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Response to The New York Times’ “Civilian Casualty Files"

  • Published
  • By Prof. Stephen Renner

On December 19th, the New York Times published the first article in a multi-part investigative series called “The Civilian Casualty Files” that “examines the air war’s human toll.”1 The primary author, Azmat Khan, has conducted on-the-ground interviews over the past five years in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan to assess the validity of US-led air strikes in those countries. Ms. Khan recounts stories of people who have suffered grievous deaths in their families from operations against the Islamic States in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Taliban. The details are heart-breaking, and Ms. Khan’s accounts should be widely read, by the people who advocate the use of western air power against insurgents and terrorists, as well as by those airmen and soldiers charged with the task.

After reading Ms. Khan’s wrenching accounts, however, one might well wonder why Americans would have visited such wanton destruction on (primarily) Iraqi and Syrian cities and villages. The series’ tight focus on “the air war’s human toll” means that the rationale for the air war is so blurred as to be invisible. But in the critical years 2014-2016 the New York Times editorial board viewed with clear eyes the nature of the ISIS caliphate and called for its destruction. Let us honor Samuel Johnson by reminding ourselves of the context in which these civilian casualties occurred.

  • The counter-ISIS coalition was engaged in a high-intensity war against a brutal enemy that at its largest extent ruled an area roughly the size of Virginia: 40,000 square miles with 10 million inhabitants. From the NYT’s editorial “The Islamic State’s Most Recent Victims,” February 28, 2015:

Reports of atrocities by the Islamic State never cease. Entire villages in northeastern Syria are being emptied of Assyrian Christians, with hundreds taken hostage and others made to pay a religion tax; priceless antiquities are destroyed in Mosul, Iraq, in a symbolic fight against pagan gods; Egyptian Christians are beheaded in Libya…It seems sometimes as if a band of fanatics has emerged from the dark ages to wage war on the present, starting at the cradle of civilization and deploying civilization's own technologies against it…ISIS is an extremist band of murderers parading as Islamic purists, and does not discriminate in its choice of enemies. It has killed countless Muslims, including Sunnis who purportedly share its faith but refuse to accept its authority. Its ideology is simple: Anyone who does not accept its commands can be tortured, raped or killed.2

  • ISIS deliberately tortured, raped, and murdered civilians on a regular basis as a matter of policy. From the NYT’s editorial, “The Crimes of Terrorists,” April 3, 2015:

The Islamic State's campaign of religious and cultural cleansing has shocked the world and terrified the peoples of Iraq and Syria who don't fit into the group's fanatical vision of a neo-Islamist caliphate… There is broad international consensus that the Islamic State deserves to face judgment for its crimes…A chilling report released on March 19 by the United Nations Human Rights Council -- also urging the Security Council to refer the Islamic State to the I.C.C. -- documents a litany of serious crimes, including executions, rapes, forced conversions, torture and enslavement, as well as the systematic destruction of churches, shrines and mosques.3

  • The Iraqi Body Count project attributes more than 23,000 civilian deaths to ISIS from April 2014 to October 2016 (an average of 773 civilian deaths per month), when the battle to retake Mosul began.4 It was ISIS that “brought terror and tragedy” to Iraqi “civilians on the ground,” not western “airstrikes [that] allowed America to wage war with minimal risk to its troops,” as the deeply misguided subhead to Ms. Khan’s article “The Human Toll of America’s Air Wars” asserts.5
  • The US-led coalition was fighting as an equal partner with the Iraqi Security Forces, and all coalition air strikes conducted in Iraq were approved by an Iraqi general officer or his delegate. Furthermore, “the overwhelming majority of strikes [that] were carried out in the heat of the war, and not planned far in advance”were initiated at the request of the Iraqi forces directly confronting ISIS fighters.6 
  • Numbers matter: The NYT solicited from Central Command 1,311 of 2,866 reports of possible civilian casualties in Operation Inherent Resolve, 216 of which CENTCOM had deemed credible. Ms. Khan’s reporting is based on her team’s visits to the sites of 103 air strikes, one-fifth of which had some evidence of civilian casualties. Those may seem like large numbers, until one considers that the total number of munitions delivered from the air by coalition aircraft (which does not include ISF attack helicopters or artillery, or the rockets fired by Iranian-supported militias) in the fight against ISIS through 2019 was in excess of 118,000.7

Finally, the opinion of the unnamed “former high-level American official in the campaign against ISIS”notwithstanding, process and precision are absolutely critical to understanding the air war in Iraq and Syria.8  There is a huge moral, legal, and operational gulf between the Russian bombing in Aleppo, executed “without the American military’s sophisticated considerations of proportionality--the collateral damage estimates, no-strike lists or rules of engagement,” and US-led attacks in Raqqa, which featured all of those sophisticated considerations along with the employment of most precise and low-yield munitions available.9 The official’s statement (which seems to reflect Ms. Khan’s own feelings) that “It doesn’t matter that this was the most precise bombing campaign and the city looks like ” is baffling.10 Can he really see no difference between a block of buildings destroyed in a single strike on the strength of a single decision with the largest weapon close to hand, and the same buildings destroyed in dozens of strikes, each requested and planned separately, allocated a weapon of the smallest sufficient strength, assigned to the most appropriate aircraft, adjudicated by an operational lawyer, and approved by a senior officer? If that distinction is beyond him, the future of all civilians on the ground is in jeopardy.

Prof. Stephen Renner 

Stephen Renner is the chair of the Strategy Department at the Air War College. His chapter “Air Power in the Battle of Mosul” appears in Air Power in the Age of Primacy (eds. Haun, Jackson, Schultz; Cambridge University Press, 2022)



1. Azmat Khan, “Hidden Files Bare Military Failures in Deadly Strikes,” New York Times, Dec. 19, 2021,

2. “The Islamic State’s Most Recent Victims,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 2015,

3. “The Crimes of Terrorists,” New York Times, Apr. 3, 2015,

4. “Documented civilian deaths from violence,” Iraq Body Count, accessed Jan. 5, 2022,

5. Azmat Khan, “The Human Toll of America’s Air Wars,” New York Times, Dec. 19, 2021,

6. Michael Levenson, “What to Know About the Civilian Casualty Files,” New York Times, Dec. 18, 2021,

7. “Combined Forces Air Component Commander 2016-2021 Airpower Statistics,” AFCENT,, and “Combined Forces Air Component Commander 2012-2017 Airpower Statistics,” AFCENT,, both accessed Jan. 5, 2022.

8. Khan, “Hidden Files.”

9. Khan, “Hidden Files.”

10. Khan, “Hidden Files.”

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