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‘Systemic shortfalls’ obscure true civilian cost of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS

The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria released its latest estimate of civilians killed by U.S. airstrikes since 2014. Over the past four years, 1,139 civilians were killed by accident. But how was this figure calculated, and is it accurate? Larry Lewis of the Center for Naval Analyses, a former official at the Defense and State Departments, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    This weekend, the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria released information about all the airstrikes it conducted in the last week.

    It also released an estimate for how many civilians have been killed in those airstrikes in the last four years. The number is more than 1,000.

    But as Nick Schifrin reports, there are questions about whether the military is undercounting.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Four years ago, ISIS controlled territory across Iraq and Syria the size of Belgium. Today, the group has lost 99 percent of that land and eight million people no longer have to live inside the so-called Islamic State.

    The U.S. has achieved that success thanks in large part to a massive air campaign. In Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has launched 31,406 airstrikes in a campaign the coalition describes as the most precise in history.

    But, this weekend, the U.S. admitted that those airstrikes accidentally killed 1,139 civilians. How did they arrive at that number? And is it accurate?

    To explore those questions, I am joined by Larry Lewis, who used to lead the Defense Department's efforts to prevent civilian casualties. He was also the State Department's senior adviser on civilian protection, and is now research director at the Center for Naval Analyses.

    Larry, thank you very much. Welcome back.

    You and I have talked about how this is probably an undercount, that 1,139. And one of the reasons, the main reasons is buildings, something almost basic, right? You can't see inside buildings that have been struck.

    So how much of a problem has that been, given that a lot of these civilian casualties are in dense urban battles, like Mosul and Raqqa, and local forces, Iraqis and Syrians, want a lot of progress quickly?

  • Larry Lewis:

    Right.

    So, the fact that the U.S. and the coalition have been working with allies, such as Iraq and the Kurds in Syria, that has a huge impact on risk to civilians, because in places like Afghanistan, where it was primarily U.S.-led — the U.S. could set the tempo — you had the ability to have — to be tactically patient and to exercise lots of different options to better protect civilians.

    But in this campaign, speed was of the essence. And when the U.S. works with partners, we often give license to the partner to set the tempo, and they don't always have the same kind of priorities that the U.S. does.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And specifically about buildings, talk about how you can't see in buildings, right?

  • Larry Lewis:

    Right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, therefore, you could increase the number of civilian casualties if you're hitting those buildings.

  • Larry Lewis:

    Precisely.

    So if you're doing a strike on a building, first of all, you don't know who's in the building. And, second of all, after you have done the strike on the building, you don't know what the — what the effect is. So it's difficult to say you, are there civilian casualties or not?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You and I were working and living in Afghanistan around the same time, 2008, 2009. There were 100,000 troops there.

    And there would be civilian casualty incidents where troops would be dispatched to the scene, cordon off the scene and investigate. That is not happening in Syria and Iraq. Does that affect the accuracy of this number that the military is reporting?

  • Larry Lewis:

    Absolutely.

    In Afghanistan, as you say, you had the benefit of 100,000 troops,. They were basically sensors that could go in and figure out what happened, figure out the ground truth.

    In Iraq and in Syria, we don't have that luxury. That has not been a priority for the U.S. military. So they just don't have the benefit of that information.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There are some journalists who go to these sites and investigate. There are some NGO workers who go to these sites in Iraq and Syria and investigate.

    Why isn't the U.S. military going to these sites and investigating?

  • Larry Lewis:

    The argument that the U.S. military has said against that is twofold. First of all, it is a — it's an additional requirement that they — that they're not resourced for.

    And second of all is, there is a force protection element. So it does increase risk to U.S. forces. But there's another way to do this, too, is that you can work more in collaboration with these other organizations.

    So the U.S. military has its information, they have full-motion video, they have other forms of intelligence. If you combine that with information from other groups, then you can — you can get better estimates that way as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And are they not combining that information?

  • Larry Lewis:

    So, they are trying to combine that information, but it could be done better than it is now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And is there also an increased willingness to cause civilian casualties?

    You and I were talking about something that was pretty shocking, actually, the noncombatant casualty value, meaning there's actually a number that the military has of civilian casualties that is deemed acceptable.

    Has that number changed over the years and perhaps even increased?

  • Larry Lewis:

    Yes.

    So, the noncombatant casualty value, often called the NCV, that is kind of a cap on the acceptable number of civilian casualties. That is done in addition to the legal considerations that are made during a strike.

    So, in late 2016, that number was increased. So, as you say, the willingness to take risks to civilians, that risk threshold was increased around that time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we should say, late 2016, before the election of Donald Trump, by the way, so this is late Obama administration.

  • Larry Lewis:

    Right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, by changing that number, does that inevitably lead to more civilian casualties?

  • Larry Lewis:

    I think it's pretty logical to say yes.

    Certainly, there are — there are cases that I'm aware of that — where strikes were made with the knowledge that they would cause the civilian casualties because they were lower than the value that was prescribed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let me play you a sound bite from just the last couple weeks, actually, British Major General Chris Ghika, the deputy commander of strategy and information for Operation Inherent Resolve, the operation against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, speaking to Pentagon reporters a couple weeks ago.

  • Major General Chris Ghika:

    I think it's important, on this issue of civilian casualties, to make really clear that we conduct all our strikes with considerable care for each and every strike to minimize civilian casualties at every turn. And where there are allegations, we investigate them very thoroughly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Have they tried to minimize civilian casualties and investigate them very thoroughly?

  • Larry Lewis:

    The U.S. and its coalition partners, they do a lot to reduce civilian casualties. And they do they do work hard on the investigation piece.

    But there are also systemic shortfalls, both in the ability to reduce civilian casualties and to investigate credible allegations that can be improved.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, quickly, in the time we have left, what do you think the U.S. should be doing better?

  • Larry Lewis:

    They should be monitoring trends, which wasn't done in Iraq and Syria.

    They should improve tools and tactics for urban warfare, because we keep on doing this kind of very dangerous kind of warfare for civilians. We should emphasize civilian protection with partners, because we keep on operating by, with, and through partners.

    And, finally, there are some specific ways we can improve the investigations to better estimate the true toll to civilians.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Larry Lewis with the Center for Naval Analyses, thank you very much.

  • Larry Lewis:

    Thanks.

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