- Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the US has conducted major airstrikes in at least seven countries.
- Most civilians were killed during the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the strikes on ISIS in Syria.
- The deadliest years for civilians were 2003 and 2017, the report found.
In the 20 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the United States has bombed more than a half-dozen nations as part of its global war on terror, overthrowing Saddam Hussein and killing Osama bin Laden. But over the course of more than 93,000 airstrikes, a new report from the independent monitoring group Airwars finds that as many 48,000 civilians lost their lives too, a grim tally that underscores the danger of relying on air power to combat terrorism.
The finding comes as President Joe Biden is pledging a new chapter in US foreign policy. In his speech marking the withdrawal of US forces from Kabul, Biden said his decision to end that occupation was about more than just Afghanistan. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” he said, and moving away from “large-scale troop deployments.”
But the Airwars report, released Monday, illustrates that pivoting away from boots on the ground does not necessarily mean fewer civilians being killed. Drawing on US military data, media reports of civilian harm, and its own researchers, the UK-based monitor found that since 2001 “US actions likely killed at least 22,679 civilians, with that number potentially as high as 48,308.”
The deadliest years were 2003 and 2017 — respectively, the US invasion of Iraq and the climax of the US-led war on the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Relying on the maximum estimate, “2017 is in fact the worst year for civilians,” the report found, with up to 19,623 killed.
Joe Dyke, a senior investigator at Airwars, told Insider that the death toll in 2017 — former President Donald Trump’s first year in office — was likely, in part, a product of decreased concern for innocent life.
“We have seen in Yemen that President Trump significantly reduced transparency around US actions and in some respects loosened restrictions on US military operations, including measures aimed at protecting civilians,” he said. Indeed, a previous report by Airwars indicated that Trump may have bombed Yemen more than an all of his predecessors, having expanded the list of eligible targets, there and elsewhere, for CIA and Pentagon airstrikes.
But Trump, who promised to bring troops home while “bombing the hell” out of the countries they left, was not the one initiated the war on the Islamic State — nor the first president to prefer air power to boots on the ground. Under Trump, “the campaigns in Mosul and Raqqa were also among the most intense urban fighting since the Second World War,” Dyke noted, but “the course for them had been set under President Obama.” In Raqqa alone, more than 1,600 civilians were killed as the US sought to dislodge ISIS from its declared Syrian capital, per Airwars and Amnesty International.
President Biden has, thus far, dramatically curtailed airstrikes amid a formal review of US drone policy. But just last month he approved a drone strike against an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan that killed 10 members of one family, including children. Journalists, still on the ground in Kabul, were quickly able to interview the survivors; the Pentagon has since conceded that innocents may have been killed.
But many more airstrikes take place far away from the presence of international media, with claims of “collateral damage” going unheard. In Yemen, for example, it took years before the US military admitted to Insider that one of its airstrikes injured two civilians on a motorbike — a claim first made by an anonymous user on social media.
For that reason, Airwars says it would be wrong to assume it’s more conservative estimate of innocent people killed is the more likely reflection of the actual tally.
“Generally, we think that civilian harm is very often underestimated,” Dyke said. Several times, the US government has officially acknowledged casualties that were. That suggests “many other cases may have gone unreported in conflict zones where reporting is often partial and victims are focused on looking after their remaining family members.”
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