Responding to concerns about increased civilian casualties resulting from U.S. air strikes, Congress has in recent years required the Pentagon to report on the number of civilians killed and injured in U.S. military operations. Just Security contributors have done an excellent job explaining the details of those requirements and why they’re so important.
Today, the Pentagon released its latest report, and although the increase in transparency is a welcome improvement the Defense Department’s effort still falls short. Unlike previous reporting, this report was on time and included more details than it had in the past, thanks to additional congressional requirements, but it still significantly undercounts the number of civilian casualties actually caused by U.S. military operations.
For example: DoD reports 793 civilians killed and approximately 206 civilians injured as a result of U.S.-led Coalition actions in Syria and Iraq in 2017. This appropriately updates its previous numbers, but it still isn’t nearly as many as facts on the ground suggest. Just last week, Amnesty International, where I work, released the results of extensive reporting it conducted in conjunction with the research group Airwars that determined more than 1,600 civilians were killed by U.S.-led coalition forces between just June and October 2017 in Raqqa, Syria alone. DoD’s numbers don’t reflect anything near that, and while they claim to have available “classified intelligence information” that NGOs do not, they also do not conduct on-the-ground interviews with witnesses, survivors, physicians and others in the communities affected to determine who was actually killed and injured by Coalition air strikes. The discrepancy suggests that the U.S.-led Coalition may be in some cases wrongly counting civilians as “combatants” or as otherwise lawful targets.
We see the same problem in Somalia, albeit on a smaller scale. There, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has said it carried out 110 strikes over the last two years, killing about 800 “terrorists.” But until last month, it maintained the unbelievable assertion that none of those killed were civilians. From an investigation of just five of those 110 airstrikes, however, Amnesty International found strong evidence that 14 civilians were killed, and eight were injured. AFRICOM has since acknowledged, as DoD does in its new report, that it killed two civilians in 2018. This is the first time AFRICOM has ever acknowledged civilian casualties from any of its operations. But it still doesn’t acknowledge the cases Amnesty documented in detail, and it’s simply not credible that no civilians were killed in the dozens of other airstrikes AFRICOM conducted and Amnesty wasn’t able to investigate.
These past denials are all the more reason to be skeptical of today’s report, although its very existence, and its timeliness, is a step forward. Like other NGOs who investigate civilian casualties and urge the government to improve its protections for civilians, Amnesty will continue to discuss our findings and investigation methods with the Defense Department, in the hopes that it will improve its own investigations and use what it learns to better protect civilians in future military operations. We will also continue to highlight the significant discrepancies in the facts and numbers when we see them.