The Uncounted: debunking Pentagon claims that few civilians have died in airstrikes

2 December 2017 — Drone Warfare

 Alex Ward, in a Vox.Com article, presents and comments on the New York Times’ almost unbearably detailed November report.


The Pentagon claims that its air war against ISIS is one of the most accurate in history and that the 14,000 US airstrikes in Iraq have killed only 89 civilians – those not listed are here called ‘The Uncounted’.

A volunteer carries the bodies of civilians killed in a US air strike in Mosul, Iraq on March 24, 2017. (AP/Felipe Dana)

Three strikes, reported here last year, killed at least 55 civilians including 12 women and 19 children, according to two MPs speaking to Reuters and to local hospital sources. MP Mohammed Karbouli told Reuters that 60 people had been killed, including some of his relatives. The strikes hit a busy tailor’s market in al-Qaim and Robert Cusack reported in Alaraby that others killed were among a queue of people waiting to receive government pensions and salaries from a municipal office.

As Ward comments, killing civilians in ISIS’s territory could really be “a boon for its own recruitment”.

In an 18-month-long investigation by the New York Times (April 2016 to June 2017) Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal travelled to nearly 150 sites in three ISIS-controlled areas in Northern Iraq where the coalition had conducted airstrikes against targets ostensibly linked to the militant group.

They found that the US-led military coalition is killing civilians in Iraq at a rate 31 times higher than its report of killing one civilian in every 157 airstrikes.

US officials routinely note all the steps they take to ensure civilians aren’t harmed in an attack, such as gathering detailed intelligence and attacking sites during times when few non=combatants are likely to be in the area. However, Khan and Gopal couldn’t find a noticeable ISIS target near half of the strikes they visited.

This week Patrick Cockburn wrote about his frustration during the final weeks of the siege of Mosul; he knew that there was heavy civilian loss of life as Iraqi forces backed by air strikes closed in on the Old City, but it was impossible to prove it.

Because the US and its allies have chosen to fight primarily from the skies, as Ward says, it was inevitable that civilians would be killed. Khan and Gopal have now shown just how many civilians are paying the price. 

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