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

December 18, 2021

Written by

Chris Woods and Joe Dyke

Almost 800 previously secret US airstrikes in Afghanistan during 2020 and 2021 are revealed, as US military declassifies data.

The release of classified records of recent US airstrikes in Afghanistan has revealed more than 400 previously undeclared actions in the last months of Donald Trump’s presidency – and at least 300 more strikes ordered by Joe Biden’s administration.

Even after the United States and the Taliban signed an effective peace agreement in February 2020, the US continued secretly to bomb Taliban and Islamic State targets, the data shows. And during 2021 – as the Taliban continued to ramp up attacks on Afghan government forces, and advance on Kabul – more than 800 munitions were fired by mostly US aircraft.

The crucial Afghanistan monthly data by Air Force Central Command, or AFCENT, was stopped in March 2020 after the Trump administration agreed an effective ceasefire deal with the Taliban. Those public releases showed how many strikes the US and its international allies carried out in Afghanistan as well as details of weapons fired, and had been released monthly for nearly a decade beforehand.

At the time the US Air Force said it was stopping the releases due to diplomatic concerns, “including how the report could adversely impact ongoing discussions with the Taliban regarding Afghanistan peace talks”.

The newly declassified data adds credence to allegations at the time that the United States may have secretly upped its strikes in Afghanistan to put pressure on the Taliban during negotiations taking place in Qatar, with sometimes devastating impacts for civilians.

While the United Nations was seemingly convinced that US strikes had largely stopped, the Taliban accused the US of violating the terms of the agreement “almost every day.” Those claims are now more likely to be taken seriously.

“These data tell the story of America’s struggle to end its longest war,” Graeme Smith of International Crisis Group told Airwars.

An air war that never ended

The US and the Taliban signed a so-called ‘peace’ arrangement on February 29th 2020. This did not explicitly commit the US to a full ceasefire, but involved the Taliban effectively committing not to attack American forces in Afghanistan during a proposed 14-month US withdrawal period.

It was also assumed that US strikes would also significantly wind down, and be focused primarily on self-defence actions. Yet the newly released AFCENT data shows US attacks never ceased, with 413 ‘international’ airstrikes between March and December 2020 alone.

Declassified AFCENT data has revealed almost 800 previously undeclared airstrikes conducted in Afghanistan during 2020 and 2021

Following the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020, official ceasefire talks then began in Doha in September of the same year between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. Yet in the same month, we now know, the US still secretly conducted 34 airstrikes.

Continuing US actions coincided with Taliban onslaughts on the outskirts of the cities of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. The Taliban argued that these assaults, on Afghan government forces rather than American ones, were not in breach of the agreement but the US disagreed, Smith said. “That is why you see a sharp uptick in airstrikes from October 2020 as the Americans desperately tried to defend those provincial capitals,” he said.

Amnesty International recently highlighted what it believed was a US airstrike on Kunduz in November 2020 which killed two civilian women, Bilqiseh bint Abdul Qadir (21) and Nouriyeh bint Abdul Khaliq (25), and one man, Qader Khan (24). Munition fragments recovered from the scene pointed clearly to a US strike. It is now clear that the United States secretly conducted 69 strikes in Afghanistan that month alone.

Since assuming office in late January 2021, Joe Biden initially oversaw a slight drop in strikes before a significant increase, as the 20-year US occupation ended in a chaotic and devastating withdrawal.

In the final desperate three months of the US presence, 226 weapons were fired in 97 airstrikes by US (and possibly allied) aircraft in a doomed bid to halt the Taliban’s lightning advance. Many of those actions were likely to have been close air support strikes aiding Afghan National Army forces in urban areas, who were being overrun. The known risk of high civilian casualties from such actions has long been known.

In the chaotic last days of the war, dozens of civilians and 13 US military personnel died in an ISIS-K suicide attack as US forces barricaded themselves inside Kabul airport and desperate Afghans flocked to the site hoping to flee the country.

And in the final airstrike of the US occupation, 10 civilians were killed when American drone operators confused a father returning to his family home with an Islamic State terrorist. Last week, the Pentagon announced no disciplinary action would be taken in that strike.

United Nations deceived?

Stopping the release of monthly airstrike data in early 2020 also appears to have convinced the United Nations that the US was no longer conducting significant attacks.

In both its 2020 annual report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan and its 6-monthly report for the first half of 2021, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) played down the impact of US and international strikes – believing them to have mostly ended.

During 2020 the UN concluded, more than 3,000 Afghan civilians were killed in ongoing fighting between the Taliban and the then-Afghan government, supported by international forces. According to UNAMA, 341 civilians were killed that year by airstrikes – of which it blamed 89 deaths on international forces.

