Lawmakers and even the Trump administration have increasingly expressed concern about the United States waging an “endless war,” and among those concerns is the impact on civilians in the countries where the United States is bombing people. The United States’ mission is to fight non-state armed groups like al-Qaeda, but how many civilians is the U.S. military killing and injuring in the process?
It’s difficult to know the precise numbers, but in-depth field investigations conducted by Amnesty International researchers into civilian casualties caused by specific battles or air strikes in Syria and Somalia suggest that the U.S. is substantially undercounting the numbers.
We’ve never really had an accurate count from the U.S. government. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required the Department of Defense to provide its most recent count, and related details, to Congress by May 1. The Pentagon made its report public last week. (Dan Mahanty and Rita Siemion provided helpful summary and analysis, and Annie Shiel and Archibald Henry outlined what the developing Pentagon policy on civilian casualties prevention and response should include.) While the new report provides more detail about civilians killed and injured by U.S. military operations than previous reports have, the Trump administration’s count of the numbers of civilian deaths and injuries it has caused still falls short.
Take, for example, the report’s assessment of U.S.-led military operations in Raqqa, Syria in 2017. (Although the recent report focuses on 2019, it purports to update its casualty counts from previous years as well.) The Pentagon reports that in 2017, “Operation INHERENT RESOLVE and other military actions related to Iraq and Syria” killed “approximately 864 civilians” and injured “approximately 219 civilians.”
Amnesty International and Airwars, however, have estimated that more than 1,600 civilians were killed by U.S.-led coalition strikes from June to October 2017 in the city of Raqqa alone. Amnesty’s findings were based on four visits to Raqqa that included site investigations at more than 200 strike locations and interviews with more than 400 witnesses and survivors. Amnesty researchers also analyzed more than 2 million satellite image frames to determine when each of the more than 11,000 buildings destroyed in Raqqa was hit. Researchers analyzed and authenticated video footage captured during the battle. And the organization’s military experts established type and provenance of air-delivered bombs and missiles and ground-launched artillery and mortar shells.
According to the U.S. military’s new report, “DoD assessments seek to incorporate all available information, including information provided by [nongovernmental organizations] and [international organizations], as well as additional information and tools that are not available to other organizations – such as operational planning data and intelligence sources.”
Yet DOD assessments in Syria do not incorporate site visits or interviews with witnesses or survivors of any of its strikes who could speak to the occupants of a building at the time the U.S.-led coalition destroyed it. DOD’s “operational planning data” would not provide that information, and it’s not clear that “intelligence sources” would have that information, either, or would have the incentive to report it accurately. This is a crucial piece of the U.S. military investigation that’s missing.
Likewise, in Somalia, the new Pentagon report acknowledges two civilians killed in 2019 by U.S. military operations there, which target the non-state armed group al-Shabaab. It earlier acknowledged the United States caused two civilian casualties in April 2018, although it didn’t admit those until April 2019 and they are not acknowledged in this latest report.
Meanwhile, Amnesty researchers in Somalia determined, based on extensive testimonial evidence and expert analysis of images and video from strike sites, satellite imagery, and weapons identification, that 21 civilians were killed and 11 injured from just nine U.S. air strikes from among the scores dating back to early 2017, when President Trump declared southern Somalia an “area of active hostilities.”
The Pentagon’s explanation for the disparity — that it has access to “operational planning data” and “intelligence sources” that NGOs do not — is the equivalent of saying “trust us” based on secret evidence. Meanwhile, it dismisses researchers’ findings, which are based on extensive and well-documented evidence shared with the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), without providing any basis for disputing its quality or credibility.
The Pentagon can’t expect the public to accept that kind of explanation — neither in the United States nor in the places where it’s bombing. If the United States truly lacks the ability to interview witnesses and survivors and visit strike sites in certain locations, then it should at least explain why it’s dismissing the documentation and testimony provided by independent nongovernmental organizations who demonstrate that they have thoroughly and meticulously done so.
Beyond that, if the United States is going to engage in lethal operations abroad, then it needs to develop a reliable means for investigating and reporting on who has been killed and injured as a result. It’s not enough to make the blanket statement that “[a]ll DoD operations in 2019 were conducted in accordance with law of war requirements, including law of war protections for civilians,” when it appears not to have fully assessed the impact of its actions. If it’s not clear who was killed or injured in a particular military operation, then how can commanders know if all necessary precautions were taken, or if its pre-strike assessments of expected harm were accurate, or even reasonable?
The difficult work of credibly investigating the aftermath of lethal military operations is the responsibility of the governments who engage in them. It cannot be left to nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International, which lack the resources to investigate anywhere near the hundreds or thousands of military strikes the United States engages in within any given year.
Finally, the report mentions toward the end that DOD has submitted to Congress a report of 611 “ex gratia” payments made as a form of condolence or assistance “in the event of property damage, personal injury, or death” caused by U.S. military actions. The report does not say where or to whom those payments were made, but none of the hundreds of people with whom Amnesty researchers were in contact for their investigations had been contacted at all by the U.S. military, let alone received any assistance. All civilians harmed by U.S. military actions should at the very least receive an acknowledgment of their loss. If laws of war were violated, they are entitled to reparations.
The U.S. military’s reports have the potential to be an important step toward providing accountability for individuals and families around the world who’ve been harmed by U.S. military actions. Thanks to acts of Congress, these reports have provided more information each year. But for these reports to make a meaningful contribution, they must contain concrete information based on thorough investigations, and must acknowledge and assist the survivors.
So far, those things are still not happening.