The Pentagon said Tuesday that the U.S. military will never know the exact number of civilians it has killed in the fight against the Islamic State, an admission that comes as the human rights group Amnesty International accuses the United States and its allies of having recklessly killed thousands of civilians in the battle to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa.
U.S. Army Col. Thomas Veale, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said that despite the U.S. military’s best efforts to assess civilian casualties, no one will ever know exactly how many civilians U.S. strikes have killed since the fight began in 2014.
“As far as how do we know how many civilians were killed, I am just being honest, no one will ever know,” Veale said in a briefing at the Pentagon by video link from Baghdad. “Anyone who claims they will know is lying, and there’s no possible way.”
Veale described civilian deaths as a result of U.S. and allied airstrikes as “extremely unfortunate” and “a terrible, awful part of this war” against the Islamic State. He said the determinations are based on the best evidence the military possesses.
The comments come as the U.S. military faces fresh criticism over airstrikes killing civilians in a war now in its fourth year.
Amnesty International released a report that accused the U.S. military of causing widespread civilian deaths over the four-month campaign to retake control of the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, even though military leaders presented the operation as the product of precise and careful targeting.
The report, titled “War of Annihilation” in a reference to a phrase used by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, said the U.S. military and its partners relied on airstrikes and artillery barrages to retake the city, knowing that those tactics would result in large numbers of civilian deaths.
“There is strong evidence that Coalition air and artillery strikes killed and injured thousands of civilians, including in disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks that violated international humanitarian law and are potential war crimes,” the human rights organization wrote in a summary of its report.
Amnesty’s report is based on a two-week visit by researchers to 42 strike locations and interviews with 112 witnesses and survivors. It documents in particular the stories of four families in Raqqa, including airstrike survivor Rasha Badran, who describes losing 39 members of her family in four airstrikes the report said were conducted by the U.S.-led coalition.
“After several attempts to flee, she and her husband finally managed to escape, having lost their entire family, including their only child, a one-year-old girl named Tulip, whose tiny body they buried near a tree,” the summary of the report said.
Speaking at the Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Veale said the Amnesty report underscored the human tragedy of a war that was brought on by “an evil criminal organization that at its peak subjected 7.7 million Iraqis and Syrians to its brutal rule.” He said that thanks to the U.S.-led coalition, those people and their homes had been liberated.
“We adhere to a meticulous targeting and strike process that always aims to minimize harm to noncombatants and civilian infrastructure,” he said.
Veale said the report’s authors failed to check the public record, get facts straight or consult the military on their conclusions. He said his biggest objection was the prima facie argument that the United States had violated international law.
“They are literally judging us guilty until proven innocent,” Veale said. “That’s a bold rhetorical move by an organization that fails to check the public record or consult the accused.”
Since intervening to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the U.S. military has opted to work primarily through proxy forces on the ground. The approach has helped minimize the number of American troops killed during the fight, but it has also required a particularly heavy reliance on air power to aid the proxy forces on the ground. Many of those strikes have resulted in civilian casualties.
The U.S. military has been tracking civilian casualties in its fight against the Islamic State. The Pentagon recently said the U.S. military killed approximately 500 civilians in 2017 in all its military operations, including those in Iraq and Syria. The United States and its partners conducted more than 10,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State in that year alone.
Human rights groups and investigative reports, however, have repeatedly raised questions about the accuracy of the numbers released by the Pentagon, with some arguing that it is nearly impossible for so few civilians to be dying given the number and scope of the airstrikes the military is reporting.
Airwars, an organization that tracks casualty allegations using publicly available information and research, reported this year that the United States and its allies may have killed as many as 6,000 civilians in strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2017.
One report in the New York Times Magazine last year documented how an airstrike that the Pentagon described as an attack on an Islamic State car-bomb production facility in the Iraqi city of Mosul in fact destroyed two homes and struck the civilians inside.