Yet UNAMA’s 2020 annual report said that after the February 29th agreement between the US and Taliban “the international military significantly reduced its aerial operations, with almost no such incidents causing civilian casualties for the remainder of 2020.”

UN officials later told Airwars during a briefing that they believed Afghan Air Force strikes were now likely responsible for almost all civilian deaths from airstrikes. The release of the previously-classified data from AFCENT radically changes that picture. Between March and December 2020, Trump’s last full months in office, the US in fact carried out 413 airstrikes – as many as during all of 2015 for example.

For the first half of 2021, UNAMA also made similar assumptions about low numbers of US and international strikes, noting that “compared with the first half of 2020, the total number of civilians killed and injured in airstrikes increased by 33 per cent. Civilian casualties from Afghan Air Force airstrikes more than doubled as international military forces conducted far fewer airstrikes.”

In fact, we now know, more than 370 ‘international’ strikes were carried out in 2021, which between them dropped more than 800 munitions.

UNAMA did not immediately respond to questions on whether the UN would now be reviewing its recent findings, following the release of the AFCENT data.

Biden under scrutiny

Revelations of hundreds of previously secret US airstrikes in Afghanistan during Joe Biden’s first months in office indicate that while US actions were at record lows in other theatres such as Iraq and Somalia, the intensity of the 20-year war in Afghanistan continued to the very end.

More than five times more US strikes were conducted in Afghanistan from January to August 2021 than have been declared in all other US theatres combined across the whole year, Airwars analysis shows.

“Airwars has been cautioning for some time that recent airstrike numbers for Afghanistan – if revealed – might show far more US military activity under Joe Biden than many had assumed,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “This newly released data – which should never have been classified in the first place – points to the urgent need for reevaluation of recent US actions in Afghanistan, including likely civilian casualties.”

The Afghanistan data stops abruptly in August 2021. Announcing the release of the previously secret strike and munition numbers to the Pentagon press corps late on Friday afternoon, chief DoD spokesman John Kirby told reporters: “There have been no airstrikes in Afghanistan since the withdrawal is complete.”

▲ A home allegedly destroyed by a US airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan in November 2020 (Credit: Amnesty International)

Published

December 10, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke and Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Edward Millett

Airwars has found that 10 times more civilians were killed in 11 days of Israel’s bombing of Gaza than in the entirety of its 8-year campaign in Syria

This article was originally published by Newlines on December 9th 2021 and written by Airwars’ Investigations Team.

 

On Jan. 13, 2021, the Israeli military launched some of its most intensive strikes to date in Syria. Over several hours, perhaps two dozen sites of Iranian-linked armed groups were hit over a vast territory in the Deir ez-Zor region near the Iraqi border. At least 57 militants were reportedly killed. Local communities did not report a single civilian casualty.

Four months later, the might of the Israeli military targeted a very different location.

On the night of May 15, a series of airstrikes hit the Al-Rimal neighborhood of central Gaza City. At least 44 civilians reportedly died. Multiple families were nearly wiped out after taking shelter in a neighborhood previously thought to be safe. Some Hamas militants may also have been killed in underground tunnels, the announced target of the strikes by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), though this remains unclear.

The death tolls on those nights were not an anomaly — they form part of a clear trend. The Israeli military has fought two largely aerial campaigns in recent years. One is a yearslong campaign to prevent the Iranian military and its allies from entrenchment in Syria, the other a brief but fierce war with Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza in May. The effect on civilians could hardly be more stark.

New research by Airwars has found that up to 10 times more civilians were killed in 11 days of bombing in Gaza than in the entirety of Israel’s eight-year campaign in Syria.

In Syria, several hundred secretive Israeli strikes since 2013 have likely killed as many as 40 civilians. Rough tallies suggest hundreds — and likely thousands — of Iranian and Syrian military personnel and militants of other nations were killed in these strikes. Civilian casualties from the Israeli campaign appear to be dramatically lower than those resulting from other foreign powers operating in Syria — including Russia, Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition.

In Gaza the civilian-militant ratio is reversed. Between May 10 and 21, from 151 to 192 civilians were likely killed by Israeli airstrikes, according to a comprehensive review of local community reporting by Airwars. While this research didn’t estimate the number of militants killed, Israeli rights group B’Tselem put it at 90.

The Israeli actions in Gaza and Syria are usually thought of separately — with comparisons between the two rare. But how did a military that runs such a careful campaign in one theater end up killing so many civilians in just a few days in another? Our research pointed to three main reasons for the discrepancies.

