A convoy of US forces armoured vehicles drives near the village of Yalanli, on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij, on March 5, 2017.Delil Souleiman / AFP / Getty

Every now and again, an article is published about something you know you should know, but don't want to know.

“The Uncounted,”Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal’s groundbreaking piece about the civilians killed in the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State—and the considerable gap between their tally of such deaths and the numbers reported by the Pentagon—is one of them. We cannot speak to the precise data, but their New York Times Magazine piece, and the verified tragedy of the Razzo family at its center, are emblematic of a bigger story that unfortunately rings true.

Basim Razzo was a member of one of the oldest families in Mosul, and the article recounts the night he woke up to find his roof collapsed and home destroyed—the result of an American bomb. Though Razzo himself survived, the attack took from him his wife and daughter, and the story chronicles his investigation into why it occurred. He finds, to his horror, that his house was deliberately targeted; American drones had monitored it for three days before striking, apparently acting on outdated reports that it was an ISIS command center.  The drone footage failed to confirm those reports. It also failed to refute them. That, apparently, was sufficient for the U.S. military to proceed.

The Times story is one of faulty intelligence driving wrong-headed assumptions that decimate innocent lives and embitter survivors. It is a story about how a legal and bureaucratic fog can make it almost impossible for tragic mistakes to come to light, too often leaving instead a false sense of comfort that such mistakes never happened at all. And it is a story about a policy that warrants honest discussion, and change. We both worked with that policy up close. In the Obama White House, one of us was responsible for human rights, the other for coordinating the counter-ISIS campaign. In this respect, we were part of an administration that fell short.

At the outset, two points. First, painful lessons of the article aside, the U.S. military is staffed up and down its ranks with officers who care about and seek to protect innocent life. Likewise, President Obama and his senior National Security Council team were convinced of the moral and strategic importance of preserving civilian life in conflict, understood transparency as important to democratic accountability, and were committed to operating within the rule of law.

Second, the Times article carries the unmistakable implication that things will get worse. The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Some answers are relatively straightforward because they have to do with them rather than with us: ISIS hid among civilians, used them as human shields, and did what it needed to do either to deter coalition airstrikes or ensure they would come at high cost. Like al-Qaeda, ISIS presents the well-known but difficult dilemma of how to deal with non-uniformed combatants. Exposing innocents to harm is at the core of their tactics, and exaggerating those harms to generate public outrage is at the front of their playbook.

Yet those explanations go only so far. War by its very nature presents wrenching choices, but those choices—some at the policy level, others at the operational one—need to be made, and all can have momentous implications for civilians. In making the critical decision to use military force, a government crosses a threshold into a zone where imprecision and uncertainty, both bearing on innocent people’s lives, will infect every level of decision making. How much tolerance is there for civilian casualties within legal limits? How does one identify a target? What standard of reliability should be applied to making such a determination? Once that decision is reached, what procedures are in place to verify it was correct, and to make amends and provide compensation if it was not?

What the Times story tells us is how in Iraq (but surely in other theaters as well) those imprecisions and uncertainties too often cost innocent people their lives, and then led their deaths to be unacknowledged. Broad criteria for who or what could be targeted were superimposed upon imperfect systems for identifying those targets, which were exacerbated by the opacity of after-action verification and reparation procedures. All of this was compounded by a natural tendency to give U.S. military operators the benefit of the doubt. So should a question arise about what actually happened, the Pentagon was unlikely to classify casualties as civilians absent a high level of certainty. Basim Razzo’s family was doubly victimized by this process, which both led them to be wrongly targeted and then made their devastating losses too easy to ignore.

The issue was aggravated by the type of struggle the United States has chosen to conduct in Iraq and Syria and in which, one can reasonably predict, it will again be engaged in the foreseeable future. This is not the kind of counterterrorism effort that focuses on targeting individuals deemed to present a direct and imminent threat to the United States, which is where Obama tried to guide U.S. actions in theaters away from hot battlefields, such as Somalia or Yemen. Rather, the counter-ISIS campaign aims to degrade and defeat the organization as a whole, deeming its very existence a danger to America’s security. There were civilian casualties and reports of undercounting in the former cases as well, of course. But the magnitude inevitably increased as the scope and goal of the battle expanded, and the strategic imperative of keeping civilian casualties to an absolute minimum receded.

Nor was this a typical counterinsurgency, for it didn’t entail the sizeable U.S. ground presence that was a hallmark of operations in Afghanistan or, earlier on, Iraq itself. Those operations produced better knowledge of the terrain, allowed direct engagement with communities, and enabled efforts—sometimes successful, sometimes not—to avoid alienating the local population. In Afghanistan in particular, senior commanders saw civilian protection and reparations as integral to the core mission and directed their troops to act accordingly. In contrast, in the counter-ISIS campaign, the U.S. part of the fighting chiefly relied on airpower, and much of the territory where strikes occurred was under ISIS control. It was neither fish nor fowl, but a hybrid: a counterinsurgency objective pursued by means of counterterrorism tactics.

That choice is understandable. The military campaign was a hybrid because ISIS was too—unlike al-Qaeda’s small, clandestine cells, it was part state, part insurgency, part terrorist organization. The Pentagon was engaging in a novel type of warfare against a far larger network than it had previously taken on, where pre- and post-strike intelligence collection was critical but the intelligence base relatively shallow, the expected pace of operations high, and the number of U.S. troops on the ground low. But that choice, and related choices, carried real consequences. It mattered that the military did not place the same strategic emphasis on civilian protection that it had come to apply in Afghanistan. It mattered that the administration didn’t apply to Iraq and Syria the more restrictive targeting safeguards it had developed for locations more remote from hot battlefields, like Somalia and Yemen, which—however imperfect—helped contain the scope of U.S. operations. The campaign against ISIS, in short, had the breadth and scope of a counterinsurgency effort, but without the built-in means and incentives that are supposed to restrain it.

