now appear to be over. The last locally claimed CIA strike in Pakistan was in July 2018 under President Trump, while in Libya, the last likely US strike was in October 2019.

A crucial year ahead

Based on official US military data, it is clear that Joe Biden is building on a trend seen in the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency, further decreasing the scope and scale of the ‘forever wars.’

In Iraq and Syria, US forces appear to be transitioning away from carrying out active strikes in favour of supporting allied groups – although Special Forces ground actions continue in Syria, sometimes with associated civilian harm. The war in Afghanistan is now over, and it seems the long-running US campaigns in Pakistan and Libya have drawn to permanent halts. US airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen have all but stopped for now.

Still unknown is the likely framework for US military actions moving forward. In early 2021, Biden commissioned a major review of US counter terrorism policy. Led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the results are expected to be announced in the coming months. This will likely give us a far clearer idea how Biden believes the US should fight both ongoing wars and future ones.

Is 2022 the year Biden rescinds the AUMF? (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

And then there is amending – or even repealing – the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). That law, passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11, essentially granted the US President the right to conduct strikes anywhere in the world in the context of the ‘war on terror.’ Initially designed for use against Al-Qaeda, it has been employed against an ever widening pool of US enemies.

The future of the 2001 AUMF is once again likely to be debated by Congress in 2022. While unlikely to be repealed, it could possibly be significantly amended, Brian Finucane, senior advisor for the US programme at International Crisis Group, told Airwars.

“That would entail at a minimum specifying who the United States can hit – explicitly identifying the enemy. Secondly identifying where it should be used – geographical limits. And thirdly giving a sunset clause,” he said. “As it is now that AUMF is basically a blank cheque to be used by different administrations.”

▲ President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with national security advisers to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, Thursday, August 19, 2021, in the White House Situation Room. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)

Published

September 6, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Airwars tally offers assessment of the direct civilian impact of 20 years of US strikes

You often find a similar refrain in US media reporting of the cost of two decades of the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ The trope goes something like this: “more than 7,000 US service people have died in wars since 9/11,” an article or news report will say. In the next line it will usually, though not always, try to reflect the civilian toll – but almost exclusively in generalities. Tens, or even hundreds, of thousands.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, and the subsequent launch of the War on Terror, Airwars has been seeking the answer to one important question – how many civilians have US strikes likely killed in the ‘Forever Wars’?

We found that the US has declared at least 91,340 strikes across seven major conflict zones.

Our research has concluded that at least 22,679, and potentially as many as 48,308 civilians, have been likely killed by US strikes.

The gap between these two figures reflects the many unknowns when it comes to civilian harm in war. Belligerents rarely track the effects of their own actions – and even then do so poorly. It is left to local communities, civil society and international agencies to count the costs. Multiple sources can however suggest different numbers of fatalities, meaning that monitoring organisations like Airwars will record both minimum and maximum estimates.

Our key findings of civilian harm from US actions since 9/11 can be seen in this video and the full dataset is available here.

This accompanying article explains the conflicts we covered and our key findings in a little more detail, before outlining our methodology and data sources.

What are the ‘Forever Wars’?

In the days after the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001, in which 2,977 people were killed by Al Qaeda in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, US President George W. Bush announced the start of a new type of war, one without defined borders, boundaries, or timescales.

“Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he told Americans. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

“Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.”

“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he concluded.

So it came to pass. The War on Terror has been a near global endeavour. By 2017 for example, the US Department of Defense said it had around 8,000 “special operators” in 80 countries across the globe.

Dubbed the ‘Forever Wars,’ this conflict has not had clear territorial boundaries, though we have included in our dataset the seven most intensive US military campaigns. The types of conflict vary significantly but broadly fall into three categories:

    Full invasions and occupations of countries – Afghanistan 2001-2021, and Iraq 2003-2009. Major bombing campaigns against the Islamic State terror group – Iraq 2014-2021, Syria 2014-2021, and Libya 2016. More targeted US drone and airstrike campaigns against militant and terror groups – Somalia 2007-2021, Yemen 2002-2021, Pakistan 2004-2018, and Libya 2014-2019.

