‘The Civilian Casualty Files’ expose the Pentagon’s killing fields in West Asia

‘The Civilian Casualty Files’, a groundbreaking investigation based on hundreds of confidential Pentagon files, reveals that military air strikes authorised by the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations were responsible for deliberately targeting and killing thousands of civilians, including women and children, in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017.

Published : Jan 20, 2022 06:00 IST

Rescue teams working to recover bodies from the debris of a house destroyed in an air strike on the western side of Mosul on March 24, 2017.

Rescue teams working to recover bodies from the debris of a house destroyed in an air strike on the western side of Mosul on March 24, 2017.

In the second week of December, The New York Times ( NYT ) published a major investigative piece detailing the large-scale massacre of civilians in Iraq and Syria by the United States Army. Hundreds of files of the Pentagon were accessed to reveal the hidden civilian toll of the mindless bombing campaign that the U.S. forces had carried out in the region and beyond. Washington had grossly underestimated the number of casualties in order to hide the scale of the war crimes committed in the region.

The Civilian Casualty Files reveal that the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations were both responsible for deliberately targeting civilians, including women and children. Azmat Khan, responsible for much of the groundbreaking NYT investigations, is an assistant professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. It took her and her journalistic collaborators around five years to gather all the evidence about the U.S.’ culpability in the large-scale massacre of civilians. After the Pentagon refused to part with the documents requested under the U.S.’ Freedom of Information Act, she filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. military’s Central Command.

Azmat Khan’s investigations revealed that the Pentagon had succeeded in avoiding the “formal review process” that is mandatory when civilians are killed in military operations. There were 2,866 reports of air strikes in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017, the period during which the military operations against the Islamic State (I.S., or Daesh) had taken place. Azmat Khan’s investigations revealed that a secret U.S. military cell known as the “Talon Anvil” was responsible for launching 1,12,000 bombs and missiles against targets in Syria and Iraq between 2014 and 2019. The unit, as the investigative report shows, blatantly circumvented laid-down military procedures while mapping out enemy targets for U.S. drones and planes. The Talon Anvil’s overzealousness in picking targets without consideration for the safety of civilians alarmed sections of the U.S. Army and the U.S. intelligence community at the height of the bombing campaign. Many of the targets identified by the strike cell were populated by non-combatant civilians. Raqqa, the short-lived capital of the Islamic Emirate in Syria, along with Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, were flattened by U.S. bombs.

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The Pentagon had only bothered to release a dozen files relating to casualties, despite first-hand reports that thousands of civilians were being killed in the U.S. air strikes. Azmat Khan visited more than 100 sites in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan where the massacres had taken place to make her own on-the-spot investigations. It did not take long for her to surmise that the Pentagon had undercounted the casualties. Most of the time, the Pentagon had flatly denied that civilian casualties were involved. Azmat Khan said that the unveiled document “lays bare how the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children, a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs”. In one incident in the village of Tokhar situated in northern Syria in July 2016, U.S. air strikes killed 120 civilians in a single day. The U.S. military had claimed at the time that only 24 people were killed and that all of them were I.S. fighters. Azmat Khan’s investigations proved that most of those killed were innocent farmers. The military’s report on the Tokhar massacre said that there was “no evidence of negligence or wrongdoing” and that “no further action” was needed. No compensation was offered to the survivors or the next of kin. Almost all the Pentagon reports that the media have been able to access point to a cover-up. There is hardly any mention of civilian casualties. The dead who figure in the reports are mostly I.S. fighters. Not a single report admitted to any wrongdoing or indiscipline on the part of those ordering the strikes. Most of the casualties were caused by drone strikes ordered by operators sitting in Qatar or the U.S.

Drone warfare

After Barack Obama took over as President in 2008, “drone warfare” was the preferred mode adopted to target insurgent groups all over the Arabian Peninsula. He did not want to commit to putting more U.S. soldiers on the ground after the U.S. military fiasco in Iraq. The Obama administration first opted for deploying new technologies, including drones on a large scale, when he ordered a military surge in Afghanistan in 2009. The use of drone technology further increased when the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s military mission in Afghanistan ended in 2014 and the U.S. troop presence in Iraq was sharply reduced.

The “high tech” weaponry was initially tested in the wars that the U.S. fought in the Gulf, the Balkans and against insurgent groups in Somalia and Yemen. Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden have continued with the policy. More than 50,000 U.S. air strikes were ordered in the last decade in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan alone. Obama had boasted that he was “conducting the most precise air campaign in history”.

The U.S.’ “extraordinary technology” did not prevent collateral damage on a massive scale, but in the end, it did not matter whether innocent people were killed as long as the U.S.’ imperial objectives in the region were met. The spokesman for the Pentagon responding to the questions from the NYT after the latest revelations of war crimes conceded reluctantly that although the U.S. had “the best technology in the world, mistakes do happen”.

The NYT investigations are further proof that the U.S.’ “over the horizon” long-range intelligence-gathering capabilities have inherent flaws. The NYT investigations have shown that in many instances the military unit that was responsible for a massacre ended up investigating it. The officials recording the bombing in real time covered up the killing of civilians either by citing “equipment error” or turning their cameras away from the scenes of the carnage inflicted by U.S. bombs. “Equipment error” meant that no footage was available at all. The NYT reported that their investigations uncovered thousands of deaths that were previously unreported by the U.S. military. A significant number of those killed were children.

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The NYT in its report said that the Pentagon reports it had accessed indicated that 27 per cent of the air strikes caused casualties among children. Reporting from the ground, Azmat Khan said that the numbers are much higher. Her calculation is that 62 per cent of the U.S. strikes from the air were responsible for targeting children. She said: “What emerges from more than 5,400 pages of records is an institutional acceptance of an inevitable collateral toll.” She has given an instance of how the U.S. Army knowingly killed children playing on the roof of a building, despite the IS fighters not being anywhere near the site.

Azmat Khan also writes about another gruesome incident in Baghdad in which more than 70 innocent people, including many children, died as a result of the U.S. military’s targeting of a residential complex. According to the U.S. military, the building was targeted because some people were transporting “white bags” to the terrace of one of the buildings. Those responsible for ordering the strikes were confident that explosives were being transported. The bags actually contained raw cotton.

In another instance, the U.S. military ordered an air strike on a person carrying an “unknown heavy object”. It was a man carrying his son. The report filed by the military unit responsible for the incident described the child as “a short man” who was killed in the action. In another incident, a family of seven was mowed down by U.S. bombs as they were fleeing the IS in Mosul in their car. The mother was “burned into the seat, still holding her infant son”.

The NYT talked to an Iraqi man who lost his family in a precision air strike on a school in Mosul in which they had sought refuge in 2017 as the city was being subjected to relentless attack from all sides. Mosul was liberated but at a great humanitarian cost. The survivor, who lost his wife and children in the attack, said: “What happened wasn’t liberation, it was the destruction of humanity.”


The NYT had only gained access to records relating to the wars in Iraq and Syria. After the U.S. occupation ended, Azmat Khan could visit Afghanistan and gather first-hand information on civilian casualties of the two-decade-long war in the country. She writes that the war in Afghanistan was the least transparent one that the U.S. had fought so far. The media had very little access to rural areas where much of the fighting and the killings took place. In one village she visited, every family on an average had lost five of its members to air strikes from the U.S. and allied forces. The Pentagon spokesman has only admitted to “honest mistakes”, claiming that strikes were ordered only after the receipt of the best actionable information. He went on to add that “civilian casualties, is not, in and in itself, a cause for disciplinary actions as set forth in the law of armed conflicts”.

Lawrence Lewis, a former Pentagon and U.S. State Department adviser, told the NYT that the U.S. Army, aided by the latest technology, feels that it can safely target crowded streets. The MQ-9 Reaper Drone armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles is the weapon of choice for the U.S. forces for the surveillance and targeting of individuals, insurgents and resistance groups. Lewis said: “We develop all these capabilities but we don’t use them to buy down risk for civilians. We just use them so that we can make more attacks that we couldn’t do before.”

That the U.S. military establishment was hiding the true scale of civilian deaths is clear when a detailed account of killings of civilians in Syria during the final days of the war against the I.S. in 2019 is finally coming to light. A large crowd of civilians trying to escape the fighting in a town called Baghuz was targeted by the U.S. Air Force. Baghuz and the surrounding one square mile of farmland was where the I.S. fought its last battle. Tens of thousands of women and children were trapped there along with the IS fighters.

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The first 230-kilogram bomb that was dropped killed most of the civilians who had taken refuge near the bank of the Euphrates. A few who managed to escape were finished off with another deadly bomb weighing around 1,000 kg. Seventy women and children were killed in the Baghuz attack. The U.S. military has still not officially acknowledged that this attack ever took place. According to the NYT, the strike was carried out by a secret U.S. military unit known as Task Force 9. They were allowed full freedom to decide on the targets they chose to strike.

All the same, the U.S. Central Command which supervised the war, while acknowledging the strikes and deaths of civilians, said in a statement that the action was justified. The statement said that it was not clear whether those killed were Daesh fighters or civilians claiming that women and children often fought alongside Daesh fighters. The U.S. Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, commenting on the 2019 air strike in Syria acknowledged that the military had to do more to prevent civilian killings. But at the same time, he did not say anything about holding senior officers accountable for the killings.

In the second week of December, the Pentagon announced that no disciplinary action would be taken against military personnel for the killing of 10 members from a single family, including seven children, in a drone attack in Kabul on August 29. The strike had taken place in the final days of the U.S.-led evacuation from Kabul. An internal Pentagon review had concluded that the bombing did not violate “laws of war” and was not a result of misconduct or criminal negligence. The military had initially described the Kabul bombing as a “righteous strike”. Civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the Pentagon failed to provide the victim’s family “with meaningful transparency and accountability for the wrongful killing of their loved ones”.

On January 2, 2021, the Trump administration had used a Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles to assassinate General Qassem Soleimani, one of the Iran’s most senior government officials, while he was on an official visit to Baghdad. It was a clear breach of international law. The Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, demanded that President Donald Trump, whom he described as the “main criminal and killer”, along with his accomplices like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, should face justice. Iran has called on the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly to issue resolutions against the U.S. and Israel so that such incidents do not happen in the future.

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