Since 2014, when President Barack Obama announced his intention to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, the United States and its allies have dropped more than 50,000 missiles and bombs on Iraq and Syria in over 15,000 separate strikes. That’s a bomb nearly every 20 minutes for two years.
If even one of these bombs detonated in a U.S. or European city, the fallout would dominate the news cycle, spawning introspective Facebook posts and global calls for solidarity. But these strikes against ISIS are rarely covered in the English-language media at all. Besides, the U.S. military insists it has a nearly perfect record of avoiding civilian casualties: only one in around 300 airstrikes, the Pentagon says, results in civilian death.
But independent monitoring groups are certain civilians are dying in much greater numbers than the United States is willing to admit. The UK-based group Air Wars, which employs a team of researchers to track casualties in the war on ISIS, estimates that at a bare minimum 1,660 civilians have been killed so far, or about one civilian for every 10 strikes.
“For years and years now we’ve been fed this line by the military that they don’t kill civilians, that our weapons are so smart we only kill the bad guys,” Air Wars director Chris Woods told me. “That’s just not true. It’s not born out by the data.”
The U.S. military’s attitude toward civilians—and its technical capacity to avoid collateral damage—have both evolved significantly since the Vietnam War, when civilian populated areas were designated free-fire zones, and commanders came under pressure to maximize the body count. But even while there’s no evidence the United States targets civilians in the now 15-year-long War on Terror, accounting for civilian harm has not been a priority either.
Since late 2014, the United States and its allies have dropped more than 50,000 missiles and bombs on Iraq and Syria—a bomb nearly every 20 minutes for two years.
After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2002, General Tommy Franks famously quipped that the U.S. military doesn’t “do body counts,” when pressed on the metrics that would be used to keep track of casualties in the war against the Taliban. In 2008, five years into the Iraq War, the ACLU had to sue the U.S. military to force the disclosure of internal documents from the Bush administration detailing payments to families killed by U.S. troops.
The Obama administration has been similarly opaque, even as it has exponentially expanded the use of drone strikes in countries where the United States is not technically at war. Whistleblowers managed to pass along data to The Intercept showing that over a five-month period in 2013, 90 percent of casualties from drone strikes in Afghanistan were civilians. Yet, the administration’s official line is that strikes rarely, if ever, kill civilians. In a report released in June, examining drone strikes “outside areas of active hostilities” (meaning Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia), the Obama administration says it killed between 64 and 116 civilians from 2009–2016. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks drone attacks, calls the number a “fraction” of the civilian deaths it had logged for the same period. Their count? At least 801 deaths.
Still, the Obama administration insists that to execute drone strikes, commanders must feel “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed.
At the beginning of the air campaign in Syria, in the fall of 2014, President Obama relaxed the “near certainty” requirement for strikes in the Iraq and Syrian theatres. Sure enough, on the very first night of airstrikes, September 23, 2014, a U.S. Tomahawk missile slammed into the village of Kafr Daryan in Idlib, Syria, most likely killing seven civilians in a strike intended to take out a group of al-Qaeda fighters.
The incident was reported by Human Rights Watch, and followed up on by a string of outlets including GlobalPost and BuzzFeed. Despite video evidence of the attack, and numerous testimonials on the ground, a declassified internal Pentagon document reveals the military didn’t deem these accounts credible. From the perspective of the U.S. military, no civilians were killed in Kafr Daryan, even as their families held funerals and mourned their dead on Facebook.
Indeed, for the first 15 months of the war, the United States only publicly admitted that two civilians could have been killed. Meanwhile, credible evidence to the contrary poured out of Iraq and Syria, in the form of tragic videos, Facebook posts, and testimonials from inside ISIS territory.
There’s little public information about how the Pentagon internally tracks these civilian deaths in the Syrian and Iraqi zones. But Chris Woods, who has discussed the Pentagon’s procedures at length with military officials, says it’s a “somewhat arbitrary process”—and one that appears to rely upon soldiers themselves to flag strikes. “They seem to assign a low ranking to the evidence amassed by local media and NGOs,” he said.
In other words, the United States is basically relying on its own pilots and commanders to self-report civilian deaths, and is downplaying sources—like local media and NGOs—where those deaths are most likely to be logged. “Of course they aren’t reporting civilian casualties on the battlefield,” Woods explained to me. “They’ve blocked out 90 percent of the places you’ll see those deaths.”
More than two years into the bombing campaign, by August, 2016, the United States had admitted to killing 55 civilians in a handful of collateral damage events. But, as Woods told me, “you don’t get to bomb thousands of people on the battlefield and not kill civilians.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar tragedies that continue to go unacknowledged.
One such strike was the bombing of the University of Mosul, on March 19, 2016, an incident I first reported on for VICE News. The university’s sprawling campus lies on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, beside the ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, a city the biblical prophet Jonah once said took three full days to traverse. Before ISIS invaded Mosul in June, 2014, the city was nearly the size of Paris.
