the New York Times published, Saturday, December 18, a shock investigation that undermines the image of a war ” own “ carried out with “Precision hits” presented regularly by the US military in its fight against jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
“The American air war has been marked by flawed intelligence, hasty and imprecise missile fire, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, including many children.”, the newspaper concludes in this investigation based on 1,300 Pentagon incident reports obtained by the American daily under the Open Administration Act (FOIA). “Not a single report concludes with a fault or a disciplinary sanction”, is it specified.
The promises of transparency of the days of Barack Obama, who was the first American president to favor drone strikes to spare the lives of American soldiers, have been replaced by “Opacity and impunity”, adds the daily which had to file several lawsuits at the Pentagon and at the central command of the American army (Centcom) to obtain these documents.
In five years, the US military has carried out more than 50,000 airstrikes in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. She admitted to accidentally killing 1,417 civilians in airstrikes in Syria and Iraq since 2014. In Afghanistan, the official figure is 188 civilians killed since 2018.
An underestimated number of civilian casualties
For this survey carried out over several months, the New York Times analyzed the documents obtained and investigated the field, verifying official information on more than 100 bombed sites. Several of the cases mentioned were already known, but investigation shows that the number of civilian casualties admitted by the Pentagon is “Clearly underestimated”. Documents show that civilian deaths were often due to a “Confirmation bias”, the tendency to draw conclusions consistent with what one thinks probable, according to the New York Times.
People running to a bombed site were seen as fighters from the Islamic State group, not rescuers. Simple bikers were considered to be on the move ” Training “, which was interpreted as the « signature » of an imminent attack.
According to Pentagon documents, misidentification accounted for only 4% of civilian casualties. But the investigation carried out on the ground by the Times shows that they played a role in 17% of incidents, and above all that they caused nearly a third of civilian deaths and injuries.
Cultural factors also weighed heavily. The American military thus judged that there was “No presence of civilians” in a house that they watched one day of Ramadan, while several families slept there during the day, period of fasting, sheltering from the heat.
“We regret every loss of innocent life”
Poor quality images, or insufficient surveillance duration often contributed to deadly strikes. They also slowed down investigative attempts. Of the 1,311 cases examined by the New York Times, only 216 had been tried “Credible” by the US military. Reports of civilian casualties were rejected because the videos did not show bodies in the rubble or because they were not long enough to draw conclusions.
Cited by the New York TimesCentcom spokesperson Commander Bill Urban noted that “Even with the best technology in the world, errors do occur, whether due to erroneous information or a misinterpretation of the information available”.
“We do everything to avoid doing harm. We are investigating all credible cases. And we regret every loss of innocent life ”, he said. For the newspaper, “What ultimately emerges from more than 5,400 pages of documents is an institution accepting that collateral damage is inevitable”.
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New York Times investigation unveils thousands of Middle East civilians killed in US strikes