The Secret Air Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Unreported casualties

By Jeff Nygaard, Z Magazine Online

A relentless attack from the air against Iraq and Afghanistan has been going on for years, with the United States conducting an average of 75 to 100 airstrikes in the 2 countries every day. The death toll from these attacks is unknown, but a reasonable estimate is in the range of 100,000 to 150,000 in Iraq, with the number in Afghanistan as yet unexplored. Yet the story of these air wars is almost unknown in the United States. Without access to Iraqi or Afghani sources, it is not possible to offer firsthand accounts of the consequences of the air wars, but it is possible to go to some available sources to get a glimpse of what is happening.

Every day the U.S. Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF) posts on the Internet a public report of their activities. Who knows if these reports are true or accurate, but let’s say they are. They’re pretty horrifying, despite the heroic self-serving language.

For example, a headline from the summary of March 13: “Air Controllers Direct Airpower Symphony over Iraq” and “Air Force Continues Giving 100 Percent.” These are standard puff pieces that one would expect from a public relations office and, presumably, they are produced to maintain morale among active and retired military personnel who seem to be the primary audience. Unfortunately, these stories become the grist for the “news stories” on Iraq and Afghanistan that we see in the daily press.

Leaving aside the blatant propaganda, the daily CENTAF “airpower summaries,” as they are called, bring a few things into focus about the secret air component of U.S. operations. Here’s a sample from the week of March 3-9: “In Afghanistan this week 330 close-air-support missions were flown in support of the International Security Assistance Force and Afghan troops....” Meanwhile, “In Iraq this week, coalition aircraft flew 327 close-air-support missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom.” A “Close-Air-Support” mission, or CAS, is the term used for “Dropping bombs in support of ground troops—also known as an airstrike.”

In other words, according to the Air Force’s own numbers, the U.S. during that particular week conducted an average of 93 airstrikes per day in the two countries. For the following week the total was 614 strikes or 87 per day. The week of March 17-23 saw 753 strikes or 107 per day. In the only substantial report to be found in this country in the past year on the air war—“Bombs over Baghdad; The Pentagon’s Secret Air War in Iraq” at the online news source TomDispatch—author Nick Turse reminds us that these numbers include only the air assaults conducted by the Air Force. They “do not include guided missiles and unguided rockets fired, or cannon rounds expended; nor, according to a CENTAF spokesperson, do they take into account the munitions used by some Marine Corps and other coalition aircraft or any of the Army’s helicopter gunships. Moreover, they do not include munitions used by the armed helicopters of the many private security contractors flying their own missions in Iraq.” “Private security contractors” is the current euphemism for mercenary soldiers.

The Air Force uses the same words to describe these air strikes: The CAS “missions included support to coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities.” One will almost never see the words “killed” or “casualties” in these reports, with a couple of exceptions, to which I will return.

Seven Unreported Airstrikes

During the one-week period of March 3-9 (dates that were randomly selected), the U.S. Air Force reported a total of 327 British/U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and 330 in Afghanistan. Here are some examples of incidents reported in the official Air Forces Daily Airpower Summary, each followed by the same one-word summary of how they were covered in the media:

March 3, 41 airstrikes in Afghanistan: “In Afghanistan March 3, a B-1B Lancer dropped guided bomb unit-31s and GBU-38s on anti-coalition insurgents in an open area near Kajaki. A joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) confirmed direct hits, removing the insurgent threat.” Unreported.
March 4, 41 airstrikes in Afghanistan: “In Afghanistan, an Air Force B-1B Lancer dropped guided bomb unit-31s on a building near Sangin containing anti-coalition insurgents. A joint terminal attack controller confirmed a direct hit.” Unreported.
March 5, 45 airstrikes in Iraq: “In Iraq, Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons dropped guided bomb unit-38s, destroying an anti-Iraqi insurgent building near Mosul.” Unreported.
March 6, 54 airstrikes in Afghanistan: “Near Sangin, Navy F/A- 18s received coordinates for a compound where enemy fire was originating. One of the F/A-18s dropped a guided bomb unit-12 on the compound. A JTAC reported a good hit with an unusually large initial explosion and at least ten secondary explosions, possibly indicating destruction of a weapons cache.” Unreported.
March 7, 57 airstrikes in Afghanistan: “In Afghanistan a B-1B Lancer dropped guided bomb unit-38s and GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions on enemy personnel and a building near Garmsir, in support of Operation Achilles. The on-scene joint terminal attack controller and ground forces observed direct hits.” Unreported.
March 8, 50 airstrikes in Iraq: “Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons conducted a pre-planned strike, dropping GBU-31s on a major two-lane road near As Sadah. This engagement was meant to hamper traffic coming in and out of As Sadah City from the north. The strike was successful.” Unreported.
March 9, 45 airstrikes in Iraq: “Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs fired cannon rounds at enemies hiding in brush after they engaged with coalition forces near Mahmudiyah. A JTAC reported the cannon rounds were on target.” Unreported.
The above research was conducted in mid-March and a check of the nation’s media for the week ending March 15 did not yield a single reference to U.S. airstrikes in English-language newspapers. This typical week in the U.S. press includes the wire services, National Public Radio, and everywhere else in the daily media.

