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U.S. drone strike Kabul

A man grieves for his family members during a mass funeral for the 10 civilians that were killed in a U.S. drone strike on August 29, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Pentagon Blasted for 'Unacceptable Failure' to Reckon With Civilian Casualties

"For too long, the United States has failed to live up to its legal and moral commitments to the protection of civilians, as well as its own stated policies. This needs to change."

Brett Wilkins

Days after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a new investigation into a clandestine airstrike that killed scores of Syrian noncombatants whose deaths were subsequently covered up, 24 advocacy groups on Wednesday published an open letter calling on the Pentagon to "reckon with U.S.-caused civilian casualties and commit to urgent reforms."

"We urge you to... commit to finally implementing structural changes to prioritize civilian protection and accountability for civilian harm."

The letter, addressed to Austin, expresses "grave concerns" about the Pentagon's "civilian harm policies and practices and their impact," citing an August 29 drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians including an aid worker and seven children, as well as a March 18, 2019 airstrike in Baghuz, Syria in which around 70 civilians died and was "flagged as a possible war crime by at least one Defense Department lawyer."

"These strikes, and the Defense Department's record of civilian harm over the past 20 years, illustrate an unacceptable failure to prioritize civilian protection in the use of lethal force; meaningfully investigate, acknowledge, and provide amends when harm occurs; and provide accountability in the event of wrongdoing," the signers continue.

While determining the exact number of civilians killed during 21 years of the U.S.-led so-called War on Terror is impossible given that the United States doesn't "do body counts" or, in many cases, adequately investigate who has been harmed by airstrikes and other attacks, the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs says 900,000 noncombatants have died. Other groups contend that number could be perhaps twice as high. 

The bulk of these casualties occurred during the administration of former President George W. Bush. His successor, former President Barack Obama, bombed more countries and dramatically expanded unmanned aerial drone strikes, while former President Donald Trump presided over the deaths of thousands of civilians after promising to "bomb the shit" out of Islamic State militants and their families, and relaxing rules of engagement meant to protect noncombatants.

With the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and increasingly infrequent U.S. attacks in the ongoing War on Terror, civilian casualties have declined dramatically under President Joe Biden. However, monitoring groups including U.K.-based Airwars have periodically reported noncombatant deaths and injuries caused by U.S. attacks in at least Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

"For too long, the United States has failed to live up to its legal and moral commitments to the protection of civilians, as well as its own stated policies," the letter argues. "This needs to change."

"The Defense Department's response to the Kabul and Baghuz strikes also underscores the department's repeated failure to adequately investigate alleged civilian harm—including possible war crimes, as required under international law—and provide compensation or amends," it adds.

"We urge you to robustly account for and reckon with the civilian harm of the last 20 years," the signers assert, "and commit to finally implementing structural changes to prioritize civilian protection and accountability for civilian harm."

The groups' demand came as the PAX Protection of Civilians conference kicked off in The Hague and online, with speakers including Airwars co-founder Chris Woods and survivors of a 2015 U.S.-backed Dutch airstrike on the Iraqi city of Hawija that killed 70 civilians.


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