The first is the type of targets chosen by the IDF in the two contexts. Israel’s targeting system bears many similarities to that of its closest ally, the United States. In fact, Israeli military lawyers pioneered the legal justifications for the targeted assassinations that later became a hallmark of the war on terror.

Until 2000, Israel legally considered Palestinian opposition a matter of law enforcement, said Daniel Reisner, then head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department. But following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, the Israeli military effectively invented a “hybrid” model to apply the laws of armed conflict — normally meant to apply only between states at war — to the West Bank and Gaza.

Craig Jones, a lecturer at Newcastle University and author of a recent book on Israeli and U.S. military lawyers, said by expanding the concept of “direct participation in hostilities,” Israel effectively invented a new category of potential target between civilian and combatant — allowing it to justify a widespread campaign of targeted assassinations.

“Essentially, once a Palestinian ‘participates’ by the broad Israeli standards, he or she cannot put down arms and remains targetable even when resting at home,” Jones said.

Reisner recalled that U.S. officials initially criticized the policy but after 9/11 “started calling for advice.” Later U.S. official justifications for drone strikes included lines lifted almost directly from Israeli policy, he said.

This legal justification allowed for more freedom in targeting Palestinian militants in their homes. While potential civilian harm still needed to be considered and precautions taken, it was accepted by the Israeli system that hitting a militant at home was potentially justified.

When the Gaza conflict started on May 10, the IDF would have had dozens of targets that had been preapproved — meaning they had already been through legal and military review.

“The IDF would have taken out of its drawers plans that were pre-prepared and reviewed legally,” said Liron Libman, former head of the International Law Department at the IDF. “But then every plan is just the basis for an order. To turn it into an operational order, you still need to assess the information again.”

It seems likely that many of those preapproved targets were the homes of militants.

Airwars tracked 17 locally reported incidents in which militants were explicitly targeted in residential buildings and civilians were killed or injured. Most took place in the first four days of the conflict, suggesting that they were in a preapproved target bank.

 

Airwars mapping of all civilian harm and strike locations (in light green according to UN data), mapped onto population density in the Strip

 

In those 17 incidents, local reports found that from nine to 11 militants were killed but also from 27 to 33 civilians, with more than 100 injured.

In one incident on May 13, four civilians were killed and 15 more, including seven children, were injured. The target was a three-story house in the Al Jeniya neighborhood, where four families lived. One of the dead, Raed Ibrahim al-Rantisi, was identified by the al-Qassam Brigades as one of their fighters. The family had gathered for Eid dinner.

In Syria, such incidents are rare, though not unheard of — such as when a Palestinian official and his family were killed in a strike in central Damascus in November 2019. But in general, strikes in Syria seem to target militants at exclusively military targets such as weapons warehouses close to land borders. Some of the civilian harm associated with Israeli strikes may even have been a result of Syrian air defense missiles missing their targets and hitting civilian homes.

The IDF’s practice of striking homes in Gaza also contributed to the high percentage of children killed, with more than one-third of all civilians killed there reported to be children. In Syria the figure is around 10%.

Likewise, when Israeli forces killed a civilian in Syria, more than 70% of the time they also harmed a militant, whereas in Gaza that ratio was in the 30% range.

“In Syria we bomb military targets, while in Gaza we strike civilian areas, so we end up bombing families,” said Yehuda Shaul, of the Israeli human rights organization Breaking the Silence, which is made up of former IDF military personnel.

Population density

A second key factor that helps explain these very different outcomes for civilians in Syria and Gaza is population density. Gaza is among the most heavily populated territories in the world, which dramatically increases the likelihood of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure for every strike carried out.

We mapped every reported civilian harm incident in Gaza and every recorded strike location tracked by the United Nations, against population density.

Even within Gaza, civilian casualty incidents were clustered around areas of relatively high population density, such as in Gaza City to the north.

“Unlike in past wars, in May the Israeli military started its bombardment by hitting heavily populated areas and high-rise buildings,” said Yamen Al Madhoun, fieldwork director at the Gaza-based Palestinian rights organization Al Mezan. “Normally, people flee the perimeter areas where Israeli troops are stationed [and go] to schools and relatives’ homes in cities. But if civilian areas are the primary target, where can people go?”

Population density may also have provided some victims with a false sense of security. On May 12, airstrikes on the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood apparently targeting Hamas’ military wing destroyed two residential buildings. Reema Saad, who was four months pregnant, was killed alongside her two children and husband. The family had decided to stay in their apartment because they believed the densely populated neighborhood would be immune from strikes, Reema’s mother Samia told Middle East Eye.

Samir Zaqout, Al Mezan’s deputy director, said civilians had no idea how best to stay safe. “Fear, panic and confusion spread among the population. There were no taxis or transportation, so people were carrying their possessions and sometimes other family members while fleeing on foot.”

The Israeli military frequently notes that Hamas has placed military infrastructure in civilian neighborhoods in Gaza City, pointing to alleged tunnel networks as violations of the laws of war. Israeli officials also argue many of the more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza came from heavily populated neighborhoods.

But critics point out that hitting such neighborhoods overwhelmingly leads to civilian harm.

“Israeli authorities have shown an utter disregard for civilian life,” Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch said. “They have a quite loose definition of what is a ‘military target,’ and they have consistently bombed in heavily populated neighborhoods without considering the civilian ramifications.”

“The rules and principles found in customary international humanitarian law to protect civilians should be followed,” Zaqout said. “Israel’s high-level military technology enables its forces to do so — to ensure the lawfulness of a target prior to attack. If circumstances are unclear, the Israeli military should presume people and objects normally dedicated to civilian purposes to be civilian.”

Even in Syria, the trend is noticeable. While the scale of civilian harm from IDF strikes is far lower than in Gaza, it is still overwhelmingly located in heavily populated areas, particularly the capital of Damascus — where around 45% of the estimated civilian harm occurred. In rural Deir ez-Zor Israel has carried out extensive strikes for more than five years, killing hundreds of militants and Iranian and Syrian military personnel along the way, without a single credible local allegation of civilian harm.

By contrast, both the U.S.-led coalition and Russian forces have caused often devastating numbers of civilian casualties during their own campaigns in Syria — primarily driven by extensive strikes on urban centers.

Such concerns chime with widespread calls for limits on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. A U.N.-backed campaign now involving more than 120 nations — to forge a political statement that could help limit explosive weapons use in urban areas — is being led by Ireland, though so far no major military powers have fully thrown their weight behind it.

Rules of Engagement

A third possible factor helping explain why outcomes for civilians differ so radically between Israeli campaigns is one that is harder to prove — that the Israeli military has different, and more expansive, rules of engagement (RoE) for strikes in Gaza compared with Syria. Such RoEs govern when militaries are allowed to use force and, in the event that a strike is likely to kill civilians, determine how many casualties are deemed “acceptable.”

There are no internationally agreed-upon rules of how many civilians can be killed in a strike — international law requires only that it be “proportional” to the military advantage gained. At one point during the presidency of Barack Obama, U.S. generals in Iraq were allowed to carry out strikes they expected might kill up to 10 civilians, whereas the same figure in Afghanistan was at times set at just one, given the political sensitivities of civilian harm.

Multiple sources said the Israeli military does not internally quantify these “acceptable” tolls quite so explicitly, preferring instead to be “very context specific,” as Libman, now research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said. The country has never released its RoEs for Syria or Gaza, and it is unlikely to do so.

A recent study found that Israeli military officers in general were significantly more conservative in their view of acceptable levels of civilian harm in discussions on proportionality as compared with their U.S. counterparts. The study, by universities in Israel, the U.S. and the U.K., found that in an imagined case of targeting an enemy headquarters, the median number of civilian deaths that U.S. officers were willing to tolerate in order to achieve military gains was 175, while Israeli officers were willing to accept 30 such casualties.

The IDF also likes to highlight its policy of warning civilians in Gaza before some airstrikes, a practice not widely adopted by other military actors. Yet these are the exception rather than the rule — in the 136 civilian harm incidents Airwars researchers tracked, the vast majority of targets had reportedly received no warnings.

According to Breaking the Silence, when there is imminent threat to populations, Israeli militaries are willing to carry out strikes that threaten civilian lives. “When there is even the slightest threat to Israeli lives, concern for Palestinian civilians all but goes out the window,” Shaul said.

Reisner didn’t dispute that the calculations were different in Gaza. “If I see an enemy about to fire a rocket at an Israeli city, the proportionality calculation would be different than if I saw the same individual at home knowing he is planning an attack in three days,” he said.

“I can legitimately kill many more civilians — it is a horrible sentence, but [it is the reality].”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad also posed a far more imminent threat than Iranian groups in Syria, said Amos Guiora, a professor at S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and another former senior Israeli military lawyer. “With the Iranians you can afford to wait for the right time,” he said.

Politics may also play into it. Guiora said that the potential for a political fallout from a strike in Syria could also encourage caution. Israel has long had de facto control over the Palestinian territories but open involvement in Syria could risk a backlash at a time when Israel has secured landmark deals with Arab states including the United Arab Emirates.

