On December 12th, the New York Times published a story about the U.S. drone war in Syria that should have raised more eyebrows but barely registered with most of the American press. The piece by Dave Phillips, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti concerned a small unit controlled by Delta Force and 5thSpecial Forces members called Talon Anvil, which sounds more like a metal band created by way of a thesaurus than an operation that engaged in thousands of drone strikes across Syria from 2014 to 2019 at the height of the battle against the so-called Islamic State.
Why the story was important is that it revealed that many of Talon Anvil’s 1,000s of strikes killed civilians, so many that some of those operating the drones 24 hours a day in three 8 hour shifts refused orders to deploy them in heavily populated areas or against targets that didn’t appear armed. Despite this, each year the group operated, the numbers of civilian casualties in Syria went up.
As reported by the Times, even officials with the CIA complained to the Special Operations Command about the strikes. Nonetheless, the bloody drone war was a bipartisan affair that occured over two U.S. presidential administrations.
As Larry Lewis, who was among those who wrote a Defense Department report on civilian casualties in 2018, told the reporters, in terms of the sheer numbers of civilians wounded and killed, “It was much higher than I would have expected from a U.S. unit. The fact that it increased dramatically and steadily over a period of years shocked me.”
How were Talon Anvil able to get around rules of engagement that might have protected the many civilians said to have been wounded and killed in the strikes? By claiming “self-defense”. As of 2018, 80% of strikes in the chaotic Syrian conflict were characterized this way.
As two unnamed former task force members explained, the claim that almost every strike was carried out to protect U.S. or allied forces, even when they were far from the location where the bombs were dropped, allowed approvals at lightning speed.
The Delta Force and other special forces soldiers ordering the strikes were also accused by Air Force intelligence analysts tasked with reviewing the footage they produced of turning the drones’ cameras away from their targets before dropping their payloads so that there would be no evidence in the case of a ‘failed’ strike that resulted in civilian casualties.
This story might not have been told at all if not for an earlier one, also in the Times, about three piloted strikes in a Syrian town called Baghuz on March 18th, 2019, where some of the last IS holdouts were said to be sheltering.
After a drone above the town relayed images of a crowd of people, mostly women and children, next to a river bank, a U.S. F-15 dropped a 500 pound bomb on the group. As those that survived the first bomb searched for cover or wandered in shock, a second and then a third bomb, each weighing 2,000 pounds were dropped, obliterating them. Although we will never know the exact number, at least 70 civilians died as a result.
As also reported by other outlets, confused air operations personnel at a large base in Qatar looked on in disbelief at what was happening in Baghuz, with one officer asking in the secure chat, “Who dropped that?”
Even though an airforce lawyer flagged the incident as a possible war crime, the U.S. military tried to bury and then deny that it had happened at all. They even went so far as to have coalition forces “bulldoze” the blast site in a clear attempt to bury evidence of the crime.
The strike was ordered by the group that we now know also controlled Talon Anvil and ground operations in Syria called Task Force 9, a unit so secretive that those at the airbase in Qatar who first drew attention to the strike in Baghuz were unaware of its existence. Both groups are not officially recognized as ever existing by the American government.
The bizarre metric of success for Talon Anvil and Task Force 9 generally seemed to have been sheer numbers of bombs dropped rather than actual militants removed from the incredibly fraught battlefield. Not only the U.S. and its allies, especially Turkey, routinely massacred innocent people, but the Syrian government and its Russian ally showed callous disregard for the lives of civilians as well, especially in flattening East Aleppo, where they killed well over 400 people in the densely populated urban area.
The man at the top of Task Force 9 and other secretive special forces, General Stephen Townsend, faced no repercussions for the alleged war crimes but was instead promoted. He now heads the country’s Africa Command, where special forces and drones are deployed but where there are even fewer influential voices who might put a spotlight on the kinds of crimes that may be occuring in countries like Somalia and Niger, where hostilities haven’t been officially declared.
Norman Soloman recently wrote about how crimes like the one that occured in Baghuz and many other towns and cities in Syria go unpunished but those who reveal these kinds of atrocities on the part of the United States and its allies like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Norman Hale, a former analyst with the U.S. Air Force, recently sentenced to 45 months in prison for revealing the impacts of U.S. drone warfare, are victimized by the state for their whistle-blowing.
It’s important to give mainstream outlets like the Times credit for using the resources at their disposal to make stories like that of Talon Anvil public, even when they are hidden behind paywalls and have to be searched out, but as several commentators including Soloman have noted, there is a tendency to portray the U.S. military and political leadership as meaning well and what amount to war crimes as simple mistakes. Such a position wouldn’t be taken in regards to a competitor like China or Russia.
It should also be noted that in almost every case from the torture that took place at Abu Ghraib to Talon Anvil’s bombing of civilians, every atrocity is placed squarely on the shoulders of the military’s lower ranks when they are made public. This ignores the very rigid hierarchies in place where superiors either order or imply that more and more drone strikes, for example, need to take place in order to create the illusion of some kind of success.
Another fault with the NYT’s story is it fails to credit Hale for his whistle-blowing and doesn’t appear to be using its influence to call attention to his imprisonment for revealing the truth of what was going on with the country’s drone war as early as 2015, revelations that were important to the Times’ stories.
Rather than passing the Build Back Better Act, which would have, among other things, provided pre-kindergarten child care to working people whose lives would be significantly improved by it, one deeply compromised Democratic senator stopped its passage. Arguments about out of control budgets didn’t stop the same body from awarding the Pentagon $25 billion more than the president asked for for their budget which was $768 billion after approval in the country’s Senate.
Subsidizing militarism in search of monsters overseas seems more and more like the American way. With the new focus on near peer competitors like Russia and China, the dangers are only growing.