The U.S.-led coalition’s battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has crossed significant milestones this year, supporting the final liberation of Mosul by Iraqi forces this July, and helping allied Syrian Democratic Forces to make swift gains in Raqqa with nearly 80 percent of the city now cleared. However, there has been a cost to these operations in the form of increased civilian casualties. U.S. Central Command has acknowledged roughly 600 unintentional civilian deaths over the three- year long war against ISIS, but the independent UK-based monitor group Airwars claims that this number may be over 5,000, and they claim that nearly 60 percent of these deaths have taken place under the Trump Administration alone. The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff about what might be causing this spike in civilian casualties and how the authorizations for military strikes under the Trump Administration differ from the Obama Administration.
The Cipher Brief: In April, President Trump said that he has given the military “total authorization” to pursue combat operations abroad. In your mind, how has this approach differed from the Obama Administration’s strike authorization process, particularly in the coalition fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria?
Jack Keane: President Trump has returned authorities to the military that, quite frankly, they used to have. There’s nothing new here. What was new were the restrictions and control that were placed on the military by the Obama White House, some of it actually micromanaging the military right from the West Wing.
That is something that Secretary [of Defense Bob] Gates took exception to, as did Secretary [Leon] Panetta and Secretary [Chuck] Hagel. I believe that this had something to do with all three of those men leaving a little bit earlier than they would have wanted to. Not because they were necessarily forced out – that was the case with Hagel – but certainly the frustration was high with Secretary Gates and Secretary Panetta. I’m just speculating, but they may well have stayed longer if they didn’t have that frustration.
Now what we have is a president acting as commander in chief. When we have enduring conflict operations – as we have in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and to a certain extent off the coast of Somalia – then the president delegates to those commanders the authority that they need to find the enemy, fix that enemy, and destroy or capture it with the full capabilities that they have under their command and control, without having to ask permission. That, essentially, is what has taken place.
What this actually produces is considerably more effective operations, because the enemy has a vote every day on the battlefield, and more fundamentally, war is a test of wills. So when you’re able to find and enemy and see him, the speed with which you’re able to react to that is paramount to the effectiveness with which you can dominate your enemy. That is what is happening now. We are achieving more effective dominance over the enemy because of the speed or our response. The commanders don’t have to check with higher authorities before they maneuver on an objective or target enemy forces, vehicles, or facilities.
Yes, our operational effectiveness has gone up as a result of this.
TCB: In June, CENTCOM acknowledged around 600 unintentional civilian casualties in the war against ISIS, but other independent monitoring organizations, such as Airwars, have suggested that the number of civilians killed unintentionally by coalition airstrikes may be as high as 5,000, and they claim that the majority of these deaths have taken place this year. What do you think explains this increase?
Keane: ISW [Institute for the Study of War] does not see a spike in civilian casualties in Iraq. There were 297 last month, and that has stayed fairly steady since. In Syria, there is an increase in civilian casualties, and what I attribute that to is the difference in ground forces. The ground forces in Iraq for the assaults on Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul, were led by the Iraqi Counterterrorism Force, which is the country’s most highly trained and experienced force, trained and advised by our U.S. special operations forces. This is a military organization that is very disciplined with very high standards and a great amount of experience. Protecting civilians is paramount in their minds as they go into these assaults.
In Syria, however, we’re going up against an entrenched enemy in Raqqa – a decent sized city – with ground forces that are militia. While they have some training, they don’t have the vast experience, chain of command, and level of commitment to prevent civilian casualties that a disciplined force like the Iraqi Counterterrorism Force has.
So, as these fights in urban centers are joined, it’s not surprising that civilian casualties have spiked. When you get down into this kind of fight, it goes block by block, building by building, and then room by room. It is the toughest kind of fighting that ground forces do – the most dangerous and intimidating for sure.
The second reason for the increase is the nature of the fight itself. ISIS uses the civilian population as shields. They hide in among that population because they don’t want air power attacking them, so they physically have civilians in the buildings that we’re attacking as a shield.
To use civilians as a shield like that is a war crime, but the contour of ISIS’ entire existence is one long war crime.
TCB: So you haven’t seen any change to the rules of engagement that U.S. military personnel operate under?
Keane: No, I haven’t. The rules of engagement, if anything, facilitate the effectiveness of the operations, they are not detrimental to them.
TCB: Is there any way that the administration and military commanders can improve on this issue, such as install extra checks on strike authorizations, or do you think that they are pursuing the correct policies?
Keane: No, I think the operational effectiveness has increased as a result of the new authorities that the commanders have. The spike in casualties is not related to the rules of engagement or anything like that, it’s related to what I’ve described.
This is the toughest fight ground forces get involved in, and there’s a huge difference between a Syrian militia and an official Iraqi counterterrorism force.