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There's No Such Thing as Precise Air Strikes in Modern Warfare
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The final elimination of Isis in Iraq and Syria is close, but welcome though the defeat of these monstrous movements may be, it has only been achieved at the cost of great destruction and loss of life. This is the new face of war which governments try to conceal: a limited number of combat troops on the ground call in devastating air strikes from planes, missiles and drones, be they American or Russian, to clear the way for their advance.

Governments pretend that air wars today are very different from Vietnam half a century ago when towns were notoriously “destroyed in order to save them”. These days air forces – be it the Americans in Iraq, the Russians in Syria or the Saudis in Yemen – say that this mass destruction no longer happens thanks to the greater accuracy of their weapons: using a single sniper, a room in a house can supposedly be hit without harming a family crouching in terror in the room next door.

The sale of vastly expensive high precision weapons to countries such as Saudi Arabia is even justified as a humanitarian measure aimed at reducing civilian casualties.

The PR has changed but not the reality. Despite the claims of enhanced accuracy, drone pictures of west Mosul look very much like pictures of east Aleppo, Raqqa or large parts of Damascus where every building is gutted or reduced to heaps of broken bricks interspersed with craters. The problem for journalists or human rights organisations is that it is almost impossible to verify the claims of victims or the denials of alleged perpetrators at the time.

Witnesses, when they are not dead, have often fled or are too frightened to speak; governments, regular armies and air forces will probably get away with it if they stick to a straight denial that they have done anything wrong. Even if damaging information does eventually come out, the news agenda will have moved on and public interest will be slight.

I found it frustrating during the final weeks of the siege of Mosul, which went on for nine months, to know that there was very heavy civilian loss of life as Iraqi forces backed by air strikes closed in on the Old City, but it was impossible to prove it. I was in touch by mobile phone with two different individuals trapped behind Isis lines who faced the dilemma of either staying where they were and chance being killed by the bombardment, or trying to escape to government-held territory and risk being shot by Isis snipers.

The two men took different decisions, but neither of them survived. One was shot dead by Isis as he and his mother joined a group trying to escape across the Tigris using rubber tyres because they could not swim. A second man was wounded in one air strike and killed by a second in the last weeks of the siege. Most of the two men’s extended families were also dead by the time the siege ended.

Fortunately some reporters do go on looking at what really happened in battles like Mosul long after the rest of the media has shifted its attention elsewhere. Joel Wing, in the online journal Musings on Iraq, writes that fresh information on casualties raises “the total number of dead during the operation [to capture Mosul city and surrounding area] to 21,224 and 30,996 wounded. 17,404 of the former and 24,580 of the latter occurred in Mosul. The new numbers still highlighted the fact that there are many more undocumented casualties as the wounded should be four to six times higher than the fatalities figure. Even if you subtract the 5,325 people that were executed by the Islamic State, that would still mean there should be 60,000-90,000 injured from the fighting.”

The figure looks high but is credible, taking into account the use of conventional artillery and Russian multiple rocket-launchers in the attack on west Mosul. Casualties from air attack also went up because the rules on ground troops calling in air strikes were relaxed before the attack on west Mosul began. Isis was killing civilians who tried to escape from the shrinking Isis-held enclave and more people were confined in fewer houses so if one was hit the loss of life would be high.

Even before this happened many more civilians were being killed by air strikes than the US-led air coalition was admitting. The only way to get at the truth is to look at a large sample of air strikes on the ground and see if they were reported by the coalition and, if so, how accurate that reporting was.

This has now been done for the first time by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, who visited the sites of nearly 150 air strikes in northern Iraq between April 2016 and June 2017. In a lengthy study called “The Uncounted”, published in The New York Times on 16 November, they reached devastating conclusions. They write that “we found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledge by the coalition”. They add that when it comes to civilian deaths this “may be the least transparent war in recent American history”.

The coalition denied that many of the air strikes that had killed people had ever taken place, but the reporters found that there were videos of several of them on the coalition’s YouTube channel, though these claimed to show the destruction of Isis targets. When they pointed this out, the videos were quietly withdrawn.


The picture that the coalition presented of its air offensive turns out to be a fabrication. In one sample of a residential area called Qaiyara, near Mosul city, the coalition claimed it had killed only one civilian in or near the town and the Iraqi air force said it had killed nobody. It turned out that there had been 40 air strikes on this area which had killed 43 civilians, of whom 19 were men, eight women and 16 children aged 14 or younger. In about a third of fatal strikes Isis had been in close proximity to the civilians, but in half of the cases there had been no discernible Isis presence.

Where there was evidence of Isis it was often flimsy and out of date: in one case a family of six was wiped out aside from a two-year-old child because a local informant had once seen a mortar near their house though it had been moved long before the strike.

The significance of the study is great because for the first time it can be shown what is really happening in a series of wars in the Middle East starting with Afghanistan in 2001. There is no such thing as precision air strikes.