Key findings

Based on official US military data, we have concluded that the US has carried out a minimum of 91,340 airstrikes throughout the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Particular peaks were seen during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the US declared 18,695 strike sorties. The campaign against the so-called Islamic State also saw a sustained peak, with more than 9,000 strikes a year from 2015-2017.

We then gathered together every reliable estimate of civilian harm as a result of US strikes.

Wherever possible we sought to measure civilian harm just from US airstrikes but in some cases, such as the first years of the Iraq invasion, it was impossible to disaggregate airstrikes from artillery fire and other heavy munitions, which were therefore included.

Likewise in some US-led Coalitions it was impossible to determine whether each individual strike was American, though US airpower has dominated all such campaigns.

Based on our comprehensive review of credible sources, we found at least 22,679 civilians were likely directly killed by US strikes since 9/11, with that number potentially as high as 48,308.

 

The deadliest year came in 2003, when a minimum of 5,529 civilians were reported to have been killed by US actions according to the monitoring organisation Iraq Body Count, almost all during the invasion of Iraq that year. The next deadliest year was 2017, when at least 4,931 civilians were likely killed, the vast majority in alleged Coalition bombing of Iraq and Syria. However, if we include maximum estimates of civilian harm then 2017 was in fact the worst year for civilian casualties, with up to 19,623 killed.

Almost all of the reported civilian deaths from US wars since 9/11 (97 percent) occurred in the two occupations (Iraq 2003-20119, and Afghanistan 2001-2021); as well as in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (2014-2021).

In 2011, at the peak of its 20-year occupation, the US had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That conflict came to an end last month when the final US troops left after a chaotic withdrawal. During the Iraq occupation, troops numbers peaked at 166,000 in 2007, though forces withdrew by 2011.

Just three years later and following the rise of so-called Islamic State, the US and its international partners began an aerial bombing campaign against ISIS in support of allies on the ground. Campaigns to force ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2016-2017 saw some of the most intense urban fighting since the Second World War. In Raqqa alone, Coalition strikes reportedly killed at least 1,600 civilians. While the Islamists lost their last territorial stronghold in April 2019, the war continues at a low intensity.

 

As part of our research, we also sought official US military estimates for the numbers of civilians killed by its own actions since 9/11. Neither CENTCOM nor the Department of Defense have published such findings.

In the Iraq and Syria campaign against ISIS, the US-led Coalition has accepted killing 1,417 civilians – far lower than Airwars’ own estimate of at least 8,300 civilian deaths for that war.

Additionally, in 2016 the US admitted killing between 64 and 116 civilians in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in counter terrorism operations in the years between 2009 and 2015. But it provided no further details, dates or specifics – making assessment of those claims near impossible.

More publicly, the United States has admitted to killing two civilians in Pakistan; thirteen in Yemen; and five in Somalia in recent years. At least 394 and as many as 570 civilians have in fact been killed by US actions in those countries, according to monitoring organisation New America.

Airwars approached CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for most of these conflicts, directly for this project. It said data on officially recognised civilian harm was not readily available. “The information you request is not immediately on hand in our office as it spans between multiple operations/campaigns within a span of between 18 and 20 years,” CENTCOM said in an email, requesting instead that we file a Freedom of Information request. Such requests can take several years to get a response, with no guarantee of the information being released.

It’s important to note that Airwars has examined only direct harm from US strikes since 9/11 – with many of our sources providing conservative casualty estimates. We are therefore looking at a fraction of the overall civilian harm in these countries.

Between 363,939 and 370,072 civilians have been killed by all parties to these conflicts since 2001, according to the well respected Brown University Cost of War programme.

Even so, we believe this research represents the most comprehensive public assessment available of minimum civilian harm by direct US strikes and actions in the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Methodology

Parts or all of the data presented here were peer reviewed by multiple experts in the field, and our full dataset has also been published, to enable scrutiny.

That said, we acknowledge that civilian harm monitoring mechanisms have varied and evolved extensively over the past 20 years, and are rarely consistent across organisations and campaigns.

