The US is being dishonest about civilian deaths in the fight against ISIS

New leaks shed light on a secretive operation at the heart of America's bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq

epa07961150 A screengrab from a handout military drone video made available by the US Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) shows the compound of ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during the US forces (bottom) raid, northwestern Syria, 26 October 2019 (Issued 30 October 2019). US Forces killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of ISIS, in northwest Syria on 26 October 2019.  EPA/DVIDS HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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In 2015, US Air Force chief of staff Gen Mark Welsh issued a statement 15 months into the US air campaign against ISIS, in which he said America was "expending munitions faster than we can replenish them". In non-military parlance, he was essentially saying the US was hitting so many targets that it was running out of bombs.

The case to fight ISIS this aggressively was strong, with the ultimate goal of freeing civilians from its terror. But with such abundant firepower at its disposal, and with ISIS heavily embedded in civilian areas, the campaign came with a huge responsibility to protect innocent lives, exercise restraint and ensure accountability when mistakes were made, as they inevitably were.

It is increasingly clear that the US-led coalition did not always live up to the responsibility. Assurances that technology, drones and "smart bombs" would allow for more "targeted killing" proved shaky. The results have been inexcusable. Keeping innocent people safe, after all, is not technology's job. Behind every bomb-laden drone and high-tech fighter jet is a human operator and a human chain of command in whose judgement lies the difference between life and death for civilians unlucky enough to find themselves on the ground.

This is where the failure and scandal of "Talon Anvil" lies, a secret American unit that operated in Iraq and subsequently Syria between 2014 to 2019. Manned in large part by relatively low-ranking US special forces soldiers, Talon Anvil was tasked with conducting many of the 100,000 American-led coalition strikes against ISIS throughout the course of the war. Recent leaks to The New York Times by military and intelligence officials reveal that strikes the unit ordered regularly broke rules of engagement and killed innocent people; many of the 1,410 civilians killed by coalition strikes during the five-year period, therefore, had their fates decided in a small office, often staffed by fewer than 20 soldiers. One officer working for the unit claimed innocent casualties were "part of the job".

The leaks and allegations would point to a huge failing by the US military, and a betrayal of the strict standards by which it claims to hold itself. Senior officials from the Pentagon, CIA and US Air Force claim to have been shocked by the aggression of Talon Anvil, and yet, little seems to have been done to rein the unit during its five years of existence. Ignorance of the crimes committed by this group is equally unacceptable.

The entire command chain is, therefore, responsible for the unit, much like it is in an ongoing wider institutional failure to guarantee accountability in military operations. This week, the Pentagon said no US military personnel would be disciplined for a drone strike in Afghanistan in August that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, even though an earlier internal investigation said the tragedy was caused by a series of errors.

Civilian casualties are inevitable in war, but systematic attacks that lead to widespread deaths cannot be acceptable. The US is also failing to tell the truth about its campaigns and failing to live up to the promises it uses to legitimise its actions. Talon Anvil represents a dereliction of responsibility, but also a reflection of impunity that has led to the destruction of too many lives. Battling ISIS and extremist ideology requires a respect for life, which seems to have been missing in too many instances.

Published: December 15, 2021, 3:00 AM