That March afternoon, a series of U.S. airstrikes destroyed much of the Mosul campus. A U.S. drone filmed the bombing, and the footage, released a few weeks later, shows the crumbling contours of the university buildings, as a huge plume of smoke rises above the city.
Within hours of the attack, grim images of mangled bodies and decimated shops were circulating on the Facebook pages of locals. By Monday, the Islamic State had released its own grim propaganda spot that pans over injured civilians, debris, and building materials spewed onto busy city blocks outside the campus.
At first, the United States didn’t even admit it had struck the campus at all. The university wasn’t on the list of targets released by CentComm that day, which included Islamic State vehicles, a bridge, a supply cache, and a terrorist “headquarters.”
It was only after I pressed the Pentagon spokesman on the strike list that he admitted that certain buildings on campus had been designated an ISIS “headquarters” and added to a strike list. Initial local reports put the civilian death toll from the bombing at over 100. Those numbers now appear to have been inflated; Woods estimates around 15 civilians died, which would still make the attack one of the deadliest of the war.
Souad al-Azzawi is an Iraqi professor of environmental engineering, who did her undergraduate work at the University of Mosul before the U.S. invasion in 2003. She’s now based in Dubai, but dozens of her cousins still live in the city, and she keeps in close touch. In addition to the daily terror meted out by the Islamic State sadists running the city, al-Azzawi’s family lives in constant fear of coalition strikes. Her young cousins become hysterical when they hear the familiar sound of coalition warplanes overhead. “Their houses are shaking and the window glass is shattering because of the heavy bombardments,” she told me.
She called the March strike on her alma mater “a criminal act,” because the university is nestled in the city’s urban center and, even though it’s been taken over by ISIS, it’s still a functioning educational institution. Woods also criticized the attack: “It was far too big of a strike in a built-up area,” he told me. “Civilian casualties seemed inevitable.”
The United States is relying on its own pilots and commanders to self-report civilian deaths, and is downplaying sources where those deaths are most likely to be logged.
“There have been some press reports of civilian casualties,” Pentagon spokesman Steve Warren said the Monday after the attack. “As with any civilian casualty allegation, we will review the information we have about the incident, and if the information is determined to be credible, we will investigate further.”
That’s the last time the Pentagon spoke publicly about civilians killed in the attack. A few weeks later, Warren told The Wall Street Journal that the university was a legitimate target because its chemistry labs had been converted into some of the Islamic State’s largest bomb-making facilities.
The disconnect between the experience of al-Azzawi’s family, and the narrative peddled by the Pentagon, creates space for potentially dangerous policy choices. That’s what happened in April, when the Pentagon announced it had lowered the official tolerance threshold for civilian deaths in the aerial campaign, giving commanders even more latitude to approve strikes where civilians might die. Strikes that would have before required a sign-off from a higher-up, can now be authorized quicker and with less red tape. Chris Woods says the new standards are “having a real and lethal impact on civilians on the ground.” Air Wars has documented a 30 percent uptick in civilian deaths since the rule change.
Bad news in a ‘good war’
Woods is the first to point out that there’s no evidence the United States targets hospitals, like the Russian air force in Syria, or tries to drive civilians out of population centers with indiscriminate bombings, like the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some U.S. strikes where an inordinate number of civilians appear to have been killed do provoke prompt internal investigations. The bombardment of the ISIS stronghold of Manbij in July, which Amnesty International warned may have killed over 100 civilians, for example, triggered two separate ongoing Pentagon inquiries.
It’s also true that the American air campaign is paying battlefield dividends. ISIS has lost almost half its territory in Iraq since the strikes began, and around 20 percent in Syria. Making sure these military gains are consolidated overshadows any effort to accurately communicate the toll of the war effort, says Josh Dougherty, a researcher with Iraq Body Count Project, a group that’s been tracking civilian casualties since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. At the time of the invasion, the U.S. military seemed so disinterested in keeping track of civilian deaths, Dougherty told me, that NGOs had to fill the void. Over the past 13 years he’s learned to tune out the official account of civilian deaths. “I don’t pay attention,” he said. “It just doesn’t mean anything.”
Thanks to Woods, Dougherty, countless Iraqi and Syrian civilians and journalists, and a number of dogged reporters, the U.S. military isn’t the only source for civilian casualty numbers. But the rosy picture the Pentagon clings to is not just harmless propaganda: it creates a fantasy world where the right mix of intentions, technology, and moral righteousness combines to defy the cruel logic of war—one that exculpates all of us from the responsibilities of dropping over 50,000 bombs on a foreign country. Given the barbarity and cruelty of the enemy, that’s a seductive fantasy. As Woods puts it: “In good wars—and most see the war against ISIS as good—nobody likes bad news.”
For al-Azzawi the stakes are much higher: she worries that U.S. bombs may help generate recruits for the Islamic State in her family’s backyard. “A lot of people of course blame ISIS for . . . death of innocent civilians,” she told me. “On the other hand, young men from innocent victims’ families might join ISIS.”
Avi Asher-Schapiro is a freelance reporter based in New York.