U.S. and Coalition forces have seriously undercounted the number of civilians killed in air attacks against ISIS. That is the key finding of an 18-month-long investigation led by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal and published this week in the New York Times Magazine. Khan/Gopal surveyed 103 sites of air strikes in northern Iraq, extrapolating from these attacks into other regions in which the Coalition launched air attacks against ISIS since 2014. They conclude that between 8000 and 10,000 civilians have been killed in these attacks, far higher than the US government’s estimate of roughly 500 civilians killed (or the 3000 civilian deaths estimated by Airwars.org over this same period).
Does it matter to Americans if the true count of civilian deaths is closer to 10,000 than 500? To most Americans, sadly, I’m not sure it matters. Not if these air strikes are described and defended as saving American and Coalition lives as well as killing terrorists.
Airwars.org keeps a running tally of US and Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Their website today (11/19/17) records 28,380 strikes over an almost four-year period, using 102,082 bombs and missiles. It would be remarkable if only a few hundred innocents were killed by such an astonishing number of bombs and missiles, and indeed they estimate that nearly 6000 civilians have been killed in these attacks.
Why are US/Coalition figures so much lower than those estimated by Khan/Gopal and Airwars.org?
In March 2013, I wrote an article for TomDispatch in which I explained that airpower and bombing missions are neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive. More recently, I lamented the horrific euphemism of “collateral damage,” a term often used to elide the realities of death by bombing. There are good reasons why officialdom in Washington is content to undercount the number of civilians killed in bombing and drone attacks overseas. Some are obvious; others perhaps less so:
- It’s not in the best interests of the US military to give a full and honest accounting of civilian casualties, so they don’t.
- A full and honest accounting requires direct investigations (boots on the ground) like the ones conducted by Khan/Gopal. These are not generally done, partly because they would expose US troops to considerable risk.
- A full and honest accounting might suggest that air attacks are too costly, murderously so. The Coalition and the US military prefer to advertise airpower as a “precise” and “decisive” weapon, and of course the Coalition relies on airpower to keep their casualties limited.
- Related to (3), as airpower is sold as “surgical” and decisive, there are billions and billions of dollars riding on this image. Think of the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in warplanes, drones, and munitions. Is the US willing to suggest that this approach is often not that effective in the “war on terror”? Even worse, that it results in the death and grievous wounding of thousands of innocent…