This week marks six months since the parliamentary vote that committed Britain to a new war in Iraq. British and US air strikes continue to take place on a daily basis though now virtually unmentioned in parliament and the press. In the past, national media poured over every detail of British military campaigns, evaluating progress, printing maps and eye-witness accounts, even having breathless reporters on the evening news counting aircraft out and counting them back in. In parliament MP’s questioned ministers and senior commanders in committee rooms while debating strategy from the back benches. By stark contrast today’s war in Iraq receives little such attention seemingly because it is being waged by strike aircraft and remote-controlled drones after politicians vowed not to deploy troops. With less ‘skin in the game’ it seems that war in Iraq is yesterday’s news.
But careful and detailed scrutiny of our military operations by the press, parliament and the public is vital. Without it the disconnect between us and the wars being waged in our name grows ever greater. Even more importantly, the effectiveness of Western intervention has to be seriously questioned when the very rise of ISIS and the terrible destruction they are wreaking can in no small part be attributed to the last war in Iraq while the stark failures of interventions in Afghanistan and particularly Libya are there for all to see. In these circumstances for MPs to launch another war and then look away is scandalous.
Currently the US and 16 allied countries have carried out over 2,900 air strikes in Iraq and Syria with the vast majority of these being undertaken by US aircraft. British Tornados and Reaper drones are carrying out around 8 air strikes per week, with the most recent figure given by the Defence Secretary of 170 air strikes up until 2 March. Britain’s air campaign has also crept, under the radar, into Syria with UK drones flying surveillance missions there despite the clear parliamentary mandate for military operations only in Iraq as the Defence Secretary publicly acknowledges.
Compared to the large number of US missions being undertaken, British strikes are relatively small in number. They are however being undertaken at a much higher rate than the recent war in Afghanistan. For example the RAF has racked up 70 drone strikes in just under five months in Iraq where it took the them almost two years to notch up that number in Afghanistan.
British Air Strikes in Iraq (up to 2 March 2015)
While the Ministry of Defence (MoD) also insists that its drones are “predominately used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) tasks” Britain’s Reapers are actually undertaking air strikes at a slightly higher rate than the Tornados. Tornados carried out 90 strikes in 22 weeks giving a strike rate of 4.09 per week, while Reapers have carried out 70 strikes in 16 weeks giving a strike rate of 4.37 per week.
There are two broad categories of air strikes. Those that are launched against pre-planned targets as part of daily tasking order, known as ‘deliberate targeting’, and those that are launched ‘on the fly’ while the aircraft is in the air and with little or no forward planning, dubbed ‘dynamic targeting’. Inevitably strikes that are planned in advance are less likely to cause civilian casualties than those undertaken in the heat of the moment.
Due to the absence of ‘boots on the ground’ and in particular the absence of Forward Air Controllers, the number of strikes that are dynamically targeted vastly out-weigh those that are pre-planned. US military sources told the New York Times in mid-November that only 5% of airstrikes in Iraq and 25% of strikes in Syria were planned in advance. The large number of such strikes being undertaken ‘on the fly’ inevitably leads to much greater risk of civilian casualties.
Reports of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria from coalition bombing have receive little attention so far. For months the US military insisted there had been no “valid” claims of civilian casualties from coalition bombing but after a change of stance in January the US said it would be examining some of the reports. Investigative reporter Chris Woods who has been tracking the air war in Iraq and Syria has recorded 37 separate ‘incidents of concern’ where air strikes have been alleged to have killed civilians. It is estimated that around 100 civilians have been killed in coalition air strikes in Syria and around 300 in Iraq but these figures are impossible to verify.
Six months in to what is likely to be a long intervention, the lack of attention being paid to coalition bombing is a foreshadowing of things to come. For some time academics and commentators have been arguing that the changing nature of warfare – away from mass troop deployments to an increasing use of remotely controlled drones and special forces – will inevitably mean less scrutiny by the press, less oversight by legislators, and less control by the public.
War being fought out of sight, disconnected from mainstream attention, commanded by a small group of insiders with little real accountability is a recipe for real disaster. Given the track record of our recent wars it is vital that there is more – not less – scrutiny and debate on the specifics as well as the overall effectiveness of such military operations.
UK involvement in military operations against ISIS – An initial Timeline