Faulty intelligence, inevitable collateral damage and thousands of civilians killed … An investigation was published Saturday into the drone strikes favored since 2014 by the US military against jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Based on 1,300 Pentagon reports on incidents involving civilian casualties, obtained by the New York Times under the Open Administration Act (FOIA), this investigation undermines the image of a war ” clean ”carried out with“ precision strikes ”regularly presented by the US military.
“The American air war was marked by faulty intelligence, hasty and imprecise missile fire, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, including many children,” the American daily reported. “Not a single report concludes with a fault or a disciplinary sanction”, he added.
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Barack Obama, who was the first American president to favor drone strikes to spare the lives of American soldiers, have been replaced by “opacity and impunity”, asserted the newspaper which had to file several lawsuits against the Pentagon and the Central Command of the United States Army (Centcom) to obtain these documents.
the number of civilian victims “clearly underestimated”
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.
For this multi-month investigation, The New York Times analyzed the documents obtained and investigated the ground, verifying official information on more than 100 bombed sites.
Several of the cases mentioned were already known, but the investigation shows that the number of civilian victims admitted by the Pentagon is “clearly underestimated”.
The documents show that civilian deaths were often due to “confirmation bias,” the tendency to draw conclusions consistent with what one thinks likely, according to the New York Times.
People running to a bombed site were seen as fighters from the Islamic State group, not rescuers. Simple motorcyclists were considered to be moving “in formation”, which was interpreted as the “signature” of an impending attack.
According to Pentagon documents, misidentification accounted for only 4% of civilian casualties. But the Times’ field survey shows that they played a role in 17% of incidents, and especially that they caused nearly a third of civilian deaths and injuries.
Cultural factors also weighed heavily. The American soldiers thus judged that there was “no presence of civilians” in a house which they watched one day of Ramadan, while several families slept there during the day, sheltering themselves from the heat, by this fasting period.
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 deemed “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.
Quoted by the New York Times, Centcom spokesperson Commander Bill Urban noted that “Even with the best technology in the world, mistakes do happen, whether due to misinformation or misinterpretation. of the information available ”.
For the newspaper, “what ultimately emerges from more than 5,400 pages of documents is an institution accepting that collateral damage is inevitable.”