Then, there is the issue of undercounting—documented not solely in the counter-ISIS campaign but in other theaters of operations as well. The Obama administration was not blind to the problem. It pressed for fuller and more regular casualty reporting, shared previously non-public statistics about its operations, probed press and NGO accounts, worked with field organizations to see if there might be creative mechanisms for paying amends in areas where the U.S. was absent, and helped craft a presidential order that memorialized what the government considered best practices when it came to review and amends procedures. One of us has written about the importance of these and related measures elsewhere, but both of us believe that these steps did not do enough.

What might an overall better approach to civilian casualties look like? For starters, it could set in place standards that ensure we err more often on the side of caution in identifying targets and establish more realistic thresholds for acknowledging error. It could make available more information about who and what the U.S. considers targetable so that those standards can be fully discussed and debated. It could appoint and empower individuals within the Defense Department, on both the civilian and military sides, whose sole responsibility would be to reduce civilian casualties, make the assessment process more transparent, and facilitate prompt and adequate reparations whenever possible. And it could open up the post-strike assessment to outside eyes. This last idea is likely to be received as heresy inside the U.S. government. But it’s at least worth pondering whether someone from outside the chain of command—possibly from outside the executive branch altogether—should be able to check the Pentagon’s work, bringing the kind of perspective that only comes with distance. The media and civil society play a critical role—the Times story is a clear example—but the U.S. government should be able to perform this sort of check on itself.

All this matters and would help. But as long as the United States pursues counterterrorism through military means, civilian casualties inevitably will ensue. And so the discussion about how to reduce their number, while welcome, ought to involve a larger debate about the type of warfare America is waging and the technological advances that have allowed—even encouraged—it to be waged. Those advances have enabled more targeted airstrikes, often conducted by unmanned aircraft that are more precise and present fewer risks to U.S. personnel. Yet those same factors also lower the costs of warfare in the eyes of the U.S. public, and thus the threshold for military intervention in areas where we would be unwilling to deploy large numbers of ground troops. Consider this question: Had the fight against al-Qaeda or ISIS required the deployment of substantial U.S. ground troops, is it realistic to assume we would have been involved in so many theaters, for so many years, with so little prospect of bringing the conflict to a decisive end?  

It’s a treacherous trifecta: the promise of greater precision and certainty of fewer U.S. casualties; which leads to more frequent use of military force in more diverse theatres without a substantial U.S. ground presence; which entails diminished ability both to gather information about who is being targeted before a strike and assess what happened afterward. With the human costs of wars substantially shifted to the other side, it has become easier to initiate, perpetuate, and forget them.

And the debate about the number of civilian casualties also ought to involve the deeper question of why, some 17 years after 9/11, the United States remains as intensely engaged in a seemingly endless military campaign against ever-mutating affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS, with all its unintended, yet unavoidable, consequences. During George W. Bush’s presidency, many of us on the other side of the partisan divide decried his early reference to a “war on terror,” because terrorism defines a tactic, not an enemy; because military force is only a very partial way of addressing its root causes; and, yes, because the so-called collateral damage inflicted on civilians by the military campaign risked reproducing the very conditions on which terrorist groups thrive.

As critics, it turns out, we got it only half right. We stopped calling it a global war on terror. But in many respects we continued conducting the campaign as if it were one. We adjusted our methods but retained much of the substance, waging an ever-expanding war against an enemy whose affiliates kept proliferating. The paradox is that arguably no senior official in recent years has been as clear-eyed or as sober about the myths and realities of terrorism, its real and imaginary costs, and the dangers of overreacting to it, than was President Obama. That he too ultimately felt compelled to focus as he did on the military aspects of counterterrorism speaks to the threat posed by organizations that are at least partially engaged in plotting overseas operations, as well as to the difficult tradeoffs between taking greater care at the risk of moving more slowly, or being more aggressive at the risk of incurring higher human cost.   

It speaks volumes, too, about the state of American politics. Had Obama persisted in making an eminently rational case about the perils of hyping the terrorist threat, and had a terrorist attack on U.S. soil succeeded, he risked forfeiting the American people’s trust. Against a political backdrop that was partisan, polarized, demagogical, and prone to scapegoating outsiders, such an attack almost certainly would have prompted calls for retaliation of the most reckless and aggressive sort. And so he leaned on the side of preempting that risk. He took decisions that expedited the destruction of ISIS’s so-called caliphate. But, in so doing, he took another step toward becoming the commander in chief of an ill-defined battle against terrorists.

In an article one of us co-authored several months ago with Jon Finer, Secretary of State John Kerry’s former chief of staff, we recognized that force at times would be needed to confront terrorist groups while lamenting our excessive focus on, and over-militarization of, the effort; described the often hidden costs of a national obsession to which the Obama administration itself had partly succumbed; feared how far President Trump might go; and hoped for a necessary, albeit improbable, honest conversation about the real magnitude of the terrorist threat and how to deal with it.

That all remains true—and, given the direction taken by the Trump administration, even more so today than at that time. It’s also true that until this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.

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