“An unacceptable number of civilian deaths opens the door to blowback and bounce back, in the court of international opinion,” he said.

“Maybe from a geopolitical perspective, extra caution is necessary in Syria.”

▲ Airwars' homepage comparing Israeli strikes in Syria and Gaza

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)

Published

August 18, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

Focus will now turn to whether UK, France and Belgium will finally admit culpability

When the Department of Defense withdrew a key part of its annual report on civilian harm earlier this month, it all but confirmed something long suspected – that France, Britain and Belgium know they likely killed civilians in Iraq and Syria in specific events, but refuse publicly to accept it.

The original Pentagon report to Congress, released on May 28th, initially claimed responsibility for the deaths of 50 civilians in eleven airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria in 2017 and 2018.

After Airwars pointed out significant errors, the DoD withdrew and reissued the report along with an addendum, removing nine of the eleven incidents in which civilians died. This amounted to the Pentagon’s effective confirmation that those strikes were carried out by its allies, including the UK, France and Belgium.

Of these nine incidents, two were in fact the same event – seemingly a clerical error. Two more have been publicly claimed already by Australia, which has accepted responsibility for the deaths.

That leaves six events in which the Coalition’s own investigators concluded that 18 civilians had died.

What are the six strikes?

Three of them were British airstrikes. We knew this before due to in-depth reporting by Airwars and the BBC but the Pentagon’s withdrawal of the data all but confirms it.

In the most deadly individual case, on August 13th 2017, 12 civilians were killed, including a young girl, in an airstrike targeting an ISIS mortar system. A further six were injured. In February 2019 the US-led Coalition accepted that civilians were killed and the UK later confirmed it was a British strike – yet without accepting anyone died.

In a second case, the Coalition publicly confirmed the deaths of two civilians in a strike near the Iraqi city of Mosul on January 9th 2017. Again the UK confirmed it was a British strike but without accepting that civilians were killed. This contradicted a Coalition whistleblower, who earlier told the BBC that civilians had likely died in the British attack.

The third British incident occurred in Bahrah in eastern Syria on January 20th 2018. The Coalition’s military assessors admitted the death of one civilian. The BBC and Airwars published an investigation showing it was a British strike and the UK accepted this, but again refused to accept responsibility for any civilian harm.

The reason for the gap between the Coalition and British statements is that London applies a different – and critics would say unrealistic – standard for assessing civilian harm. Whereas the Coalition and the US assess whether they caused civilian harm on the ‘balance of probabilities’, the UK demands overwhelming evidence – described as ‘hard facts.’ In the context of an airstrike from thousands of feet and with no Coalition civilian casualty investigation forces on the ground, such overwhelming proof is near impossible to come by.

To date, the UK has accepted just one civilian death in Iraq and Syria, despite 8,000 declared flight sorties over seven years.

Gavin Crowden, Executive Director of Every Casualty Counts, said that when it came to civilian harm, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was pretending the “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”

“The Pentagon has shattered the MoD’s already implausible claim that British forces have caused only one civilian death across Iraq and Syria. This is statistically almost impossible.”

“The [Chilcot] Report of the Iraq Inquiry made clear that the MoD had failed to account for civilian casualties following the invasion in 2003. Almost twenty years on, the MoD is still failing to take even basic steps to identify and record harm caused to civilians.”

French and Belgian strikes

The other three incidents the Pentagon insists were not US actions are believed to be either Belgian or French strikes.

On February 27th 2017 a Coalition strike on an ISIS vehicle near the Iraqi-Syrian border killed at least one civilian and injured another. Local sources said the death toll could have been as high as three. The Coalition accepted causing the harm, and a senior Belgian government official unofficially informed Airwars that the strike was Belgian, though the government has never publicly confirmed this.

On March 21st 2017 a civilian was killed in a Coalition strike in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Again a senior government official unofficially informed Airwars that the strike was Belgian, though the government has never publicly confirmed this.

The final incident, which took place on February 8th 2018, killed one civilian near Al-Bahrah village in Syria. Airwars identified it as a likely French strike, though Paris has always publicly refused to comment.

To date, neither France nor Belgium has publicly accepted killing any civilians in years of bombing Iraq and Syria.

Marc Garlasco, a military advisor for PAX and a former US senior Department of Defense intelligence analyst, said the Pentagon errors would increase pressure on European militaries to stop hiding behind the anonymity of the Coalition.

In 2015 a devastating strike in the town of Hawijah in Iraq led to the deaths of more than 70 civilians. The Coalition eventually accepted responsibility, but no member state did. It was only in 2019, after investigative reporting, that the Dutch government finally admitted responsibility.

