By Karen Kelly
Photos by Bryan Gagnon
The United States drone strike on Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January underscored America’s significant reliance on airstrikes to kill targets in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen.
But while technology-guided drone strikes and bombings are lauded by the military for their precision and accuracy, that same technology offers a ready-made excuse for the unintended, predictable, and frequently unacknowledged killing of civilians in these regions.
“When an airstrike goes wrong, it’s often presented as a technical error,” says Wilke, an Associate Professor of Law and Legal Studies. “But whether a strike killed civilians or not is often disputed between the US and Coalition forces and independent investigators. Technology can’t solve this problem because there is no agreement on who should be considered a civilian.”
Wilke has found that “vagueness and uncertainty” permeate many features of an errant airstrike, including how the targets were identified and how many civilians were actually killed.
The legality of these airstrikes within international law is another topic Wilke and others have researched, but her latest work focuses on civilian deaths. She pieces the stories together by combing through redacted U.S. military documents, then comparing them with reports from the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, as well as media coverage.
Identifying from the Sky
Wilke has found that “most civilian casualties result from misidentifications: aircrews mistook civilian gatherings and buildings for legitimate military targets.” She cites, for instance, the 2015 bombing attack on a Doctors without Borders clinic in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
“U.S. forces planned to strike a nearby building that had been taken over by Taliban fighters,” wrote Wilke, who notes that the clinic was on a “no strike list.” “But when the aircrew tried to plot the target coordinates…their systems pointed to an open field between the intended target and the medical building. So they picked the clinic and shelled it for an hour. 42 people were killed and 37 were injured.”
Wilke says it is clear the strike was unintended, but it’s indicative of a larger problem: the difficulty in accurately identifying targets. This is something that more advanced technology, for example high resolution cameras, will not be able to fix.
“The crew…convinced themselves that the people on the ground were insurgents. Their failure to identify civilians is part of a broader propensity of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan to see Afghan men as hostile,” she explains, noting that men are often described as “military-age” males. “The technologies of aerial vision and violence amplify the effects of fears and stereotypes, of fantasies of Afghans as inherently hostile, and of reckless decision-making.”
Through a survey of United Nations reports, Wilke has identified 2,954 Afghan civilian deaths caused by airstrikes between 2008 and 2018. But she says those numbers are conservative.
“It’s very hard to count casualties: the UN relies on media and local reports and witnesses and they try not to over-count,” says Wilke. “At the same time, the United States is very actively counting low numbers and challenging the UN reports on their higher numbers.”
Wilke says it’s particularly difficult in places like Syria where there are no witnesses who are readily believed by US and other forces involved in airstrikes.
“In Syria, there is a lot of fighting from the air and we only learn of civilian casualties because neighbours take photos or videos and upload them on to YouTube,” she explains. “Lots of claims get thrown out because the U.S. rejects them. You wonder, if there are no American forces to verify an attack, did it actually happen?”
Wilke says that when the United States accepts responsibility for an attack, as with the 2015 bombing of the medical clinic, it is understood as a “tragic incident” but usually not as a violation of international law, let alone a war crime.
She points out that impunity for airstrikes is not just a US problem: Since the 1990s, no NATO soldier or official has been prosecuted for authorizing or participating in an aerial bombing. When the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court considered investigating Afghanistan, it focused primarily on suicide attacks, IEDs, torture, and targeted killings, and declined to consider airstrikes as possible war crimes.
According to Wilke’s article in the academic blog Public Seminar: “Referencing two cases that resulted in dozens of civilian casualties, the (prosecutor) determined that the available information “does not provide a reasonable basis to believe that the military forces intended the civilian population, as such, or individual civilians not taking part in the hostilities, to be the object of the attack.”
In fact, Wilke does not dispute that: she says it’s clear the United States military aims to lower the number of civilian casualties. Yet this goal sometimes seems to entail undercounting casualties or not recognizing men as civilians.
“Since 2009, they’ve said their presence in Afghanistan is not about killing the enemy, but more about winning hearts and minds. And when they recognize that they killed civilians, there’s a standardized language of regret, of tragedy, and there is compensation for the community,” says Wilke. “But the concern about civilian lives and deaths is strategic, and as soon as civilian deaths are not considered as important, more civilians are being killed. According to the UN, the number of civilians killed in airstrikes has spiked dramatically in 2019.”
This semester, Wilke is teaching research methods to third-year undergraduates in Law and Legal Studies. They’re studying airstrike reports from the U.S., the UN, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to compare the numbers of civilians killed and the evidence used. The students discuss how the concepts of international law can be used to legitimize the violence of airstrikes.
One of the overarching conclusions Wilke has drawn after years of research is this: “The way lives and deaths are not seen or counted shows us that the lives in those countries are less valued. It’s troubling that people in the West don’t acknowledge so much of the violence committed in their name.”
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