Over the past two years, thousands of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have targeted suspected Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria. That campaign had resulted in “45,000 enemies taken off the battlefield,” Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the U.S. army commander leading the anti-ISIS fight, said in August. Despite a recent executive order requiring U.S. forces to investigate the deaths of civilians, the toll those missions have taken on civilian populations has been a subject of dispute.
Last week, the Pentagon released its second civilian casualty assessment from the ongoing conflict, covering 24 U.S. airstrikes. While providing little detail, the report states that investigators “thoroughly reviewed the facts and circumstances surrounding each report” of civilian casualties and found evidence of 64 civilian deaths, bringing the official total for the campaign to 119.
The new figure represents a fraction of the civilian deaths documented by journalists and outside monitoring groups. According to Airwars, a transparency project that tracks airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, at least 1,787 civilians have died in coalition airstrikes in the two countries since the beginning of the campaign. Just last month, Amnesty International called on the Pentagon to respond to evidence it gathered surrounding 11 suspected coalition strikes in Syria, which, the group claimed, killed an estimated 300 civilians. Neil Sammonds, Amnesty’s lead Syria researcher, said the Pentagon deserved credit for publishing its civilian casualty data. “It’s not easy to say you killed these civilians,” Sammonds told The Intercept. But he questioned why the Pentagon’s figures were so low. None of the 11 strikes documented by Amnesty investigators, Sammonds said, were addressed by the Pentagon’s release.
Discrepancies between government and independent counts of civilian casualties are not new. Over the past eight years, President Obama’s counterterrorism operations have killed thousands of people across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. At the low end of casualty estimates are the administration’s own figures: roughly 2,400 or so over seven years in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan, resulting in a very small number of “non-combatant deaths” — between 64 and 116. External estimates compiled by Micah Zenko (and covering a slightly longer period of time) are far higher — 4,189 militants killed, along with 474 civilians — more than four times as many as the White House estimate.
Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has found that going by the government’s own numbers, U.S. strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are more than 20 times as likely to kill civilians than those in Iraq and Syria. That may have to do with which agency is pulling the trigger. According to an NBC news report from March, only the Pentagon is authorized to use drones to kill ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, with the CIA confined to an intelligence-gathering role. Outside of conventional war zones, where civilian casualty rates appear to be much higher, the CIA has carried out its own strikes.
In July, when it released its estimates on civilian casualties outside of conventional war zones, the Obama administration addressed the issue of discrepancies in compiling such estimates, arguing that it had access to sensitive information NGOs and journalists did not, and making the case that misleading reports of civilian casualties produced by militant groups sometimes made their way into non-government counts.
“We have teams who work full time to prevent unintended civilian casualties,” Central Command spokesperson Col. John J. Thomas said in a statement last week. “We do all we can to minimize those occurrences, even at the cost of sometimes missing the chance to strike valid targets in real time.”
Marty Lederman, a professor at Georgetown Law and former Department of Justice official, said that he hoped the practice of reporting on civilian casualties is continued by the Trump administration. “It’s very valuable,” he said. “A better-informed republic can make better choices about the costs and benefits of war.”