“It is time for European MoDs to stop hiding behind American statistics and take responsibility for the harm they cause and provide appropriate amends,” Garlasco said.

“One central issue for civilians is the problem coalition warfare causes for strike attribution, and therefore amends. Too often we have seen war victims unable to make claims or even get answers for why they were targeted because they just don’t know who dropped the bombs. It is unreasonable to put the onus of proof on the victim.”

He pointed out that in the wake of the Hawijah massacre the Dutch Ministry of Defence has opened a review of its civilian harm mitigation policies, working alongside organisations like PAX and Airwars.

“We see a real opportunity in the wake of the lessons we have learned by working with the Dutch MoD. There are now positive examples to follow if Belgium, France, the UK, and any other military intends to take civilian harm seriously.”

Every Casualty Count’s Gavin Crowden said the US civilian casualty monitoring process, though far from perfect, was a clear example for other countries to follow. So far the US has admitted killing more than 1,300 civilians in the war against ISIS.

“If European militaries claim they can fire smart missiles straight into the bedroom of a specific target, they should surely be able to compile basic data about where and when they have conducted operations that may have harmed civilians.”

“The US has shown that this is both logistically, militarily and politically possible. Therefore, we have to conclude that the obstacle among European militaries is simply a lack of will.”

Airwars asked the British, French and Belgian militaries for comment on the Pentagon’s report. None said they intended to review their earlier assessments of no civilian harm, in light of the DoD revelations.

▲ File footage: A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a British Tornado fighter over Iraq, Dec. 22, 2015. Coalition forces fly daily missions in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook/Released)

Published

August 10, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

Allied nations almost certainly killed them. So why did the Defense Department tell Congress that the US was responsible?

This article was originally published by The Intercept on August 5th 2021.

The Defense Department has been forced to withdraw a key part of an official report to Congress, after wrongly claiming responsibility for killing 21 civilians in Iraq and Syria who were actually slain by close US allies.

The Pentagon was alerted to the mistake in June by Airwars, which had previously documented most of the strikes as being carried out by other partner nations in the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State, including the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

After reviewing the findings, the Defense Department finally admitted the error on August 5th.

“This was an oversight in preparing data for the report,” Pentagon spokesperson Mike Howard said, without giving further details on how the error had occurred. “We regret the mistake.”

The revelations will add to growing concern over the Pentagon’s civilian harm policies, after senior Democrats recently accused the Pentagon of underestimating the number of civilians killed in its latest annual report to Congress and criticized the US military’s failure to pay out a single dollar in compensation to victims’ families during 2020.

“You have to wonder what is going on at the Defense Department and [U.S. Central Command] that they can’t even get right this basic obligation to report civilian harm to Congress and to the public accurately and reliably,” Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Intercept. “This only compounds our concerns about underlying issues such as investigations into civilian harm, in which DOD does not even talk to surviving family members for information.”

“Only US casualties”

The Department of Defense’s latest annual report documenting civilians killed and injured by US actions globally was released on May 28th. The report, in which the Defense Department must inform Congress of all officially recognized civilian harm caused by the US military, has been a legal requirement since 2018.

In the latest report, the Pentagon admitted to killing 23 civilians worldwide during 2020, though monitors such as the United Nations in Afghanistan have shown the real figure is likely many times higher.

The report also incorrectly acknowledged responsibility for 50 historical civilian deaths in 11 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria between January 2017 and February 2018. The Pentagon at first said the incidents had “inadvertently” not been included in reports in previous years, but most were in fact carried out by allied nations.

While the campaign against ISIS was fought by a coalition of mostly Western nations, the report explicitly stated that it “only lists civilian casualties attributed to the use of U.S.-operated weapons,” meaning no strikes conducted by allied aircraft should have been included.

The Intercept and Airwars cross-checked these incidents against public records and found that of the 11, nine were not carried out by the US at all.

The May Defense Department report to Congress claimed responsibility for the deaths of 50 additional civilians in Iraq and Syria in 2017-2018, of whom only 28 were actually killed by US strikes. Source: US Department of Defense, May 2021.

Most of those incidents had been highlighted in a major investigation last year by Airwars, the BBC, Libération, De Morgen and RTL Netherlands, which concluded that European countries were systematically failing to accept causing civilian harm, even when U.S. military assessors declared otherwise.

The addendum released by the Defense Department on August 5th removed nine of the 11 incidents in which the US acknowledged killing civilians in its earlier report.

Two of the incidents for which the Pentagon claimed as US actions had, for example, already been admitted by the Australian Defence Force, which had taken full responsibility for killing the civilians.

