The U.S. military will announce it killed or wounded civilians on at least 14 occasions in Iraq and Syria, The Daily Beast has learned. That’s a seven-fold increase in the number of cases of civilian casualties it has acknowledged since the airstrike campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State began 17 months ago.
The 14 new incidents of civilian casualties, which spanned most of 2015, led to at least 15 deaths and 14 injuries, a U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast. But with the American military launching more than 7,500 airstrikes over the course of the ISIS war, the toll could very well increase. In any war, particularly one in which the only consistent eyes on the battlefield are 30,000 feet in the air, it is impossible to say for sure that so many strikes could lead to so few innocent deaths. (A recent UN report said that nearly 19,000 civilians had been killed in the fighting in Iraq alone—most at the hands of the terror army, not the coalition fighting it.)
The military plans to release summaries of these new cases of civilian casualties in three batches. The first batch was released last week when the U.S. military admitted that it had killed eight civilians and wounded three others in five incidents between April 12 and July 4 of last year.
On Friday, the military will acknowledge five more incidents of killing or wounding innocents. The week after that, it plans to announce an additional four cases, The Daily Beast has learned.
None of the 14 cases led to the death of children the military concluded, according to defense official.
Up until last week, the U.S. military had only admitted to killing six civilians in two incidents—one in Iraq and one in Syria. In both of those cases, children were believed to be among the dead.
None of these 14 new cases led to the death of children, according to the defense official.
With those two additional cases, the U.S. has acknowledged killing 21 civilians in 16 instances. During that time, the U.S. has conducted 7,551 strikes in Iraq and Syria; the coalition has conducted 65,492 sorties, according Defense Department statistics. As of Aug. 28, the U.S. military had investigated 71 allegations of civilian casualties.
The 14 new cases of civilian casualties fall into two categories, generally speaking. In some instances, civilians appear at a strike site minutes beforehand; there is not enough time to waive off the attack. In other cases, the pilots conducting the strikes realized after the fact that the person killed was not a suspected jihadist fighter but a civilian.
“A lot of these were self-reported by our fighters,” one defense official explained to The Daily Beast.
The minimization of civilian casualties has been a keystone of the U.S. effort against ISIS—at times, to the frustration of both military commanders and Iraqi officials, who feel the U.S. is being too cautious.
“The commands and others are trying to find out what they can do. They don’t get any guidance. They are told what they can’t do,” one official familiar with the strike approval process at U.S. Central Command explained to The Daily Beast.
But despite all the claims of caution, there is no way to independently assess the U.S. military’s contention that only a handful of innocents have been killed by the American attacks. The war is too dangerous for most independent observers. And with so few U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, there are not enough to go to a strike site afterwards and assess the effects. During the last war in Iraq, for example, the U.S. could send ground troops to assess the damage from airstrikes.
Moreover, there is little pressure from Capitol Hill for the U.S. military to explain how it assesses civilian deaths by American airstrikes or what it is doing to prevent them. Rather, such determinations are left to the commanders and the military lawyers signing off on strikes.
“U.S. and coalition forces work diligently to be precise in our airstrikes. We take great care, from analysis of available intelligence to selection of the appropriate weapon, to meet mission requirements to minimize the risk of collateral damage, particularly any potential harm to civilians,” said Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and assess all incidents as thoroughly as possible. In accordance with our commitment to transparency, we are working to release assessment findings of closed allegations as soon as possible.”
But, at times, “as soon as possible” hasn’t been all that soon. For months and months, the U.S. refused to admit that it had killed a single civilian in the ISIS war.
And the surge in announcements now happened only after an intense struggle within the national security establishment. In some cases, the U.S. military reached its conclusions about civilian casualties months ago but officials could not agree on when to release its findings. Outgoing U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin was keen to release the findings as soon as possible, two defense officials said. But the command had to undergo a lengthy coordination process. And so deaths and injuries caused months ago are only being acknowledged now.