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As a Secret Unit Pounded ISIS, Civilian Deaths Mounted

When presented with The Times’s findings, several current and former senior Special Operations officers denied any widespread pattern of reckless airstrikes by the strike cell and disregard for limiting civilian casualties. Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in Syria, declined to comment.

As bad strikes mounted, the four military officials said, Talon Anvil’s partners sounded the alarm. Pilots over Syria at times refused to drop bombs because Talon Anvil wanted to hit questionable targets in densely populated areas. Senior C.I.A. officers complained to Special Operations leaders about the disturbing pattern of strikes. Air Force teams doing intelligence work argued with Talon Anvil over a secure phone known as the red line. And even within Talon Anvil, some members at times refused to participate in strikes targeting people who did not seem to be in the fight.

The four officials worked in different parts of the war effort, but all interacted directly with Talon Anvil on hundreds of strikes and soon grew concerned with its way of operating. They reported what they were seeing to immediate superiors and the command overseeing the air war, but say they were ignored.

The former Air Force intelligence officer, who worked almost daily on missions from 2016 to 2018, said he notified the main Air Force operations center in the region about civilian casualties several times, including after a March 2017 strike when Talon Anvil dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building where about 50 people were sheltering. But he said leaders seemed reluctant to scrutinize a strike cell that was driving the offensive on the battlefield.

Every year that the strike cell operated, the civilian casualty rate in Syria increased significantly, according to Larry Lewis, a former Pentagon and State Department adviser who was one of the authors of a 2018 Defense Department report on civilian harm. Mr. Lewis, who has viewed the Pentagon’s classified civilian casualty data for Syria, said the rate was 10 times that of similar operations he tracked in Afghanistan.

“It was much higher than I would have expected from a U.S. unit,” Mr. Lewis said. “The fact that it increased dramatically and steadily over a period of years shocked me.”

Mr. Lewis said commanders enabled the tactics by failing to emphasize the importance of reducing civilian casualties, and that Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, who commanded the offensive against the Islamic State in 2016 and 2017, was dismissive of widespread reports from news media and human rights organizations describing the mounting toll.

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