The Pentagon Doesn’t Know How Many Civilians It Has Killed in Iraq and Syria
Official data isn't nearly as confident as public statements
The Pentagon has looked into hundreds of possible civilian casualties from the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. But Washington is having trouble keeping track of everything — including its own allies.
Since August 2014, the American-led coalition has lobbed nearly 14,000 bombs and missiles in thousands of individual airstrikes against Islamic State.
Despite assuring the public that it is doing everything to prevent innocent people from being killed, the attacks may have caused more than 1,000 civilian deaths in over 100 separate instances so far, according to a recent report (.pdf) by independent monitoring group Airwars.
The Pentagon’s top headquarters in the Middle East has reviewed more than 40 separate incidents, with nearly 300 people killed or wounded in the process, according to an official database called the Iraq/Syria CIVCAS Allegation Tracker. CIVCAS is a contraction of “civilian casualties.”
War Is Boring obtained an undated printout of this database through the Freedom of Information Act. A “living document,” U.S. Central Command told us that the version released is already out of date and no longer complete.
But the database reveals that CENTCOM has investigated more suspected civilian casualties than previously disclosed. We also learned the U.S. military’s method for investigating the alleged casualties is hampered by lack of access and limited information.
The result — it’s exceedingly likely CENTCOM doesn’t know how many civilians it has really killed.
“I will emphasize that every target is carefully considered by coalition air forces to address and minimize the possibility of collateral damage and civilian casualties,” Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea, chief of staff for the American task force in charge of operations in Syria and Iraq, told reporters on July 31.
The Pentagon has generally offered up this type in response to questions about civilian casualties. Before admitting to killing two children and wounding two others in Syria in May 2015, American spokespersons largely denied any innocent deaths at all.
“We are unaware of any civilian casualties,” Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, then the Director for Operations for the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, declared at a press conference on Sept. 23, 2014. “If any reports of civilian casualties emerge, we will fully investigate them.”
According to the spreadsheet, Central Command has investigated at least 45 separate allegations to some degree. In each instance, CENTCOM has conducted some level of initial review, a credibility review and — sometimes — a full investigation according to the rules outlined in Army Regulation 15-6, a manual for how to run formal inquiries.
American troops involved in the operations, the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development all forwarded allegations to the Pentagon for review. In at least one instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation passed information from an unspecified “source” about possible deaths.
CENTCOM’s own Web Operations office — referred to as CCWebOps — combed the Internet for news and other reports about innocents killed or injured in the bombing runs. The Pentagon appears to have worked with independent groups such as the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights and journalists to confirm the details of a number of events.
In addition to the credible strikes in Syria, the Pentagon investigated the deaths of two women and three children near Hatra, Iraq that occurred in April 2015, according to our version of the database. Central Command ran credibility reviews on two other strikes in Syria. After looking at two more credible allegations, American commanders determined the evidence just didn’t line up.
This would seem to offer a counter to at least one of key findings in Airwars’ survey. “The Coalition’s admission of only two ‘likely’ non-combatant deaths to date … indicates a worrying lack of urgency on the part of all Coalition members regarding civilian deaths,” the Airwars report concluded.
Still, Central Command did clear American forces of responsibility in 40 of the 45 total allegations in our copy of the database. The Pentagon cites “insufficient information,” “not enough information” or a similar phrase in eight instances as the exonerating factor.
“Not credible,” stated one entry regarding an allegation of some 30 civilian deaths in a strike near Tel Abyad, Syria on March 8. But in contrast to the confidence of that statement, the very next sentence explained there was “insufficient information to determine CIVCAS.”
There’s a running theme when the Pentagon investigates suspected civilian casualties — limited information and a lack of access to the location. In 16 of the listed incidents, American commanders listed the casualties simply as “unknown.”
Often when there are credible allegations, the Pentagon doesn’t always have any recourse especially if American allies are suspected of being responsible. There’s a coalition of a dozen countries fighting Islamic State, and each member is entitled to go through their own review process.
For example, the Kurdish Peshmerga reported that Canadian CF-18 fighter bombers might have killed nearly 30 civilians in a strike near Kisik Junction in Iraq in January.
While the Pentagon decided the allegation wasn’t credible, lawyers at the shared operations center in Baghdad “noted that … [their] opinion is that, under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), there are no obligations for the [Canadian Armed Forces] to conduct an investigation.”
All of this serves to reinforce another and perhaps more important conclusion by Airwars. “Efforts to limit the risk to civilians on the ground continue to be hampered by an absence of effective transparency and accountability from almost all Coalition members,” the group’s report stated.
Now with the new data, it is clear that the Pentagon’s public statements have done little to explain how — or if — it’s keeping those allies accountable. This has been the case since the very beginning of the war.
Despite firmly stating that there had been no civilian deaths almost a year ago, Mayville did not mention that Central Command had already completed its first “credibility review.” A little more than a week before the general’s comments, American troops with an unknown task force — redacted in our printout and assumed to be a group of commandos — reported possible civilian injuries in Northern Iraq.
“TF reviewed FMV and spoke to local Peshmerga forces operating on the ground in the area,” the spreadsheet noted. FMV refers to full motion video footage, likely from a drone flying nearby at the time of the attack. “The Peshmerga forces reported that all individuals engaged were ISIL forces,” the entry added.
“FMV did not definitively indicate that the … individuals were struck.”
So Mayville’s comments were technically accurate. But the Pentagon had determined the allegation wasn’t credible based only on local interviews with friendly fighters and inconclusive video footage. Drones, it’s worth noting, make poor spotters.
To be sure, the Pentagon has disclosed that it looked into civilian casualties. “On civilian casualties, what I know is that … Central Command, is investigating several, what they believe to be credible allegations of possible civilian casualties,” Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, then a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters at a Jan. 6 briefing.
“I would point you to CENTCOM to talk about the details of that,” was all Kirby said when asked again about civilian casualties three days later.
When Kirby made that statement, Central Command had just finished reviewing two credible allegations of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria at the end of December 2014, according to the database. As the admiral made his briefings, American commandos had also reported that Iraqi police trainees might have injured nearby civilians during a drill.
The Pentagon eventually decided that Dutch F-16s were not responsible for two deaths near Fallujah, Iraq. American Vipers might have injured civilians near Tabqa Airfield in Syria. And since the Iraqis were manning the .50-caliber machine guns during the practice session, responsibility for the training accident fell to the Iraqi government.
The American public does not appear to have received any of these updates. And the allegations kept rolling in.
“The coalition’s war against ISIL has inevitably caused civilian casualties, certainly far more than the two deaths CENTCOM presently admits to,” Airwars stated on its website.
But with a lack of information and apparent resources, the Pentagon doesn’t have a good idea of how many innocent civilians American pilots or their foreign allies have killed so far either.