A classified U.S. Special Operations cell that coordinated strikes against Islamic State targets showed reckless disregard for civilian casualties by regularly circumventing safeguard procedures and engaging in deceptive practices, according to a report published Sunday by The New York Times.
The cell, known as Talon Anvil, reportedly worked around the clock in three shifts out of nondescript offices in Iraq and Syria, sorting through drone footage and on-the-ground intelligence from Kurdish and Syrian allies. Authority to order airstrikes, either by Talon Anvil's own armed drones or by manned aircraft, was delegated to the highest-ranking enlisted U.S. Army Delta Force operator then on duty, often a sergeant first class.
Talon Anvil helped increase the volume of strikes against ISIS at a time when U.S. forces were struggling to engage at an effective pace, but high-ranking CIA and Air Force intelligence officers became skeptical of the cell's methods as civilian casualties mounted. Cell members reportedly misclassified almost all strikes as defensive in order to sidestep the rigorous vetting process imposed on offensive strikes and even apparently took to averting the drones' cameras after launch in order to hide evidence of civilian deaths.
One analyst claimed Talon Anvil's strikes were killing civilians at a rate 10 times greater than that of similar operations in Afghanistan.
Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, who in 2016 and 2017 was the commander of America's offensive against ISIS and who implemented the policy of delegating strike authority to lower-ranking personnel, said civilian casualties were the result of the "misfortunes of war," not of any recklessness or apathy on the part of himself or the troops under his command.