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Mosul airstrikes

The Iraqi city of Mosul was largely destroyed during fighting between U.S.-led coalition forces and Islamic State militants in 2017. Thousands of civilians were killed or wounded, many of them by ferocious U.S. and allied aerial bombing. (Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images) 

Biden Joins Long Line of Presidents to 'Woefully' Undercount Civilians Killed in US Wars

"Victims, their families, and the American public deserve far better than this."

Human rights defenders on Wednesday accused the Biden administration of joining its predecessors in undercounting the number of civilians killed during U.S. wars, as the latest annual Pentagon report on noncombatants killed by American bombs and bullets was blasted as "grossly inadequate" by a leading ACLU official. 

"Almost 20 years into our country's unending conflicts, the Biden administration joins its predecessors in undercounting the number of civilians, likely all Black or Brown people, killed or injured in U.S. military operations overseas."
—Hina Shamsi, ACLU

According to a Department of Defense report (pdf), U.S. forces killed 23 civilians last year during military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

However, the true number of civilians killed by U.S. attacks in 2020 was far higher, according to organizations that monitor such casualties. The U.K.-based journalistic monitoring group Airwars, for example, reported (pdf) between 34 and 36 civilian deaths caused by U.S.-led attacks on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria last year. Airwars also reported between seven and 13 civilians killed by U.S. forces in Somalia last year.

A December 2020 report by Neta C. Crawford of the Costs of War Project—a team of 50 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners, and physicians at Brown University's Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs in Rhode Island—found that at least 83 civilians were killed in 24 separate U.S. attacks in the first nine months of last year.

While the discrepancy between the number of civilian casualties in 2020 acknowledged by the United States and figures reported by independent monitors and media is stark, it was even greater in 2019. That year, the Pentagon claimed responsibility (pdf) for 132 civilian deaths, while Airwars and the Costs of War Project reported more than 1,100 civilians killed by U.S.-led attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria alone. 

The dramatic decline in civilians killed and injured by U.S. forces is the result of a major decrease in overall American bombing attacks in the at least six nations targeted in the so-called War on Terror. Airwars estimates U.S. warplanes and drones carried out approximately 1,000 strikes last year, down from around 3,500 bombings in 2019 and 13,000 airstrikes in 2016, the last full year of the Obama administration. 

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, blasted the latest administration to undercount the number of civilians killed in U.S. wars.

 

"Almost 20 years into our country's unending conflicts, the Biden administration joins its predecessors in undercounting the number of civilians, likely all Black or Brown people, killed or injured in U.S. military operations overseas," Shamsi said in a statement. "Compared to credible independent media accounts, United Nations reporting, and rights groups' investigations, it is clear that the Defense Department's investigations and acknowledgment of civilian harm remain woefully inadequate."

"The grossly inadequate official accounting for the costs and consequences of the United States' lethal actions abroad prevents meaningful public oversight and accountability for wrongful deaths and perpetual war policies," Shamsi added. "Civilian victims, their families, and the American public deserve far better than this."

Successive U.S. administrations have attempted to undercount or conceal the true number of civilians killed during the War on Terror.

Former President Donald Trump—who infamously vowed to "bomb the shit out of" Islamic State militants and their families while subsequently loosening rules of engagement meant to protect civilians—signed a 2019 executive order revoking an Obama-era requirement that the director of national intelligence publish an annual report on civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in areas "outside of war zones" but under U.S. attack, including Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya.

During the tenure of former President Barack Obama, who dramatically escalated unmanned aerial drone strikes, CIA Director John Brennan claimed that not a single civilian was killed by airstrikes in Pakistan in a nearly one-year period in 2010-2011 during which the Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted dozens of casualties. Obama—under whom U.S. forces bombed medical facilities, homes, weddings, funerals, first responders, U.S. citizens, and allied forces—also redefined the term "militant" to include all military-age males in a designated strike zone in an attempt to artificially lower civilian casualty counts.

The administration of former President George W. Bush—who invaded Iraq under false pretenses and under whom the majority of civilian deaths in the War on Terror he started occurred—also repeatedly came under fire for undercounting civilian casualties. As Gen. Tommy Franks infamously declared on the eve of the Iraq invasion, "We don't do body counts." 

While such an attitude makes it virtually impossible to tell exactly how many men, women, and children have been killed by U.S. forces over the past two decades of unending war, estimates range from around 500,000 (pdf) to well over one million (pdf). 


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