Airwars itself was formed in 2014, and has collated data on many of the US’s conflicts since then, using our all-source monitoring in local languages to gather allegations of civilian harm. However, for much of the data in the years before 2014 and for the entirety of the Afghanistan campaign – which Airwars does not monitor – we are reliant upon other organisations. This section will explain where the data was gathered from.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has released civilian harm data since 2006. This includes likely civilian harm from airstrikes carried out by foreign powers. While the War on Terror was launched by the US, some allies initially joined – including European nations that sent significant contingents to Afghanistan. It was not possible to definitively conclude if all of these strikes were conducted by the US as opposed to allied nations, although the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

In the early years of the conflict, for the period 2001-05 before UNAMA was fully operational, we have relied upon an investigative dataset compiled by The Nation, which though well researched did not claim to be definitive.

Iraq 2003-11

The US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, and then maintained an occupation with the support of other nations until withdrawing all forces in 2011. In the vacuum after Hussein was unseated, multiple militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor of the Islamic State, thrived. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed in ensuing conflict-related violence.

The NGO Iraq Body Count has been collating tolls of civilian harm since the 2003 invasion. It kindly agreed to provide Airwars with all data related to allegations of civilian harm caused by US actions between 2003 and 2013. According to IBC, in many cases such as the initial invasion, and the assaults on the city of Fallujah in 2004, it was near impossible to disaggregate civilian harm caused by airstrikes with artillery and other munitions. As such, the data from Iraq Body Count presented here relates to deaths caused by airstrikes and explosive weapons. Incidents where only small arms fire was involved have been excluded. As with Afghanistan, it is impossible to know for certain whether each strike was carried out by the US or partner nations, though the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

Iraq and Syria 2014-2021

In the years after the Arab Spring rippled through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the Islamic State militant group seized a swathe of territory spanning northern Iraq and Syria which was roughly the size of the United Kingdom. From 2014 onwards, the US led an international coalition in a bombing campaign against the group, eventually forcing it to cede its last area of territorial control along the Iraqi-Syrian border in April 2019.

Airwars has monitored civilian harm related to the ongoing seven-year war against the Islamic State since the beginning of the campaign, using a standardised methodology and approach for all our civilian harm monitoring projects. Our researchers conduct daily monitoring of local Arabic-language media and social media in Iraq and Syria, documenting and archiving all claims of civilian harm including those claims reported by the local communities themselves. Each event has a unique assessment online, where an archived version of all sources used is also available. Events are considered ‘live’ – constantly updated as new information is found.

Libya

Al Qaeda had a limited presence in Libya following the defeat of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and was the target of a small number of US strikes. Then from 2014, an Islamic State affiliate emerged in the country – seizing control of several cities and towns a year later.

Airwars researchers have actively monitored all civilian harm caused by all parties in Libya for many years. Based on hyperlocal media monitoring, and reflecting the same methodology and approach as our Iraq-Syria assessments, we have aggregated the number of alleged civilian deaths related to US strikes against both Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State in Libya since 2012.

Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen

In the years after 9/11 the United States launched an initially secret drone campaign targeting militant organisations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. These campaigns led to often significant allegations of civilian harm.

In Pakistan, the data was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with those archives transferred to Airwars in 2019. There have been no reported US strikes since July 2018.

In Somalia, Airwars has published a comprehensive review of all civilian harm allegations from both suspected and declared US strikes and actions since the conflict began in 2007.

In Yemen, the data from 2002-2016 was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Airwars has actively monitored the US counter terrorism campaign in Yemen since 2017, and all associated allegations of civilian harm.

Differing methodological approaches

In every conflict, those organisations monitoring civilian harm have applied different methodologies. Airwars, TBIJ and Iraq Body Count are for example remote monitors – meaning that they gather all information publicly available and reflect any uncertainties in their findings – for example by using high and low casualty ranges, rather than definitive figures.

UNAMA employs a different methodology for Afghanistan. Based until recently in Kabul, it deployed field researchers in each province to physically investigate where possible sites of alleged civilian harm, and to interview witnesses. While this approach can lead to more certainty about circumstances and casualty numbers in an individual event, it may also mean that some locally reported cases can be missed. UNAMA also does not provide casualty range estimates – publishing just one number of confirmed civilians killed per year.

More information on conflict casualty standards and methodologies can be found at Every Casualty Counts, which publishes global standards on casualty monitoring, based on the expert work of more than 50 specialist member organisations.

▲ Library image: A US Air Force B-52 refuels during the US campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Credit: Department of Defense)