The coalition claimed that only one in 157 of its 14,000 air strikes in Iraq since 2014 have caused a civilian death, but the evidence on the ground shows the real rate to be one in five. The comforting claim by American and British air commanders that smart weapons enable them to avoid killing civilians is simply untrue

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Iraq, ISIS 
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  1. There is no such thing as precision air strikes….
    The comforting claim by American and British air commanders that smart weapons enable them to avoid killing civilians is simply untrue.

    Having been personally consulted by personnel from Dahlgren about how to minimize the size of weapons, I believe that the effort is being made, but the important truth is that the objective is impossible, at least until the Slaughterbots arrive.

    It is especially impossible given that, in response to the power of weapons, combatants (guerillas, etc. – whatever) are more and more taking cover among non-combatants. Only fools oppose a modern army in the open field without a larger more modern army.

    With some justification, one might take the cynical view that the efforts to minimize collateral damage are being made only so that military men can continue with their games unopposed by civilian overseers, but at least efforts are being made.

    Busy, busy, busy.

    • Replies: @gustafus
  2. gustafus says:

    WHO CARES? — It’s a cost effective way of ridding us of an enemy that is coming for us and our kids and grand kids.

    they breed like roaches and cling to beliefs that will embroil us in perpetual war ..while they use our equal protection laws to hide among us. This is no benign invasion in the west. This is WAR on us.

    I say kill em all over there… by any pretext…. just make sure you get the women and real children before they breed again or migrate as well.

    this is kill or be killed time… and those who don’t get it.. will get it….. and there won’t be anyone left to defend Western Civilization.


    Hell, I want CRISPR….. designer viruses… I am OVER the whole give peace a chance mantra. Goebbels? YOU BETCHA….

    Nazi? — hey, what ever works.

    Just kill em all…. quickly… and thoroughly.

    • Replies: @Jed Clampett
  3. gustafus says:
    @another fred

    Dead Muslims are not collateral damage… they are a necessary augment to traditional warfare.

    THEY BREED … THEY DO NOT EVOLVE…. and they don’t care if they die.

    This is kill or be killed time…. and if we don’t have the stomach for it – we perish.

  4. Now, why are we so concerned about the civilian casualties caused by violent Muslims fighting even more monstrously violent Muslims, when these civilians themselves overwhelmingly condone or tacitly support the violence inherent in their religion and political culture? I don’t care. Go ahead and sell them more expensive bombs.

  5. Kiza says:

    I cannot believe that anyone reads what this MI6 scumbag Cockburn still excretes, including his moronic quotes of other scumbags like he:

    “we found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledge by the coalition”

    Yes, I was wondering how many angels can dance on a tip of a sawing needle.

    This is the scumbag who wrote early on during the attack on Syria that he saw a crater of US bomb dropped on ISIS. I still laugh when I recall – we desperately needed an MI6 agent to tell us that US was actually bombing ISIS (or NOT).

  6. llloyd says: • Website

    I walked through Mosul in 2008. Some locals kindly accompanied me to the taxi terminal. I was startled then that so high a proportion of buildings were bomb damaged and unrepaired. There was a bomb explosion that shook everyone at the terminal. Everyone ducked, looked around and laughed. Many of those people must now be dead or refugees.

  7. Who cares? Muslims are not completely human.

    Muslims are ‘not completely human,’ Swedish politician claims, causing uproar

    Cuckburn Island is learning that lesson the hard way too.

    We Are Not Your Kind of People

    • Replies: @Grandpa Charlie
  8. bjondo says:

    the only precision needed by u.s.
    and the jew master
    is that the explosive
    destroying what jew hates.

  9. I thought the current approved practise was to declare all killed and wounded in a strike zone to be combatants.

    • Replies: @Talha
  10. Talha says:
    @The Alarmist

    Good point – I think the powers that be would like it that way, but it seems some intrepid reports on the ground won’t let that slide. It is really sad what happened to those innocents who may have been simply too poor to be able to afford bribing Daesh into allowing them to leave.

    And I think more evidence will come out as time progresses. Modern warfare is a fairly bloody affair – I’m a bit surprised that it was not more than this.

    May God have mercy on their souls. Peace.

  11. dearieme says:

    Strategic bombing in WWII wasn’t even hit and miss: it was nearly all miss.

    • Agree: another fred
  12. @gustafus

    I come from the part of the world which gave us the Hatfields and the McCoys. So, I’m very familiar with the idea that if someone killed your dad’s brother’s then two generations later there is still a guy with a shotgun waiting to kill their descendents.

    Its a total myth and fallacy that you can ever kill them all. But everyone of them that you kill will you will create a whole family of people who want to kill you.

    Unless maybe you want to claim that Muslims are more generous and forgiving than the devout mountain Christians I grew up around. Because among them if you killed someone then generations are going to be alive and gunning for you with bumper stickers that read “Forget Hell”.

  13. FireAnt says:

    “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is!”

  14. Anonymous [AKA "Everyone"] says:

    Smart bombs… but stupid people who build them and use them. It would be a better world with stupid bombs and smart people who do not build them and do not use them.

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