The Example of Taji

There are a couple of exceptions to the policy of never using the words “killed” or “casualties” in the official reports on U.S. “airpower” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first exception is when a U.S. airstrike is reported as having killed “terrorists.” These sorts of reports are often picked up by the corporate media. Here is how one such incident on March 2 in the town of Taji, Iraq was covered in the corporate press. I first learned about this particular airstrike in a report in the official Air Force News (March 7) under the headline “Air Strikes Target, Kill al-Qaeda Terrorists near Taji, Iraq.” As it turns out, we don’t really know that they were “terrorists” or that they had anything to do with al-Qaeda. The article says that, “Coalition forces believe key terrorists were killed during the airstrike.” The article points out that the targets in Taji were vehicles and anti-aircraft artillery, which were in “an area known for terrorist activities.” CENTAF reports that, “The strike resulted in the destruction of the vehicle as well as the structure it was parked beside.” What structure was that? Someone’s home, perhaps? An office building? A hospital? Were there people inside? Was it deserted? We’ll never know.

Unlike the other 67 officially reported U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan that day, the Taji incident did receive some coverage in the U.S. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times dutifully quoted the claim that CENTAF believes “key terrorists” were killed in the strike.

The NYT reported, “Military authorities on [March 3] were still investigating the identities of the gunmen and how many men were killed.” This phrasing implies that the only people who may have been killed were men, in fact gunmen. Never considered is the possibility that civilians might have been killed. This despite the Air Force’s own reporting that a “structure” was destroyed, which should at least be worth an inquiry, one might think.

How about the claim that Taji is “an area known for terrorist activities?” Well, Iraqis certainly may consider it so. The LA Times mentions (in a 76-word brief at the end of an article about something else) that Taji is “the site of a major U.S. air base.” The Times doesn’t say how “major” it is, but it’s pretty major. Taji is one of the 14 “enduring” bases that the U.S. has constructed in Iraq. As such, it is a symbol of the U.S. project of maintaining a more-or-less permanent military presence in that country. Taji is the home of the “largest PX in Iraq, which has a Subway, Burger King, and Pizza Hut.” In addition, according to the military think-tank, some portion of “the $18.4 billion appropriated by the U.S. Congress to support the reconstruction of Iraqi infrastructure” has gone into “building renovation; renovation and construction of medical facilities; repair of a wastewater treatment plant, and installation of sewage distribution lines” at Camp Taji.

So when the Washington Post reports that Taji is “an area where several American helicopters have been shot down in recent weeks,” some Iraqis might reasonably see this not as terror, but as a response to terror. That’s surely not what the Air Force public affairs office meant when they referred to Taji as “an area known for terrorist activities,” but such is “news” in the upside-down world of war propaganda.

The “official version” of the events of March 2 is this: the “coalition” attacked the “area” from which military officials “believe” some “terrorists,” reported to be members of al-Qaeda who are “responsible for threats to coalition aircraft,” have been launching attacks against the “anti-terrorists.” Here’s how the same story might appear when looked at from another perspective: The world’s most powerful country invades and occupies a sovereign nation, a nation so weak that it poses no serious threat to the superpower. The weaker nation is devastated and resistance to the occupation arises. After some years, the resistance acquires the capacity to respond, with limited success, to some of the violence of the occupation. Since a large part of the violence against the population is coming from airstrikes, the resistance includes anti-aircraft tactics and weapons.

