U.S. military commanders covered up an airstrike over Syria that killed several dozen civilians, dishonestly portraying it as a successful attack against ISIS fighters and ignoring firm recommendations—filed by military lawyers—to investigate the strike as a war crime.
The attack and subsequent cover-up—revealed in a long, extensively documented story in this weekend’s New York Times—took place in 2019, during the final phase of the U.S. and allied campaign to oust the Islamic State from its self-declared caliphate in Syria.
The Times report comes a few months after the final U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan in August, which Pentagon officials touted as halting a terrorist attack—but which in fact, as another Times investigation soon revealed, killed 10 civilians, none of whom had any connection to terrorists. (Seven of the 10 were children.)
Together, the two reports raise questions about the moral and strategic wisdom of launching airstrikes in areas where civilians and fighters routinely mix. These questions have been raised many times in the course of America’s 20-year “global war on terror.” But now that President Joe Biden has scaled back that war and declared the longest of those wars, in Afghanistan, to be over, it is time for a basic reassessment.
On March 19, 2019, analysts monitoring the high-resolution video stream from a drone flying over the Syrian town of Baghuz identified a crowd of people huddled against a riverbank as civilians, many of them women and children. Suddenly, an F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb. Minutes later, another jet dropped two 2,000-pound bombs. (These are the sorts of bombs often used to demolish whole buildings believed to harbor enemy fighters or terrorists.) The death toll was estimated at 70, later revised to 80. According to the Times:
A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.
The questions surrounding airstrikes are nothing new. The age of air power began in World War II. U.S. and British air forces initially tried to bomb specific targets in Nazi Germany—factories, power plants, military formations, among others—but this proved impossible, owing to cloud cover and the nature of the bombs themselves, which could be blown off course by strong winds. So commanders altered the rationale of bombing, saying that the target was “enemy morale”—meaning every bomb was successful, as long as it hit something. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in these bombing raids. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the commander of the firebombing raids over Japan, later said that if the U.S. had lost the war, he would have been tried as a war criminal.
The Vietnam War saw the development of guided bombs, but they still frequently veered away from targets. Even during the 1991 Gulf War, new so-called smart bombs sometimes proved less than brilliant, since laser beams, which the bombs followed to the target, could be refracted or distorted by smoke and other environmental factors.*
The revolution came with the Afghanistan war, which coincided with the invention of armed drones guided by the signals from GPS satellites. Air crews simply punched in the latitude and longitude of the target; the drone-fired missile or bomb homed in precisely to that spot. The science fiction fantasy of pinpoint bombing from remote distances became a reality—a reality all too tempting to exploit.
By the time Barack Obama became president, armed drones were in mass production, and the infrastructure of drone strikes—imaging networks, monitoring stations, and trained joystick pilots—was in place. This fit perfectly with Obama’s philosophy of military power, which involved killing “high-value” terrorists without sending in thousands of ground troops. In Afghanistan, where he did send troops, drones were seen as “force multipliers,” making the killing of al-Qaida leaders more efficient.
In short order, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Obama came to rely too heavily on drones, permitting U.S. commanders to use the wonder weapons to kill not just top-rank terrorists but humdrum militia fighters as well. (In his second term, Obama, recognizing this, dialed back on drone strikes.)
The drones also fostered the illusion that they were killing only bad guys. Smart bombs rarely missed their targets, but sometimes the targets were poorly chosen—as a result of mistaken intelligence (the victims turned out to be innocent civilians, not terrorists) or deliberate misinformation (warlords told their American contact that some rival tribesmen were al-Qaida).
It is still not clear why U.S. commanders in Afghanistan approved the Aug. 29 drone strike on a vehicle that they thought was carrying a bomb, which they thought an ISIS fighter was going to detonate at the Kabul airport where planes were evacuating people out of the country in the final days before America’s departure. Video footage revealed that the car carried no bombs and that the car’s driver was not an ISIS fighter but rather an aid worker. (The Pentagon has since admitted its mistake.)
Nor is it clear why, on March 18, 2019, three U.S. attack jets dropped those 4,500 pounds’ worth of explosives on a group of people huddled near a riverbank. The pilots were relying on low-resolution imagery, which led them to assume that the people—who had come from Baghuz, one of the last ISIS holdouts—were radical jihadis. Apparently, they didn’t know—or didn’t take the trouble to find out—that a high-resolution drone had identified these people as civilians. In any case, even the low-res images should have indicated that the people posed no immediate threat to U.S. or allied military personnel—and so, according to the laws of warfare, there was no need to strike them with bombs, much less with a pair of 2,000-pound bombs.
The Baghuz episode was exacerbated by another trend in the American way of war: the rise of the U.S. Special Operations Command as a powerful, near-autonomous force. The vast number of American casualties in the Iraq war—4,418 killed, 31,994 wounded—made politicians much less willing to send large combat units into battle. Instead, they sent in small units of special forces—and gave special forces commanders greater leeway for their elite status and sacrifice. And because their operations were often secret, special forces were kept apart from conventional chains of command.
The two planes that dropped the bombs on the Syrian civilians outside Baghuz were operated by Task Force 9, a special operations unit that, as the Times reported, “operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions.” Apparently, Task Force 9 didn’t know about the high-res drone images, which could have told them that the people were civilians. Nor did the analysts monitoring those images know anything about Task Force 9—or its two attack jets.
Though the Times report didn’t say so, the incident might also have been the result of the Trump administration’s relaxed supervision of airstrikes. In the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Obama set clear rules of engagement forbidding airstrikes unless a commander was fairly confident that no civilians were in the area. When Trump entered office, he was eager to end the war quickly. His first secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, announced a “new strategy” to do so, but the only thing new about it was a decision to drop more bombs more quickly. With Mattis’ encouragement, Trump let commanders set criteria and make judgments on their own. Under Obama, even with restrictions in place, U.S. and allied airstrikes killed an average 80 civilians per month. In Trump’s first six months, these strikes killed 360 civilians per month.
The airstrikes near Baghuz took place just days before ISIS’s military collapse. The needless casualties were, in part, the result of Trump’s demand for a speedy victory—which encouraged a certain amount of carelessness—and the Special Operations Command’s autonomy.
Quite aside from the peculiarities of this incident, the whole enterprise of airstrikes—whether launched by pilots flying over the target or by joystick crews maneuvering drones from halfway around the world—is inherently fraught with risk to the people being struck. Mishaps are inevitable, because the person dropping the bomb (or remotely driving the drone) isn’t on the scene. One could posit a mathematical relationship: The more that the bombardiers avoid risk to themselves, the more risk they impose on the people below.
It is asking too much for commanders and presidents to subject their own armed forces to greater risk. Military history is, in some ways, the story of a competition in risk reduction. Archaeologists have dated the first longbow—which allowed soldiers to shoot arrows from a far enough distance that the enemy soldiers couldn’t fire back—to around 3300 B.C. In modern times, the inventions of the artillery cannon, the missile, the bomber plane, and the drone have been driven by the same impulse.
Two things have been clear through this history. First, whatever advantage one country gains in this competition, other countries eventually catch up. Second, as the long-range weapons have grown more destructive, civilians get in the way of the fight. These things will remain true as long as nations compete with rivals and occasionally go to war. The best way to reduce the number of civilians killed in wars is to be less careless about getting into wars in the first place.
Correction, Nov. 16, 2021: This piece originally misstated that bombs in the Gulf War followed radar beams to their targets. They followed laser beams.