In one of those airstrikes, two civilians were killed and two hurt in Mosul, Iraq, on May 3rd 2017. That event was publicly conceded by the ADF more than three years ago, with an official statement at the time saying: “On 3 May 2017, one Australian aircraft conducted an airstrike in support of Iraqi Security Forces who were under direct fire from enemy fighters in West Mosul. … Based on a review of information now available, it is possible that civilian casualties may have occurred as a result of this strike.”

The UK had explicitly claimed responsibility for carrying out between three and four further strikes on the list, and a senior Belgian official had unofficially acknowledged that country’s responsibility for two other attacks.

Among the British incidents was the killing of 12 civilians in the Syrian city of Raqqa on August 13th 2017. The Coalition officially confirmed it had killed the civilians while targeting an ISIS mortar system; the UK later admitted to carrying out the strike, saying Royal Air Force fighter jets targeted “a mortar team in a building at the location given” during clashes between ISIS and Western-backed Kurdish forces.

Among the victims locally named that day were Walid Awad Al Qus and his young daughter Limar.

A ninth event, which killed one civilian in Al Bahrah in Syria in February 2018, was found by Airwars and Libération to have likely been attributable to the French military. Despite the findings, neither the UK, Belgium, nor France has publicly admitted to killing civilians in any of these strikes.

Airwars highlighted the errors to the US Defense Department in early June; the Pentagon then took two months to send an official correction to the report to Congress. That addendum offered no detailed explanation for the mistake.

“The text and table in the report provided in May 2021 … should be omitted and replaced because only two of the eleven incidents on the original table were ‘attributed to the use of U.S.-operated weapons,’” the text of the addendum states.

CENTCOM under scrutiny 

The US arguably has the world’s most advanced mechanisms for monitoring the civilian harm caused by its own military actions across the globe.

During the seven-year campaign against ISIS, the US military has admitted killing more than 1,300 civilians. While monitors like Airwars put the real figure far higher, other militaries barely accept any responsibility for civilian harm: France has not admitted to killing a single civilian, and the UK has acknowledged responsibility for just one civilian death since 2014.

The great majority of deaths from US military actions occur within US Central Command’s area of responsibility, which includes Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. In recent years, CENTCOM has faced rising concerns about poor management of its civilian harm monitoring and reporting processes.

CENTCOM declined to comment on whether the error in the recent report to Congress had originated with its own personnel, referring questions back to the Department of Defense.

More forgetfulness on Yemen

While publicly claiming responsibility for the deaths of civilians it didn’t in fact harm, CENTCOM has also once again forgotten some of those it did.

In November 2020, following a major Airwars study of US military actions in Yemen under President Donald Trump, CENTCOM officially admitted injuring two civilians during an airstrike in September 2017.

This was only the second time the US had ever publicly admitted specific civilian harm as a result of its airstrikes and raids in Yemen, which date back to 2002.

But that confirmed event was not included in the most recent report to Congress, and no explanation has been given for its omission.

This marked the second time in the past year that CENTCOM has apparently forgotten recent civilian harm it caused in Yemen. In November, it blamed an “administrative mistake” after saying only that it “may” have killed civilians during a botched raid in Yemen in January 2017. At the time, CENTCOM’s own commander, Gen. Joseph Votel, had told the US Senate he took personal responsibility for the deaths of “between four and 12” civilians in that attack.

Bonyan Gamal from the Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana said such errors are “painful for the families” of those injured or killed.

The recent Pentagon civilian harm report did however confirm one new case in Yemen after an investigation by Mwatana: The US admitted that it had targeted and killed an elderly Yemeni man in a 2019 airstrike. To date, no compensation has been paid or offered, and Gamal said the families of victims want justice.

“When we received the confirmation of civilian harm we contacted the family,” Gamal said. “When I spoke to them they asked ‘OK and now what?’ If there are no steps after an acknowledgment and not even an apology then what is the use for this?”

▲ Aftermath of alleged US-led Coalition airstrikes on Hajin on November 10th, 2018 (via Euphrates Post).

Published

August 10, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

Despite less than two per cent of Coalition strikes taking place since the fall of Baghouz, civilian casualties persist

This article was originally published by The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on August 8th 2021.

For the little media coverage it receives these days, you might be forgiven for believing the US-led coalition’s war in Syria and Iraq to be over. Osama Al-Hamid’s family knows better. Last month, the young boy died during reported fighting between Washington’s local Syrian allies and the Islamic State, in which US airstrikes hit the building he was in. Osama was the latest of thousands of alleged victims of coalition strikes.