The Grisly Arithmetic of the Air War

U.S. casualties are regularly reported by the Air Force, as in this story from March 5: “Air Force Heroes: 20 Fallen Airmen Honored in Afghanistan.” University of New Hampshire economist Marc Herold estimates that between 4,851 and 5,684 civilians have died in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001, or roughly 900-1,000 per year. Herold admits that these numbers are only the ones that can be verified and as such remain “a gross underestimate.” In a graphic illustration of how the ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan has fallen out of the public consciousness, Herold’s numbers remain unpublished in this country and have only found publication in the January 13 issue of the Indian magazine the Hindu.

Reports in the daily press on civilian deaths in Iraq are far more common, but only certain deaths appear to be newsworthy. The New York Times published a report on the violence in Iraq on March 19, the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of that country, saying, “While no single event stood out [on the anniversary], the day was in many ways emblematic of the violence that Iraqis suffer daily—two car bombs, several assassinations, at least one kidnapping and a number of other bombings.” In the world as seen by the Times, “the violence that Iraqis suffer daily” apparently does not include the 67 airstrikes that the Air Force reports were conducted in Iraq on Monday, March 19.

Looking outside this blind spot, the 2006 report “Mortality After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-sectional Cluster Sample Survey” from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, published in the October 2006 issue of the British medical journal the Lancet, remains the best estimate of the number of people who have died in Iraq—violently and otherwise—as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation.

As Nick Turse tells us in “Bombs Over Baghdad,” the Lancet report “estimated 655,000 ‘excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war.’ The study...found that from March 2003 to June 2006, 13 percent of violent deaths in Iraq were caused by coalition air strikes. If the 655,000 figure, including over 601,000 violent deaths, is anywhere close to accurate—and the study offered a possible range of civilian deaths that ran from 392,979 to 942,636—this would equal approximately 78,133 Iraqis killed by bombs, missiles, rockets, or cannon rounds from coalition aircraft between March 2003, when the invasion of Iraq began, and last June when the study concluded.” Turse adds that, “According to statistics provided to TomDispatch by the Lancet study’s authors, 50 percent of all violent deaths of Iraqi children under 15 years of age, between March 2003 and June 2006, were due to coalition air strikes.”

Here, then, are the final rough numbers: Every day, between 50 and 100 Iraqis die as a result of “coalition” airstrikes. Every airstrike kills, on average, one Iraqi, and wounds three more. Updating the numbers from the Lancet study, we discover that overall, since the U.S. invaded Iraq, somewhere between 102,180 and 147,051 Iraqis have been killed by U.S. airstrikes alone. Between 306,540 and 441,153 have been wounded.

Lessons Applied

On the last Saturday in March, according to the Air Force, 111 airstrikes were launched by the U.S. Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Friday before that, 107. On Thursday, 118. This “airpower symphony” will go on until activists and other citizens understand how one of the “lessons of Vietnam” is being applied here. A February poll of Americans taken by the Associated Press showed, “The median estimate of Iraqi deaths was 9,890.” That is, the guess of about half of the poll respondents as to the number of Iraqis killed since Operation Iraqi Freedom began is at most about 2 percent of the actual number. Their guess is maybe 10 percent of the number killed by U.S. bombs, in an air war that most respondents have likely never heard of.

Attempts to conceal wartime realities are standard and predictable on the part of a government engaged in an unpopular military campaign. This is why it is so crucial to have an independent and skeptical press that will go beyond reporting the statements of officials to do a little investigating of the “hideous aspects” that are being screened. As Turse reminds us, “While we will undoubtedly never know the full extent of the human costs of the U.S. air campaign, just a few dogged reporters assigned to the air-power beat might, at the very least, have offered some sense of this one-sided air war.”

With 75 to 100 airstrikes every day and 100,000 to 150,000 innocents dead, could a state-run media do a better job of “screening from the public gaze” the “hideous aspects” of the U.S. air wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?



Minneapolis freelance writer and activist Jeff Nygaard publishes an email newsletter called Nygaard Notes.

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