The Pentagon will face stricter operating and reporting rules under the major defense authorization bill heading to the White House for President Trump’s signature, as U.S. military leaders find themselves under fire for what critics say is a failure to account for and minimize civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes and military operations.
The latest rules, adopted in the House and Senate compromise version of the Pentagon’s $716 billion budget blueprint for next fiscal year, were introduced after the Trump administration moved to ease the restrictions and rules of engagement that Mr. Trump said hampered the fight against the Taliban, Islamic State and other groups.
Among the biggest changes: Lawmakers are requiring the appointment of a senior civilian official inside the Pentagon to “develop, coordinate, and oversee compliance with the policy of the Department [of Defense] relating to civilian casualties resulting from United States military operations.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, praised the massive defense authorization bill, which includes a major budget boost for U.S. military services, sanctions on Chinese telecommunications companies and a pay raise for troops.
The Senate met a deadline to pass the compromise measure before beginning its summer recess at the end of the week. The bill, which is named for ailing Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, passed on an 87-10 vote.
The bill does not fund Mr. Trump’s request for a space force as an independent service branch but authorizes a military parade he wants in Washington in November.
Under the bill, the Defense Department watchdog over U.S. air combat operations will report to Congress on commanders’ efforts to reduce civilian deaths tied to air combat missions. A mandatory progress report is due six months after the bill becomes law.
House lawmakers approved the compromise bill last week, and the Senate is expected to follow suit later this month.
U.S. military commanders and administration officials have chafed at increased civilian oversight of American and allied-led air operations. They say the Pentagon and the services already have rigorous policies to limit civilian deaths.
But Mr. Trump, in one of his first policy shifts since taking over the White House last year, approved a Pentagon plan to allow U.S. and coalition commanders battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to give lower-level officers more discretion to order strikes. The move allowed junior officers to greenlight airstrikes rather than seek approval from higher command.
Early this year, Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly considered revising the rules of engagement to raise the “acceptable” number of estimated collateral civilian casualties to authorize a U.S. or allied airstrike. Such a policy would give U.S. commanders a freer hand in ordering strikes against Islamic State targets.
Critics argued that streamlining the decision-making process for such missions increased the chances of civilian casualties.
Private attempts to catalog civilian casualties from U.S. and allied operations in Iraq and Syria have varied widely from the “official” estimates.
An independent survey by The Associated Press in December put the number of civilian casualties at 9,000 to 11,000 in the vicious urban fighting in Mosul. That was 10 times what had been officially reported, and at least a third of those deaths resulted from coalition or Iraqi bombardments.
In its latest survey of civilian casualties, the U.S.-led coalition operating under Operation Inherent Resolve said in a July 26 statement that the nearly 30,000 airstrikes conducted from August 2014 to June 2018 against Islamic State had resulted in “at least 1,059 civilians [who] have been unintentionally killed.”
“We are willing to work with all who bring allegations of civilian casualties to us, and we seek new or additional information or evidence through public sources, eyewitness accounts or self-reports,” the statement said.
A brutal enemy
As the war against Islamic State played out in Syria and northern Iraq in 2017 and 2018, it turned out that both arguments were correct.
It was the blistering U.S. and allied air campaign, backing a combination of Iraqi, Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria, that led to the fall last year of the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa — the main pillars in Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate. But that successful air campaign was marred by human rights groups’ charges of unacceptably high civilian casualties resulting from the strategy.
In March, three separate U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq, including one in the western Mosul neighborhood of al-Jadida, reportedly leveled several buildings and left hundreds of Iraqi civilians dead. The U.N. human rights directorate determined that at least 140 Iraqi civilians were killed in al-Jadida.
Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria, acknowledged that there was “a fair chance” a U.S. airstrike played a role in the destruction and carnage resulting from the al-Jadida strike.
“We probably had a role in those casualties,” the general told reporters at the Pentagon at the time. He said “the enemy had a hand in this,” suggesting Islamic State’s use of civilians as human shields and questioning why so many civilians would voluntarily gather in a single building under assault by American air power.
Even with the campaign sharply winding down, U.S. and coalition commanders confirmed that 105 civilians had been killed in July as a result of American and allied airstrikes against Islamic State targets.
“The coalition makes every effort to avoid civilian deaths on the battlefield,” British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, deputy commander of strategy and support for the U.S.-led coalition, said Tuesday.
“But the reality of the fight against ISIS … has made it impossible to avoid a risk to the civilian population” during such operations, the two-star general told reporters at the Pentagon.
The general contended that every coalition airstrike against Islamic State targets was subjected to “a detailed assessment and validation to ensure that it was militarily necessary and to assess the risk to the civilian populations.”
When asked, in retrospect, whether coalition commanders had been too aggressive, Gen. Gedney replied emphatically: “Absolutely not.”
After the al-Jadida bombing, U.S. Central Command established its own oversight panel to track civilian casualties but was soon flooded daily with claims of deaths from American operations.
After the loss of Mosul and Raqqa, remaining Islamic State fighters have been corralled into small pockets of territory along the Iraqi-Syrian border. As a result, American airstrikes have dropped significantly in both countries.
Roughly 260 to 460 civilians were killed as a result of American air power against Islamic State targets, all in Syria in the first six months of this year, according to figures compiled by Airwars, a nonprofit research group focused on tracking civilian casualties tied to the offensive.
Those figures represented a nearly 90 percent drop in casualties from the first six months of last year, “which included the battle for west Mosul and the start of coalition operations in Raqqa,” Airwars said.
The majority of civilian deaths this year were centered in the Deir el-Zour and al-Hasakah governorates of Syria, where Islamic State still holds sway.
Although the number of casualties has fallen, congressional lawmakers were intent on preventing more mistakes.
The civilian watchdog at the Pentagon will not just certify general compliance to standing policies to prevent civilian casualties. The official will also help draft “uniform processes and standards across the combatant commands” to report, record and investigate all credible reports of civilian deaths tied to U.S. operations, according to the Senate draft of the legislation.
The official will also establish a system, across the combatant commands, for U.S. claims of responsibility of civilian casualties and whether families of victims are to be compensated.
Under current rules, claims of responsibility and victim payments are at the discretion of each combat command, which differs in each area of responsibility. That process makes it harder to gain an overview of how many civilian deaths are caused by U.S. forces and how much compensation is paid out.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.