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Critics Charge Pentagon 'Still Undercounting' Civilians Killed by US Military Overseas

"The difficult work of credibly investigating the aftermath of operations is the responsibility of the governments who engage in lethal actions."

A 2019 coalition study found that U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Syria killed 1,302 people, but Amnesty International disputed that number as too low.

A 2019 coalition study found that U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Syria killed 1,302 people, but Amnesty International disputed that number as too low. (Photo: Amnesty International)

International civil society groups responded to the Department of Defense's latest legally required report to Congress about the U.S. military's killing of civilians by sharing evidence that the death toll is actually much higher and demanding greater accountability and justice for victims and their families.

The Pentagon on Wednesday publicly released the annual report (pdf) for federal lawmakers, which is mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. The document detailed "confirmed or reasonably suspected" civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces during 2019 and provided updated figures for previous years.

"The Department of Defense's submission of this year's report marks some progress in terms of transparency of U.S. military operations. The content of the report, however, suggests that the Pentagon is still undercounting civilian casualties," Daphne Eviatar, the director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement Wednesday.

"DoD assesses that there were approximately 132 civilians killed and approximately 91 civilians injured during 2019 as a result of U.S. military operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia," according to the report. "DoD assessments did not identify any civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations in Yemen and Libya in 2019."

The report said that the majority of deaths last year were in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon claims 108 civilians were killed and 75 others were injured. The London-based nonprofit Airwars, which tracks harm to civilians resulting from military actions in conflict zones, challenged those numbers in a response piece published Thursday on the group's website.

"That casualty tally represented a significant undercount according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has been comprehensively monitoring civilian deaths from all parties for more than a decade," Airwars explained. "According to UNAMA's own Annual Report, at least 559 civilians were killed and 786 injured by international military actions during 2019—almost all by airstrikes."

Airwars also cast doubt on the Pentagon's reporting of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, noting a steep decline from 832 in 2018 to just 101 last year. According to the group:

That sharp reduction was partly expected, given the significant reduction in battle tempo following the bloody capture of both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. However, in early 2019 very significant civilian fatalities were locally alleged from coalition air and artillery strikes during the final stages of the war—only a fraction of which have been admitted.

Of the 73 known civilian harm claims against the U.S.-led coalition during 2019, Airwars presently estimates that at least 460 and as many as 1,100 non combatants likely died. However in its own report to the Pentagon, the U.S. has conceded just 22 civilian deaths for the year across Iraq and Syria, in eleven events.

The Defense Department's report reveals other worrying trends. Of the 21 historical cases officially conceded from U.S. actions for 2017 over the past year, 18 had been Airwars referrals. Yet every single allegation referred by Airwars to the coalition for both 2018 and 2019 was rejected—amounting to many hundreds of dismissed local claims.

Chris Woods, Airwars' director, expressed concern about the coalition's apparent shift away from engaging with external sources that track military impacts on civilians, which his group intends to address with the Pentagon and U.S. lawmakers.

"Almost all of the deaths conceded by the U.S. in Iraq and Syria for 2019 represented self referrals from pilots and analysts, with external sources cited on only three occasions. Many hundreds of civilian deaths which were credibly reported by local communities appear to have been ignored," said Woods. "This goes against the Pentagon's repeated promise to engage better with external NGOs including monitors, and we will be asking for an urgent explanation from officials of this apparent backward step."

Amnesty's Eviatar similarly pointed out Wednesday that the new Pentagon report "still fails to acknowledge hundreds of civilian casualties that Amnesty International's researchers investigated on the ground in Raqqa, Syria, and assessed from the U.S.-led military operation in 2017." She continued:

The Defense Department appears to have dismissed out of hand many of the civilian deaths and injuries we have documented in the past two years in Somalia, simply assessing them as 'not credible' despite our extensive testimonial evidence and expert analysis of images and video from strike sites, satellite imagery, and weapons identification.

We believe at least some of that disparity is due to the Defense Department failure to conduct its own interviews with witnesses and survivors, and failure to visit the locations of the strikes in places where U.S. forces are present and have access to strike locations, as is the case in Raqqa and parts of Iraq.

Airwars estimates that at least 70 civilians have been killed in Somalia since 2007, but noted Wednesday that U.S. Africa Command has, until recently, "routinely denied any civilian harm from its actions" in the country.

"The U.S. military's campaign in Somalia has intensified significantly under President Donald Trump," Airwars added, "with at least 186 declared actions since 2017—more than four times the number of strikes officially carried out by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations combined. Local civilian harm claims have also intensified under Trump, with as many as 157 non combatant deaths locally claimed."

Eviatar emphasized that the U.S. government has an obligation to "develop a reliable means for investigating and reporting on who it has killed and injured" in military actions abroad.

"The difficult work of credibly investigating the aftermath of operations is the responsibility of the governments who engage in lethal actions," she said. "It cannot be left to nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International, which already has provided a vast amount of information on which the Defense Department has so far failed to act."

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