August 8th marked seven years since the international coalition, led by the United States, began its concerted bombing campaign against the Islamic State, the terrorist group that by 2014 had seized much of northern Iraq and Syria. Since then, the coalition has declared 34,987 strikes against the Islamist group. Today, ISIS has been reduced from a de facto state controlling territory roughly the size of Britain on either side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, to a few disparate cells living in hiding and conducting occasional terror attacks.

The final piece of ISIS territory, the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, was recaptured in April 2019. Since then, the intensity of the international campaign has dropped dramatically. Only 483 strikes, or less than two percent of the war’s total, have taken place in the last two years.

The civilian toll has also dropped sharply. Of the 1,417 civilians the Operation Inherent Resolve, or OIR Coalition, has officially admitted killing since 2014, only one has occurred since Baghouz fell.

Airwars puts the real figures of civilians killed by coalition strikes far higher — at between 8,317 and 13,190 likely fatalities between 2014 and today. And since April 2019, between 57 and 112 civilians have been likely killed, the watchdog believes.

Yet despite the near destruction of ISIS, the coalition remains in place, even as President Joe Biden’s administration withdraws from Afghanistan, and claims to be looking to end the “forever wars.” The United States retains an estimated 900 troops in Syria and a further 2,500 in Iraq. Other nations have also seemingly increased the intensity of their involvement in the campaign in recent months. Of the 44 confirmed OIR airstrikes against the Islamic State this year, more than half were French or British. Belgium, which resumed its own involvement in the war in October 2020, has provided no data on its own recent strikes.

No perfect exit

Seven years on, and with most of the war’s objectives seemingly achieved, what is to become of the anti-ISIS Coalition?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for the Coalition to remain concerned.

Thousands of family members of ISIS militants, including those with British, French, and other citizenships, remain stuck in vast prisons in northern Syria, including the infamous Al-Hol camp near Hassakeh. With some countries unwilling to repatriate their nationals, violence in the camps remains a concern and there are fears the conditions could serve to radicalize a new generation of ISIS.

Outside the camps, fears of an ISIS resurgence remain, with periodic claims of their influence increasing. Recently, reports circulated that ISIS cells were forcing villagers in one part of eastern Syria to pay them money or face punishment. The US’s allies in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, may not be able to cope without continued Western military support.

The Coalition is also yet to tackle its historic legacy, with rights groups and family members still seeking recompense for the thousands of civilians killed by its own actions. A recent report by Agence France Presse interviewed victims of the single worst disaster, when a U.S. strike killed more than 100 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul in March 2017, and found they were still waiting for compensation.

So there are arguments that supporters of the Coalition mission may may make in favour of staying. But bear in mind that just because it is not in the media that doesn’t make it a cost-free exercise — either financially for the US and partners, or for Syrian and Iraqi civilians.

Data from Airwars’ annual report shows conflicts across the Middle East were less violent in 2020

Last month, Osama Al-Hamid — who looks perhaps four or five in the images posted online of him — tragically died. The exact circumstances of his death, in Kharbet Al Janous near Hassakeh in northern Syria on July 21st, are disputed. What is clear is that the United States carried out two airstrikes against alleged ISIS members while supporting the SDF. Somewhere along the way Hamid was killed. The Coalition’s spokesman said the child was being “held captive” by ISIS, but provided no evidence for the claim.

The intensity of Syria’s civil war more generally has dipped significantly in recent years. Airwars data shows that the number of civilians reported killed last year was roughly a third of the tally during 2019. And as the level of violence decreases, so the questions that leaders have to ask themselves shift.

With US, Russian, Turkish, Iranian and other forces seemingly becoming permanent fixtures in Syria, the potential for fatal miscalculation remains. And with no clear long-term strategy currently being articulated by the Biden administration, there remains a risk of another grinding conflict with no end in sight.

In Iraq, the US-led coalition often found itself fighting alongside Iranian-backed militias during the height of the campaign against ISIS. Yet since the Caliphate’s decline, some of those same groups have begun turning their ire on US bases, particularly as tensions with Tehran again escalate. In another echo of the earlier US-UK occupation of Iraq, Shia politicians from across the spectrum increasingly call on the Americans to leave.

When President Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011 at the insistence of the Iraqi government, he later faced allegations that his purported hasty exit helped lead to the emergence of ISIS. Biden will be wary of repeating the mistake. But he is also perhaps learning from Afghanistan that there is no perfect time to end a war. Maintaining the coalition in perpetuity in Iraq and Syria, against an elusive foe, brings with it a risk of a new forever war.

▲ US soldiers make their way to an oil production facility to meet with its management team, in Syria, Oct. 27, 2020. (Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory)