A report by The New York Times (NYT) earlier this month revealed that at least 1,400 innocent civilians were killed in numerous airstrikes, mostly drones strikes, carried out by the US forces since 2014 in Afghanistan and some countries in West Asia. The civilian toll of the US drone strikes has already been widely reported, with several other sources such as Airwars citing a larger number of civilian casualties. The NYT report also revealed the extent of the failure of the international community to ensure accountability and justice for the victims of these war crimes.
The impunity enjoyed by the US is a key factor in such atrocities continuing to take place. It also undermines established international humanitarian laws by creating a hierarchy between the lives of US citizens and those from other countries.
In most of the recorded cases, as is clear from the NYT report, the Pentagon has refused to take any kind of punitive or even corrective actions against the persons responsible. It has even refused to do the minimum in most of the cases: apologize or compensate the survivors.
The repeated application of the logic of “collateral damage” to justify the killings has long become a norm. This is reflected in the way the US has dealt with the reported cases of civilian deaths. According to the NYT report, in more than 90% of the cases they recorded, the Pentagon has not deemed it fit to conduct a full inquiry to ascertain the circumstances or the persons responsible. In many cases where it did decide to investigate, it assigned the job to the same set of people responsible for the act.
The NYT report claims that out of 1,311 assessments, in just one case did Pentagon officials visit the actual site of the strike and in only two did they really interview the survivors. In the rest of the cases, citing the excuse of “hostile territories,” field investigations were not brought in. This is despite the fact that ISIS was officially “defeated” in 2017 in West Asia and US forces were still present on the ground.
“The most precise air campaign in history?”
President Barack Obama, under whom drone technology was extensively used in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world, claimed that it would be the most precise air campaign in history. However, data proves that this claim is only true if talking about avoiding deaths of US armed forces.
The Airwars records of US airstrikes since 2014 estimated civilian deaths in the range of 19,000 to 30,000 just in two countries: Iraq and Syria. In Barang, a town in Afghanistan, which is not part of the official Pentagon report, the NYT report says that “on average each household lost five civilian family members” mostly in the US coalition-led airstrikes.
Even if one takes into account the much more conservative figure of roughly 1,400 deaths acknowledged by the Pentagon, it is clear that “most precise” has nothing to do with the lives of innocent civilians or destruction of civilian infrastructure. This assertion is based on the idea that some lives (those of US personnel) are more important than others.
Legitimate self defense?
Another phrase used in most of the official investigation records is “legitimate self defense”. However, there is no explanation on how people in distant locations, sometimes thousands of miles away in the US, legitimately feel threatened by civilian families trying to carry on with their lives. The excuse of “self defense” was used in the August 29 airstrike in Kabul where 10 members of the same family including seven children were killed.
Even when the US acknowledges the civilian deaths and claims that it wants to avoid them, the real reasons are mostly “strategic” and not humanitarian. Captain Bill Urban, the spokesperson of the US central command, was quoted by NYT admitting to this fact. He said that the US wants to minimize the risk of harm to civilians as “a strategic necessity” given the fact that such deaths are used by terrorist groups to incite further unrest.
The argument of “collateral damage” completely contravenes the principles of justice as the persons operating the drones become the judge, jury and executioner without the minimum level of accountability. Like in the case of Baghuz in eastern Syria where at least 80 people were killed, the world does not know the real extent of the deaths caused by US airstrikes.
Just as in Kabul, every time an airstike is reported, the US military claims that it has killed members of a terrorist group. Rarely do they disclose the facts or the actual identity of those killed.
A complicit media accords a moral high ground to US actions and allows it to get away with claims of being a leader in the fight against global terrorism. Writing on the World Socialist Website about the meticulous role played by the media to paint a favorable picture of US war crimes in the minds of the readers, Thomas Scripps calls such media “gatekeepers of the truth and a PR service for the ruling class.” He argues that such reporting provides “an opportunity for the US army to rehearse and popularize excuses for war crimes.”
On rare occasions when a report indicates the contrary, the US gets away by expressing “regret” and calling its acts a “genuine mistake” or “legitimate self defense.” US impunity is not only a result of its hard military and economic power, but also due to the lack of consistent social and political mobilization by progressives and the working class across the world which can pressure the international community to create genuine institutions of accountability.