Morning Edition and more about civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS

Today I participated along with Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Margon on NPR’s Morning Edition in a segment (“Civilians in Mosul Remain Trapped”) hosted by Rachel Martin.  We discussed the issue of civilian casualties in the battle for Mosul (my earlier post about the subject is found here).

One of the topics that came up was a hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill prompted by the most recent incident in Mosul.  At it my friend (and fellow Air Force veteran) Congresswoman Martha McSally expressed something I and others have long thought: it’s a mistake to assume that restrictive rules of engagement will necessarily save civilian lives in the long term.  (She is no ordinary legislator; during her tour of duty in Afghanistan she commanded a squadron of one of the most feared airplanes in the U.S. arsenal: the A-10.)

A statement from her office (“Blame For Civilian Casualties Belongs To ISIS”) puts it best, but here’s how the New York Times reported her take on the more-than-what-the-law requires rules the U.S. commanders referenced in their testimony:

Republican Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona, a retired Air Force colonel, questioned whether the high standards are “ridiculous,” because they allow militants to use civilians as a defense against airstrikes so they can “live to fight another day.” The result, she said, is just more innocent deaths.

BTW, on Monday on Just Security, Yale law professor Oona Hathaway had an essay in which she seems to have a dark take on what she calls the “recent uptick” in civilian casualties.  Among other things, she speculates that “aggressive targeting in the face of significant risk of civilian death” might account for the casualties.

It doesn’t seem like the incident had anything to do with new  “aggressive” policies.  In his testimony yesterday, U.S. Central Command commander General Joseph Votel insisted that the “military rules of engagement have not been changed or relaxed to allow for more civilian casualties.”

Votel explained that the “only change” came “late last year” (which would be the final days of the Obama administration), and it authorized “certain combat decisions be made by U.S. commanders closer to the fight as the battle moved into the densely populated areas of the city.”  The Times story said that doing so “removes a layer of approval that was previously needed, but still requires the commander on the ground to go through the same analysis and consideration of civilian casualties that has been done all along.”

Oona, who I respect greatly even if we disagree on this one, also made this argument in her piece:

It is possible that the U.S.-led coalition is applying precisely the same targeting rules and standards as usual and the recent events are just terrible bad luck.  I find this explanation less persuasive due to the repetition of incidents. One unusual civilian casualty event is bad luck; this looks more like a pattern.

I don’t think there is a nefarious “pattern” here, but rather a number of incidents that are much the product of ever-more desperate ISIS fighters who are increasingly relying upon human shields as they are find themselves driven into tighter areas of densely-populated cities.  (In fairness, Oona does mention some of these things as other possible factors.)

What may be helpful is assessing whether or not there is an untoward “pattern” is to put the several incidents in a larger context.  Specifically, in Operation Inherent Resolve (the name of the coalition operation battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria), U.S. Central Command Air Force says there have been 3,271 sorties (a “sortie” is “an operational flight by one aircraft”) in just the first two months of 2017 (through February 28th ).

Of those, 2,129 were sorties in which at least one weapon was dropped, for a total of 7,040 weapons expended.  That is a lot of opportunity for things to go awry even under the best of circumstances, let alone in complex urban environments where the enemy is affirmatively trying to orchestrate civilian-casualty events..

Moreover, Operation Inherent Resolve is modest air effort by historical standards.  By way of comparison, during the first 24 hours of Operation Desert Storm, there were 2,775 sorties flown. Overall, more than 5,000 weapons were dropped each day of that operation.  In other words, there were more sorties flown in one day of Desert Storm than have been flown in the last two months of operations against ISIS.  Much the same can be said for amount of ordinance expended.

Unfortunately, in Operation Desert Storm an estimated 8,000 civilians were killed or wounded, almost 200 per day in the 43-day combat phase of the conflict

According to the NGO (Airwars) that the New York Times relies upon for its numbers, in Operation Inherent Resolve there have been 19,356 airstrikes involving 72,771 bombs and missiles dropped in Iraq and Syria since 2014.  They say that a minimum of 2,831 civilians were killed by the coalition, which is about three people per day.

Meanwhile, according to an article last August in the International Business Times:

[ISIS] was behind more than 4,900 incidents between 2002 and 2015. They killed more than 33,000 people, injured more than 41,000 and kidnapped more than 11,000 people.  That’s about 26 percent of all deaths caused by terrorism in that 13-year span.

In light of all this, here’s my view: 1.) even several instances of civilian casualties, as tragic as each is, could hardly amount to a perverse “pattern” given the thousands of sorties and bombs dropped; 2.) the evidence simply doesn’t show there is “aggressive targeting in the face of significant risk of civilian death,” as Oona speculates in her essay.  To the contrary, one might say, as an expert does, that the air campaign thus far has not been as aggressive as it could be; 3.) the bitter truth is that civilians will continue to pay a tragic price as the coalition fights to halt the barbaric threat posed to ISIS; and 4.) as HRW’s Sara Margon said today, the collation needs to do a thorough investigation of the incidents to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to minimize the sacrifice of civilians.

Still, as we say here at Lawfire, check the facts and make your own decision!



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