Editorial: The rising civilian death toll in the campaign against Islamic State

The U.S. military campaign against Islamic State, which began in 2014 as a humanitarian effort in Iraq and quickly escalated to a major military commitment in both that country and Syria, is entering what could be a decisive phase. With its regional allies, the U.S. is making significant progress toward the goal enunciated by former President Obama: to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the self-styled caliphate. Soon the offshoot of Al Qaeda may be dislodged from two cities it controls: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqah in Syria.

But as the U.S. and its allies approach that objective, civilian casualties have increased dramatically. Airwars, a nonproft group that monitors casualties from airstrikes in the campaign against Islamic State and other groups, reports that more than 1,000 civilian noncombatant deaths have been alleged from coalition actions across Iraq and Syria in March.

This week Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commanding general of the campaign against Islamic State, acknowledged that a March 17 air strike by the U.S.-led coalition probably destroyed an apartment block in Mosul in which 200 people died. The Iraqi army originally had blamed the deaths on improvised explosive devices planted by Islamic State, but on Wednesday Iraqi Gen. Talib Shaghati Kenani said it was clear that the devastating explosion was the result of a U.S. airstrike. He insisted, however, that the troops that requested it didn’t realize civilians were present.

Obviously, a full investigation needs to be made of this and other incidents in which civilians have died, and compensation must be paid to the families of the victims.


The larger imperative for the U.S. and its allies is to ensure that civilian casualties are minimized. That will obviously be harder than it was at earlier stages in the campaign when airstrikes were targeting Islamic State positions in remote areas.

Human rights activists have expressed concern about a decision by the Pentagon in December to allow U.S. military advisors to call in airstrikes more quickly, rather than go through a “strike cell” at headquarters. It’s not clear that there is any connection between that decision and the increase in civilian casualties, but an additional layer of accountability strikes us as appropriate when airstrikes are being launched in an urban setting.

So far, despite all the derisive attacks he made as a candidate on the former administration’s Islamic State strategy, President Trump has done little to change that approach. Now, ominously, he plans a comprehensive review of the current battle plan that could include relaxing the rules of engagement. Complicating the Pentagon’s calculations is the fact that Americans are involved in the war against Islamic State not only as pilots and advisers but as warriors in harm’s way — even if they aren’t formally designated as such.

But even when Americans are on the front lines, the highest traditions of the U.S. armed forces include protecting the lives of innocent civilians. It’s important that the U.S. adhere to those values in this conflict — and insist that its allies do the same.

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