As the U.S. military racks up victories against terror groups, there’s one battle that it can't seem to win: The PR war over how many innocent civilians are dying as a result of U.S. airstrikes or commando raids.
When confronted with allegations of civilian casualties, U.S. commanders have repeated their go-to talking point, that the U.S.-led coalition air campaign is “the most accurate in the history of warfare,” employing only the smartest of smart bombs and requiring the most rigorous target approval process.
“The death of civilians weighs heavy on our hearts. We should never seek to deny this or hide the true cost of war,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend in his last news conference before turning over command of the counter Islamic State campaign. “Our partners in the coalition have done and will continue to do everything in our power to preserve innocent lives.”
Still, human rights groups, the United Nations, and news organizations consistently come up with a much higher death toll than acknowledged by the U.S. military, which insists it methodically investigates every credible report of civilian casualties.
The accusations have become more prevalent since President Trump gave battlefield commanders more authority to order strikes, sidestepping what had been considered the more careful but at times laborious task of seeking White House approval for major operations.
For instance, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported 2,640 civilians were killed in the Afghanistan war in the first nine months of 2017 and said 205 were the result of U.S. or Afghan airstrikes.
“We have great respect for UNAMA and we work closely with them, but we don't always agree on the figures,” Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan told reporters last month. “In fact, we disagree on some of these numbers regarding aerial casualties.”
Nicholson said when it went back and checked it found in some cases the U.S. was being blamed for an airstrike that never happened.
“An allegation occurs in a particular place at a particular time, we go back and review and find that we did not drop a munition on that day in that location,” Nicholson said.
The U.S. military argues the reason that its numbers are much lower than those published by advocacy groups or news organization is that its investigations are more thorough, and don’t rush to judgment.
“Investigations include interviewing witnesses and examining the site where possible, interviewing pilots and other personnel involved in the targeting process, reviewing strike and surveillance video, and analyzing information provided by government agencies, non-governmental reports, partner forces, and traditional and social media,” said U.S. Central Command in its latest monthly report on civilian casualties. “We consider new information when it becomes available to ensure a thorough and continuous review process. At times, we have re-opened investigations in light of new evidence.”
The U.S. says that as of last month, 801 civilians have been unintentionally killed by coalition strikes since the start of the counter-ISIS campaign in August 2014, with 695 reports still under review.
The Central Command analysis concludes that of 56,976 separate engagements between August 2014 and October 2017, the percent of strikes that resulted in a credible report of civilian casualties was 0.35 percent.
But when news organizations conduct their own on-site reviews, they often come to starkly different conclusions.
When the Daily Beast interviewed survivors of an August raid in Somalia, it concluded the operation was led by U.S. special operations forces and resulted in the death of 10 civilians, including at least one child.
But U.S. Africa Command issued a statement directly refuting the allegation the day the story was posted, saying the operation was led by Somali National Army troops, and that a “thorough assessment” concluded that the only casualties were those of armed enemy combatants.
It’s a pattern in which outside groups are much quicker to blame the U.S. for deaths of innocents.
Last month, the New York Times published a similar account based on numerous interviews and first-hand inspections of 150 sites over 18 months. The conclusion: the air war has been “significantly less precise” than the coalition claims.
“We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition,” the Times said. “Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all.”
The U.S. military disputes that as well, insisting it has highly trained Coalition Civilian Casualty Assessment Teams that travel throughout the battlespace gathering evidence.
“We continue to hold ourselves accountable for actions that may have caused unintentional injury or death to civilians,” a Central Command statement said.
U.S. commanders continue to bristle at the constant questioning of U.S. tactics, which while not perfect go to great lengths to avoid the killing of innocents.
It’s not the U.S. who is the bad guy here, argues Townsend in his farewell engagement with the press.
“I say this with full conviction: The responsibility for civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria lies with ISIS, who have brought misery and death to this region.”