Accidental Airstrike Victims

Accidental Airstrike Victims

Dmitry Belyaev

The New York Times  published an  investigation in which it spoke about the many mistakes made by the US military during air operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Inaccuracies in intelligence, carelessness in striking and poor understanding of the situation on the ground have resulted in thousands of civilian casualties. We retell the main thing from the newspaper’s investigation.

Not a mistake, but a pattern

At the end of last August, after  a  suicide attack on Kabul airport, the US military announced that it had prevented another attack. According to them, they launched a targeted air strike at a terrorist who was heading for the airport in a mined car.

However, it soon became clear that 43-year-old Zemari Ahmadi, who was killed in Kabul, was not a terrorist – he worked as an engineer in an American NGO. The explosion, in addition to Ahmadi himself, killed ten more people, including seven children. The details of the incident became known after an investigation by The New York Times. The Pentagon  admitted that they had made a “tragic mistake” and promised to study all the circumstances of the incident.

“I offer my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims,” ??General Kenneth Mackenzie Jr., head of US Central Command, told reporters at a news conference at the Pentagon.

At the same time, wanting to get to the bottom of the reasons for such a gross error, NYT journalists continued to study similar cases. As a result, they found out that this is not a single story at all, but rather a pattern.

The publication analyzed more than 1.3 thousand secret documents from the archives of the Pentagon in the volume of 5.4 thousand pages. They also contain confidential assessments of military reports of civilian casualties. In addition, the journalists personally visited more than 100 sites on which the United States carried out airstrikes, interviewed local residents and former American officials.

The number of victims differs from the official figures

As the results of the investigation showed, the US military has been regularly hiding real information about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria since at least 2014 (from this period began to study the dossier).

According to the army’s estimates, over the years of airstrikes on terrorists in Iraq and Syria, about 1.5 thousand civilians have died. Since 2018, at least 188 civilians have been killed in US air operations in Afghanistan.

At the same time, NYT journalists argue that the real number of civilian deaths in both cases is much higher. The publication cannot yet establish exactly how much the actual number of victims exceeds the official one, but, according to the newspaper, we are talking about hundreds of hidden deaths. Discrepancies were found in a separate study of each air operation.

One example is the bombing of the Syrian village of Tohar in 2016.

Then the American forces struck at three ISIS transit points (prohibited in the Russian Federation). The military was confident that they had simultaneously killed dozens of militants, but further investigation showed that among the victims were from seven to 24 civilians. At the same time, according to the NYT, there were actually at least 120 civilians. Many of them were hiding in houses that came under fire.

Military benefits are more important than innocent victims

According to the NYT, the US military regularly neglects the lives of civilians. The command, which defines and is responsible for the goals, only a few times officially admitted their mistakes, explaining them by possible failures. Even so, however, there were no disciplinary or legal consequences.

Journalists believe that the army is not trying to detect and prevent such incidents in any way. The same people are involved in the investigation of the consequences of strikes as in the preparation of targets. Only once was the flight debriefing at the place of impact. Surviving witnesses were interviewed in only two cases.

“According to the logic of the military, the strike is justified if the expected risk to the civilian population is properly weighed against the military benefit,” the newspaper writes.

Journalists note that the military often interprets the situation on the ground in their favor. That is, their understanding of what happened has always reinforced already existing beliefs.

For example, if a crowd of people was observed at the scene of the explosion, it was assumed by default that they were most likely Islamist militants, and not, for example, volunteer rescuers. Ordinary motorcycle riders, in military reports, could turn into “a formation of motorcyclists showing signs of impending attack.”

50 thousand unplanned airstrikes

America began giving military priority to air campaigns after the invasion of Afghanistan. By 2014, former US President Barack Obama set a course for the completion of the ground part of the operation, switching the main tasks to airstrikes and instructing the Afghan military.

Around the same time, the United States began providing air support to the military and militias in Iraq and Syria, who fought ISIS on the ground. Over the next five years, when the Obama administration was succeeded by the Donald Trump administration, US troops launched more than 50,000 airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

With the intensification of hostilities, the number of people who received the authority to command airstrikes also expanded. The ability to issue such orders sank lower and lower along the hierarchical military chain, which led to the fact that targets were tested less and less, and decisions were made faster and faster.

Sometimes the radius of damage from strikes turned out to be much stronger than the military planned. For example, when weapons depots containing explosives were targeted, other explosions followed after the impact. Often household infrastructure – gas cylinders or power plants – led to secondary explosions. As the NYT notes, this explains almost a third of all officially recognized civilian casualties. At the same time, the results of the work of journalists on the ground indicate that in fact it is half of all the victims.

High-precision operations are not always high-precision

Another reason due to which the airstrikes led to a large number of civilian casualties, the newspaper cites their inaccuracy. That is, the military often hit targets without making sure that this was the very object. This was often due to the poor quality of the intelligence recovered, including video recordings or photographs.

The reports of civilian casualties were often overlooked, as the video footage from the impact sites could not see the bodies. But, as the NYT notes, such shots are often too low-quality and short to make an unambiguous conclusion.

Sometimes the video footage of the strikes lasted no more than a few seconds, making it impossible to assess the possible presence of civilians. This was often due to “hardware failure” or even loss of footage.

For example, in 2016, representatives of the armed forces reported that in a strike on a house in East Mosul, they destroyed Neil Prakash, an infamous Australian ISIS recruiter. According to the Pentagon, the operation killed four civilians. A few months later, Prakash was arrested while crossing from Syria to Turkey.

In a commentary to the newspaper, Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for US Central Command, said that “even with the best technology in the world, mistakes still happen, whether based on incomplete information or misinterpretations of available information. And we are trying to learn from these mistakes.”

He also added that the military is working hard to avoid such situations.

“We investigate every credible case. And we regret every loss of innocent lives,” he added.

However, the NYT points out that innocent casualties have become a regular feature of sloppy military operations.

“Even in military campaigns with precision weapons, there is no way to guarantee the absence of innocent victims. However, before approving a strike, the military must draw up detailed protocols to assess and prevent damage to civilians,” the newspaper notes. Journalists also point out that American weapons are technically capable of accurately hitting the assigned targets, everything else remains on the conscience of those who plan the operation.

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