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Report: 1,600+ civilians killed in US drone strikes since 2014, Pentagon records reveal

MQ-9 Reaper during Exercise Northern Strike 2019. (Arizona Air National Guard/Released)
December 21, 2021

A trove of more than 1,300 Pentagon reports obtained by The New York Times details the U.S. military’s Middle East drone strikes that have inadvertently killed at least 1,605 civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria since 2014.

The New York Times reported Saturday on the trove of confidential drone strike assessments, which the publication said shows many instances in which strikes were carried out with incomplete, outdated or ambiguous intelligence. The publication reported the records of civilian deaths, many of them children, which contrast the U.S. military’s presentation of the drone war as one being carried out with highly-capable all-seeing drones and precision weapons.

The New York Times reported there’s no way to know the full extent of civilian casualties, but the documents reveal at least 1,417 civilians were killed in airstrikes in the U.S. campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and another 188 civilians were killed by airstrikes in Afghanistan since 2018.

The trove of drone strike data further reveals that many of these deadly erroneous drone strikes have gone largely unanswered over the years. According to the New York Times, the documents show many allegations of civilian casualties have been summarily dismissed, with little to no evaluation. The documents also do not reveal a single finding of wrongdoing or disciplinary action against those carrying out the strikes and less than a dozen condolence payments. Efforts to identify underlying causes for these erroneous strikes are also rare.

The pattern of erroneous drone strikes and civilian casualties coincided heavily with a shift in tactics during President Barack Obama’s administration, amid growing unpopularity for the wars in the Middle East.

By the second half of Obama’s presidency, more than 6,000 U.S. troops had been killed in fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Drones were increasingly called upon to take the place of boots on the ground to fight these wars. Obama called the increased reliance on drone strikes in the fight against ISIS “the most precise air campaign in history.”

The reporting from the New York Times comes after a U.S. strike killed 10 civilians — including seven children — in the Afghan capital city of Kabul during the military-led civilian evacuation from the country in August. The U.S. military initially reported the August strike had killed ISIS car-bombers plotting to attack the Kabul Airport, where U.S. troops were overseeing evacuation efforts. The Pentagon eventually admitted in September that the strike killed civilians, rather than the intended ISIS targets. The U.S. has reportedly pledged to repay the family members of the strike’s victims, but a Pentagon review of the strike also concluded without any findings of misconduct or negligence by those who oversaw the August strike.

In response to the New York Times’ reporting, U.S. Central Command spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban said, “Even with the best technology in the world, mistakes do happen, whether based on incomplete information or misinterpretation of the information available. And we try to learn from those mistakes.”