Follow us on social

Shutterstock_1241301496-scaled

New Pentagon report vastly understates civilians killed by the US military

Humanitarian groups also wonder why victims’ families have not been compensated.

Analysis | Global Crises

This week the Pentagon released its annual report outlining the civilian harm caused by operations across the globe. It vastly undercounts the number of civilians the United States is killing in conflicts.

Annual reports, such as this 21-page “Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations in 2020,” have been a requirement of U.S. law since 2018. They are meant to cover all civilian harm caused by ongoing U.S. military actions around the world, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

For 2020, the Department of Defense concluded its forces had killed 23 civilians and injured a further 10. But that number is nearly five times lower than the tally we at Airwars produced. In total, our estimate (which we believe to be conservative) concluded that at least 102 noncombatant deaths likely resulted from U.S. attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Syria alone.

The biggest discrepancy comes in Afghanistan. The United States admitted killing 20 civilians in seven events during 2020. Yet the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan found the death toll to be more than four times higher, at 89 killed and a further 31 injured by international military forces. U.S. personnel made up the great majority of those international forces.

In Iraq and Syria, the end of the Islamic State as a territorial entity has seen the ferocity of the U.S. campaign subside significantly in recent years. Yet, the Pentagon’s estimate of only one death still stands in sharp contrast to our records, which found between three and six deaths that were likely caused by U.S. strikes.

Rather than serving as a good example of transparency, this one casualty showcases the ways in which the Pentagon undercounts casualties. The civilian casualty occurred on March 13 last year when U.S. forces targeted Iranian linked militias at Karbala airport. The United States concluded that a 23-year-old civilian security guard, Karrar Sabbar, was killed. Public reporting claims that two more civilian police officers also died. It remains unclear why they weren't included in the Pentagon toll.

In Somalia, between seven and 13 civilians were likely killed by U.S. actions during the year, according to Airwars’ monitoring of local communities. But DOD declared only one civilian death from U.S. actions in that time. It is only in Yemen that monitoring organizations and the Pentagon can agree with both groups’ finding no likely civilian deaths caused by U.S. actions during the year.

This is not to say there are no positive aspects to the new Defense Department report. While it is easy to criticize, the report still represents a significant transparency benchmark for other militaries and represents a precedent to follow. Put bluntly, none of the U.S.'s closest allies, including the United Kingdom, France, and other European nations, even come close to reporting on civilian fatalities in such a systemic manner.

Nevertheless, the discrepancies between Pentagon estimates of civilian casualties and those of independent organizations are worrying.

At the same time, the report also reveals that no condolence payments were made to the families of the victims that the Pentagon did acknowledge, despite Congress allocating $3 million for exactly this purpose. This has been a common trend in the United States in recent years and we are scratching our heads trying to understand why it still isn't happening.

In cases such as those of Karrar Sabbar, the security guard killed in that Iraqi strike, the United States has admitted accidentally killing him and there is money available to support his family who have been left behind. So why isn't the U.S. military establishment giving it to them? It suggests a worrying lack of interest in the devastating impact of those U.S. actions which killed or injured civilians.

Later this year, the Pentagon will issue a major update of its civilian casualty mitigation policies, known as a Department of Defense Instruction, which has been in review in consultation with human rights organizations for several years. On May 25, new Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl confirmed in writing to NGOs that the new policy would be published by the Biden administration shortly. This is a welcome development, and it seems the Biden administration is actively engaging on civilian harm. But many good laws are already on the books and yet estimates of civilian harm are consistently low and no compensation is given to families.

Image: anasalhajj via shutterstock.com
Analysis | Global Crises
US lifts ban on Neo-Nazi linked Azov Brigade in Ukraine

The Idea of the Nation symbol used by the 12th Azov Assault Brigade of Ukraines National Guard is pictured during a rally held in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the units foundation, Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine. Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on May 05, 2024. Photo by Dmytro Smolienko/Ukrinform/ABACAPRESS.COM

US lifts ban on Neo-Nazi linked Azov Brigade in Ukraine

QiOSK

The State Department announced that it has lifted its ban on the use of American weapons by the notorious Azov Brigade in Ukraine, an ultra-nationalist outfit widely described as “neo-fascist," even "neo-Nazi."

The group was initially formed in 2014 as a volunteer militia to fight against Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists in the eastern Donbas region, and later incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine, under the purview of the Interior Ministry.

keep readingShow less
Senegal's new president is anything but a lackey for the West

Senegal's President Bassirou Diomaye Faye shakes hands with Burkina Faso's junta leader Captain Ibrahim Traore upon his arrival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso May 30, 2024. Senegal's Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Senegal's new president is anything but a lackey for the West

Africa

In Senegal, February and March brought tension as then-President Macky Sall, facing a term limit, postponed scheduled elections and seemed poised to remain in power past the expiration of his mandate.

Street protests and outcry from at home and abroad forced Sall’s hand.

keep readingShow less
Could a reformist actually win the Iranian presidential election?

Masoud Pezeshkian, a member of parliament speaks at a press conference after registering as a candidate for the presidential election at the Interior Ministry, in Tehran, Iran June 1, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Could a reformist actually win the Iranian presidential election?

Middle East

Iran’s presidential election, necessitated by the death in a helicopter accident of President Ebrahim Raisi May 19, will be held June 28. Under Iran’s constitution, early elections for a successor must take place within 50 days after the previous president has either died or resigned, or was impeached and removed from office.

Over 80 people, mostly previous and current officials, registered with the Ministry of Interior as candidates. The Guardian Council, a constitutional body, vets all candidates for national elections. On Sunday June 9, the Council announced a list of six eligible candidates. Of the six, five are from the ranks of the hardline and conservative factions, and were widely expected to qualify, while the sixth candidate, a reformist, is a surprise.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest