News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

January 12, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

The longstanding Chair of Airwars Elizabeth Minor has stepped down due to ill health.

Elizabeth Minor, the longstanding voluntary Chair of Airwars, has sadly stepped down due to ill health, the organisation’s Board has announced.

Since joining the Airwars Board in summer 2016, Elizabeth has been a critical driver of the organisation’s many successes.

A leading conflict casualty recording expert, Elizabeth was a key contributor to Every Casualty Counts’ world first Standards for Casualty Recording; is a co-recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with ICAN in helping galvanize successful negotiations of a global treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons; and is a key adviser with Article 36, the international NGO focused on reducing harm from weapons.

Elizabeth Minor: stepping down due to ill health

Among many accomplishments during her time chairing Airwars’ volunteer Board, Elizabeth led on the development of the organisation’s secondary trauma reduction policy in partnership with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma; and was a champion throughout of the highest ethical and research standards. She also chaired the Airwars Advisory Board.

“I’m very proud to have been able to contribute to Airwars’ Boards as the organisation has developed from a very small startup to the established, professional and widely respected organisation it is today,” Elizabeth said this week.

“Of the work we have done together, I’m particularly proud of our establishing procedures for trauma risk management within the organisation – which no similar NGO had comparable policies on at the time we did this work.

“I’m looking forward to seeing where Airwars goes next and collaborating in other capacities, and wish the team and Boards all the best. It has been wonderful to work with such an excellent group of people.”

Speaking about Elizabeth’s departure, Airwars’ outgoing Director Chris Woods described her as “a wonderful, passionate and expert Chair who along with her volunteer colleagues has made an immeasurable contribution to our successes as an organisation. Elizabeth will be very much missed, and we wish her the very best.”

New Board member announced

A new Chair is expected to be appointed at Airwars’ next Annual General Meeting in the Spring. In the meantime, Aditi Gupta has been seconded to the Board with the warm support of staff, volunteers and other Board members.

Director for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict, Aditi is also Deputy Director for the UK Chapter of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security. She previously managed the Freedom Online Coalition Secretariat, through her role at Global Partners Digital where she worked on strengthening civil society advocacy in cyber policy processes.

“I’ve closely followed Airwars’ vital work since their inception, and I’m so proud to work with them officially as a member of the Board. Over the years, the team at Airwars has built an unignorable evidence base of allegations, putting the experience of and impact borne by civilians in conflict firmly at the door of those who need to take accountability,” Aditi said this week.

“I wholeheartedly support this important work, and hope my experience in parliamentary engagement, organisational management, and efforts working on intersectional justice and equality issues will bolster their strength further.”

Aditi Gupta has now joined the Airwars Board

Update on Director recruitment

In a further update this week, the Board said that it has unfortunately not yet been successful in its efforts to appoint a successor to Chris Woods, the founding Director of Airwars who announced he would be stepping down after more than seven years in the role.

Brexit and COVID between them have made for a very challenging UK jobs market at present, and the Board says it is determined to ensure the best possible appointment as Director to take the organisation forward. In the meantime the Board has asked Chris Woods to stay on temporarily as Director.

“The Board is immensely grateful to Chris for agreeing to delay his departure for a few months while we complete our process to find the right leader to build on his incredible work, and ensure a smooth transition once they are appointed,” notes Airwars Treasurer James Hirst.

Further updates on the recruitment process are expected in the weeks ahead.

Published

December 22, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Official military data shows a 54 percent decline in strikes across all US conflicts during Biden’s year in office.

There has been much speculation in recent weeks about what President Biden’s first year in office shows us about his foreign policy – and in particular whether he is ending 20 years of America’s so-called ‘forever wars’.

As 2021 nears its end, Airwars reached out to US combatant commands to request strike data for conflicts. Coupled with the long-delayed release of crucial strike data from Afghanistan, Airwars can assess for the first time what the ‘war on terror’ looks like under Joe Biden.

The biggest take-home is that Biden has significantly decreased US military action across the globe.

Overall, declared US strikes have fallen by 54% globally during 2021

In total, declared US strikes across all five active US conflict zones – Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – fell from 951 actions in 2020, to 439 by mid December 2021, a decrease of 54 percent. This is by far the lowest declared annual US strike number since at least 2004, and reflects a broader trend of declining US actions in recent years.

During 2021, the overwhelming majority of US strikes (372) took place in Afghanistan prior to withdrawal on August 31st. In fact, the United States carried out more than five times as many strikes in Afghanistan this year than in all other active US conflict zones combined.

If you were to remove Afghanistan from the data, the United States has declared just 67 strikes across the globe so far in 2021.

Afghanistan dominated US military actions during 2021

Civilian casualties also down

This trend is also reflected in far lower numbers of civilians allegedly killed by US strikes. During 2021, there were no credible local allegations of civilians likely killed by US strikes in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan or Yemen.

However,  at least 11 civilians were likely killed by US actions in Syria. In Afghanistan at least 10 civilians were confirmed killed by US actions. That latter figure is almost certainly higher, since we now know the US dropped more than 800 munitions on Taliban and Islamic State fighters during the year. At least some of those strikes were in urban areas where civilians are particularly at risk. However exact estimates remain elusive, due to ongoing confusion between US strikes and those carried out by Afghan security forces up to August.

In Somalia one civilian was locally reported killed by US strikes, though this occurred before Biden assumed office on January 20th.

Biden is partly continuing a trend seen in recent years – the number of strikes has largely fallen since 2016 when the war with the so-called Islamic State reached its apex. Below, we provide breakdowns of both US and allied airstrikes and locally reported civilian casualties – as well as emerging trends – for each individual conflict.

Over the length of the ‘War on Terror’, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 still marks the highest number of declared US strikes.

Afghanistan

On December 17th 2021, Biden’s administration finally released strike data for the final two years of the Afghanistan war. Such monthly releases were standard practice for nearly two decades but were stopped in March 2020, with the Trump administration arguing that their ongoing release could jeopardise peace talks with the Taliban. The Biden administration then chose to continue with that secrecy.

Now we can see why. The new releases show that despite a ‘peace’ agreement with the Taliban signed on February 29th 2020, under which the US was expected to withdraw in 14 months, the Pentagon continued its aggressive aerial campaigns in Afghanistan. Between March and December 2020, more than 400 previously undeclared strikes took place under Trump, while there were at least 300 US strikes in Afghanistan under Biden until August.

In total, almost 800 previously secret recent US airstrikes in Afghanistan during the Trump and Biden administrations have now been declared.

While Airwars does not track allegations of civilian harm in Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has done so for more than a decade. Yet the decision by the Pentagon to stop publishing strike data in early 2020 may have led the UN to significantly underestimate casualties from US actions.

In its report detailing civilian casualties in Afghanistan from January to June 2021, UNAMA found that 146 civilians had been killed and 243 injured in airstrikes. Yet it seemed to assume these were all carried out by US-backed Afghan military forces, instead of the US.

“UNAMA…did not verify any airstrike by international military forces that resulted in civilian casualties during the first six months of 2021,” the report asserted. Such assessments will likely now require a fresh review, in the wake of recent US strike data releases.

We do know for certain that ten civilians were killed by US actions after that six-month period, on August 29th this year in Kabul – in the final US drone strike of a 20-year war. The US initially claimed this was a “righteous strike” on an Islamic State terrorist. However investigative journalists quickly showed the victims were in fact an aid worker and nine members of his young family, forcing the military to admit an error. Despite this, it recently concluded no disciplinary measures against personnel were necessary.

After the ignominious US withdrawal on August 31, US strikes have stopped. While at the time Biden discussed the possibility of continuing “over the horizon” airstrikes from a nearby country, this has not yet happened.

“The skies over Afghanistan are free of US war planes for the first time in two decades. A whole generation grew up under their contrails, nobody looks at the sky without checking for them,” Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group told Airwars. “Their absence heralds the start of a new era, even if it’s not yet clear what that new chapter will bring.”

Iraq and Syria

During 2020, the number of air and artillery strikes conducted by the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State – Operation Inherent Resolve – has continued to fall, alongside an ongoing reduction in civilian harm allegations.

OIR declared 201 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2020, and only 58 strikes by early December 2021. This represents a reduction of around 70  percent in one year, and a 99 percent reduction in declared strikes between 2017 and 2021.

In Iraq, Airwars has tracked no local allegations of civilian harm from US led actions during 2021, down from an estimated five civilian fatalities in 2020. At the height of the Coalition’s war against ISIS in 2017, Airwars had tracked a minimum of 1,423 civilian fatalities.

In Syria, however, civilian harm allegations from Coalition actions actually increased this year, up from a minimum of one death in 2020 to at least eleven likely civilian fatalities in 2021. This does still represent a low figure compared to recent history: in 2019, Airwars had identified a minimum of 490 civilians likely killed by the Coalition, a reduction of 98 percent to this year.

Since 2019, Afghanistan has replaced Iraq and Syria as the primary focus of US military actions.

One key concern in Syria is that most recently reported civilian deaths have resulted not from declared US airstrikes, but from joint ground operations with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), often supported by US attack helicopters.

These include a raid on the town of Thiban in Deir Ezzor, carried out by the SDF with the support of the US-led Coalition at dawn on July 16th 2021. Eyewitnesses reported that a “force consisting of several cars raided civilian homes, without warning, accompanied by indiscriminate shooting between the houses with the aim of terrorising the ‘wanted’”. Two civilians, a father and son, were killed in the raid, reportedly shot outside their home.

Separately, on the morning of December 3rd 2021, a declared US drone strike killed at least one man and injured at least six civilians, including up to four children from the same family. Multiple sources reported that the drone targeted a motorcycle but also hit a passing car that the Qasoum family were traveling in. Ahmed Qasoum, who was driving, described the incident; “the motorcycle was going in front of me and I decided to pass it, when I got parallel to it, I felt a lot of pressure pushing the car to the left of the road….It was horrible.” His ten-year-old son had a fractured skull, while his 15-year-old daughter sustained a serious shrapnel injury to her head.

On December 6th, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the strike had targeted an Al-Qaeda linked militant but “the initial review of the strike did indicate the potential for possible civilian casualties.”

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A dashboard camera captures the moment a US strike also hits a passing civilian vehicle. 

Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen

Under Donald Trump, there had been a record rise both in declared US airstrikes in Somalia, and in locally reported civilian deaths and injuries – with the last likely death from a US action tracked by Airwars on the final day of Trump’s presidency.

Since then, Airwars has tracked no locally reported civilian deaths in Somalia under Biden. For the entire year, AFRICOM has declared nine strikes so far, four of which occurred under Biden. When he came to power, his administration implemented a six-month moratorium on strikes, multiple sources said. This meant that both AFRICOM and even the CIA had to have White House permission before carrying out strikes in either Somalia or Yemen.

On July 20th 2021, the day the moratorium ended, AFRICOM declared the first Somali strike of the Biden era – targeting the Al-Shabaab Islamist group. Multiple militants were reported killed, though no civilians were among them. A small number of additional strikes against Al-Shabaab occurred in the weeks afterwards, the most recent of which was on August 24th. Since then, there have been no declared strikes.

In Yemen, where the US has carried out periodic strikes against alleged Al-Qaeda affiliates since 2009, there have so far been no reliable reports of US strikes under Biden. In August, Al-Qaeda itself claimed two of its fighters had been killed in a US action, though there were no details on the date or location of this event.

Responding to an email query from Airwars on November 18th, the US military denied carrying out any recent attacks, noting that “CENTCOM conducted its last counterterror strike in Yemen on June 24, 2019. CENTCOM has not conducted any new counterterror strikes in Yemen since.”

However, in a more ambivalent statement to Airwars on December 16th, CENTCOM spokesperson Bill Urban noted only that “I am not aware of any strikes in Yemen in 2021.” Airwars is seeking further clarity, particularly since it is known that the CIA carried out several airstrikes on Al Qaeda in Yemen during 2020.

In both Libya and Pakistan, long running US counter terrorism campaigns now appear to be over. The last locally claimed CIA strike in Pakistan was in July 2018 under President Trump, while in Libya, the last likely US strike was in October 2019.

A crucial year ahead

Based on official US military data, it is clear that Joe Biden is building on a trend seen in the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency, further decreasing the scope and scale of the ‘forever wars.’

In Iraq and Syria, US forces appear to be transitioning away from carrying out active strikes in favour of supporting allied groups – although Special Forces ground actions continue in Syria, sometimes with associated civilian harm. The war in Afghanistan is now over, and it seems the long-running US campaigns in Pakistan and Libya have drawn to permanent halts. US airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen have all but stopped for now.

Still unknown is the likely framework for US military actions moving forward. In early 2021, Biden commissioned a major review of US counter terrorism policy. Led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the results are expected to be announced in the coming months. This will likely give us a far clearer idea how Biden believes the US should fight both ongoing wars and future ones.

Is 2022 the year Biden rescinds the AUMF? (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

And then there is amending – or even repealing – the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). That law, passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11, essentially granted the US President the right to conduct strikes anywhere in the world in the context of the ‘war on terror.’ Initially designed for use against Al-Qaeda, it has been employed against an ever widening pool of US enemies.

The future of the 2001 AUMF is once again likely to be debated by Congress in 2022. While unlikely to be repealed, it could possibly be significantly amended, Brian Finucane, senior advisor for the US programme at International Crisis Group, told Airwars.

“That would entail at a minimum specifying who the United States can hit – explicitly identifying the enemy. Secondly identifying where it should be used – geographical limits. And thirdly giving a sunset clause,” he said. “As it is now that AUMF is basically a blank cheque to be used by different administrations.”

▲ President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with national security advisers to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, Thursday, August 19, 2021, in the White House Situation Room. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)

Published

December 18, 2021

Written by

Chris Woods and Joe Dyke

Almost 800 previously secret US airstrikes in Afghanistan during 2020 and 2021 are revealed, as US military declassifies data.

The release of classified records of recent US airstrikes in Afghanistan has revealed more than 400 previously undeclared actions in the last months of Donald Trump’s presidency – and at least 300 more strikes ordered by Joe Biden’s administration.

Even after the United States and the Taliban signed an effective peace agreement in February 2020, the US continued secretly to bomb Taliban and Islamic State targets, the data shows. And during 2021 – as the Taliban continued to ramp up attacks on Afghan government forces, and advance on Kabul – more than 800 munitions were fired by mostly US aircraft.

The crucial Afghanistan monthly data by Air Force Central Command, or AFCENT, was stopped in March 2020 after the Trump administration agreed an effective ceasefire deal with the Taliban. Those public releases showed how many strikes the US and its international allies carried out in Afghanistan as well as details of weapons fired, and had been released monthly for nearly a decade beforehand.

At the time the US Air Force said it was stopping the releases due to diplomatic concerns, “including how the report could adversely impact ongoing discussions with the Taliban regarding Afghanistan peace talks”.

The newly declassified data adds credence to allegations at the time that the United States may have secretly upped its strikes in Afghanistan to put pressure on the Taliban during negotiations taking place in Qatar, with sometimes devastating impacts for civilians.

While the United Nations was seemingly convinced that US strikes had largely stopped, the Taliban accused the US of violating the terms of the agreement “almost every day.” Those claims are now more likely to be taken seriously.

“These data tell the story of America’s struggle to end its longest war,” Graeme Smith of International Crisis Group told Airwars.

An air war that never ended

The US and the Taliban signed a so-called ‘peace’ arrangement on February 29th 2020. This did not explicitly commit the US to a full ceasefire, but involved the Taliban effectively committing not to attack American forces in Afghanistan during a proposed 14-month US withdrawal period.

It was also assumed that US strikes would also significantly wind down, and be focused primarily on self-defence actions. Yet the newly released AFCENT data shows US attacks never ceased, with 413 ‘international’ airstrikes between March and December 2020 alone.

Declassified AFCENT data has revealed almost 800 previously undeclared airstrikes conducted in Afghanistan during 2020 and 2021

Following the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020, official ceasefire talks then began in Doha in September of the same year between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. Yet in the same month, we now know, the US still secretly conducted 34 airstrikes.

Continuing US actions coincided with Taliban onslaughts on the outskirts of the cities of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. The Taliban argued that these assaults, on Afghan government forces rather than American ones, were not in breach of the agreement but the US disagreed, Smith said. “That is why you see a sharp uptick in airstrikes from October 2020 as the Americans desperately tried to defend those provincial capitals,” he said.

Amnesty International recently highlighted what it believed was a US airstrike on Kunduz in November 2020 which killed two civilian women, Bilqiseh bint Abdul Qadir (21) and Nouriyeh bint Abdul Khaliq (25), and one man, Qader Khan (24). Munition fragments recovered from the scene pointed clearly to a US strike. It is now clear that the United States secretly conducted 69 strikes in Afghanistan that month alone.

Since assuming office in late January 2021, Joe Biden initially oversaw a slight drop in strikes before a significant increase, as the 20-year US occupation ended in a chaotic and devastating withdrawal.

In the final desperate three months of the US presence, 226 weapons were fired in 97 airstrikes by US (and possibly allied) aircraft in a doomed bid to halt the Taliban’s lightning advance. Many of those actions were likely to have been close air support strikes aiding Afghan National Army forces in urban areas, who were being overrun. The known risk of high civilian casualties from such actions has long been known.

In the chaotic last days of the war, dozens of civilians and 13 US military personnel died in an ISIS-K suicide attack as US forces barricaded themselves inside Kabul airport and desperate Afghans flocked to the site hoping to flee the country.

And in the final airstrike of the US occupation, 10 civilians were killed when American drone operators confused a father returning to his family home with an Islamic State terrorist. Last week, the Pentagon announced no disciplinary action would be taken in that strike.

United Nations deceived?

Stopping the release of monthly airstrike data in early 2020 also appears to have convinced the United Nations that the US was no longer conducting significant attacks.

In both its 2020 annual report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan and its 6-monthly report for the first half of 2021, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) played down the impact of US and international strikes – believing them to have mostly ended.

During 2020 the UN concluded, more than 3,000 Afghan civilians were killed in ongoing fighting between the Taliban and the then-Afghan government, supported by international forces. According to UNAMA, 341 civilians were killed that year by airstrikes – of which it blamed 89 deaths on international forces.

Yet UNAMA’s 2020 annual report said that after the February 29th agreement between the US and Taliban “the international military significantly reduced its aerial operations, with almost no such incidents causing civilian casualties for the remainder of 2020.”

UN officials later told Airwars during a briefing that they believed Afghan Air Force strikes were now likely responsible for almost all civilian deaths from airstrikes. The release of the previously-classified data from AFCENT radically changes that picture. Between March and December 2020, Trump’s last full months in office, the US in fact carried out 413 airstrikes – as many as during all of 2015 for example.

For the first half of 2021, UNAMA also made similar assumptions about low numbers of US and international strikes, noting that “compared with the first half of 2020, the total number of civilians killed and injured in airstrikes increased by 33 per cent. Civilian casualties from Afghan Air Force airstrikes more than doubled as international military forces conducted far fewer airstrikes.”

In fact, we now know, more than 370 ‘international’ strikes were carried out in 2021, which between them dropped more than 800 munitions.

UNAMA did not immediately respond to questions on whether the UN would now be reviewing its recent findings, following the release of the AFCENT data.

Biden under scrutiny

Revelations of hundreds of previously secret US airstrikes in Afghanistan during Joe Biden’s first months in office indicate that while US actions were at record lows in other theatres such as Iraq and Somalia, the intensity of the 20-year war in Afghanistan continued to the very end.

More than five times more US strikes were conducted in Afghanistan from January to August 2021 than have been declared in all other US theatres combined across the whole year, Airwars analysis shows.

“Airwars has been cautioning for some time that recent airstrike numbers for Afghanistan – if revealed – might show far more US military activity under Joe Biden than many had assumed,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “This newly released data – which should never have been classified in the first place – points to the urgent need for reevaluation of recent US actions in Afghanistan, including likely civilian casualties.”

The Afghanistan data stops abruptly in August 2021. Announcing the release of the previously secret strike and munition numbers to the Pentagon press corps late on Friday afternoon, chief DoD spokesman John Kirby told reporters: “There have been no airstrikes in Afghanistan since the withdrawal is complete.”

▲ A home allegedly destroyed by a US airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan in November 2020 (Credit: Amnesty International)

Published

September 24, 2021

Written by

Adam Gnych and Jessica Purkiss

Contrition over Kabul strike must prompt further review of hundreds more events in which civilians were likely killed by US actions.

The final drone strike of the US occupation of Afghanistan killed up to 10 civilians, including seven children. That is not our opinion, but the determination of the US military.

On September 17th, after separate investigations by The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, a contrite head of CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for Afghanistan, admitted a “tragic” mistake. General McKenzie said the August 29th attack, initially described as a “righteous strike” against the Afghan branch of the Islamic State, had in fact killed 43-year-old aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and his family outside their home.

The apology won’t ease the suffering of those remaining family members, but it does at least open the door to the possibility of solatia payments to support them through the coming years. For the US, this incident ought to lead to some soul searching – with a fresh investigation launched into the failings of the initial probe.

Yet this contrition has been the exception rather than the rule in US operations in Afghanistan, with thousands of civilians credibly reported killed by US actions since 2001. The former head of NATO’s civilian casualty assessment team now says that “civilian casualty investigations in Afghanistan were strongly weighted against finding sufficient evidence for an allegation to be recorded as credible.”

There are many specific reasons why this final incident garnered more attention. It occurred in relatively easily accessible Kabul, at a time when many foreign journalists were visiting the city to cover the American withdrawal. Mr Ahmadi also worked for a US aid organisation that was willing to vouch for his reputation. All these factors led to intense pressure on the US military to respond quickly to the allegations it had killed civilians.

Sadly the vast majority of civilians killed by the US in Afghanistan never receive the same attention, or apologies.

A recent Airwars investigation found that overall, at least 22,000 civilians have likely been killed by US airstrikes during the ‘war on terror’ since 2001. At least 4,815 of these fatalities were in Afghanistan, though that number could be far higher. Only a fraction of these events have received official US recognition. Many families can wait months, or even years, for a reply. Most never hear back.

Major General Chris Donahue, the final US soldier in Afghanistan, leaves on August 30 (U.S. Army photo)

Amnesty International, calling for a fuller investigation into the Kabul strike, pointed out that “many similar strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia have happened out of the spotlight, and the US continues to deny responsibility while devastated families suffer in silence.”

Here are just five examples of Afghan families still waiting for justice after losing family members to alleged US strikes in recent years. Many were originally investigated by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drone Warfare project, which ended in 2020 and whose archives are now curated by Airwars.

1. The Khans

In the early hours of March 9th 2019, Dr Nazargul Khan and his children were sleeping in their village in the Hesarak district, Nangarhar province – around 30 miles east of Kabul. Suddenly their home was ripped apart.

“The first bomb that was dropped was on my cousins who were sleeping in the next room,” Waheeda, 14, Nazargul’s oldest child, told Al Jazeera. “My father got up and went to their room but by the time they reached the room another bomb was dropped on my father, sisters, and mother.”

In total twelve members of the Khan family, including Nazargul and nine children, died that night in an alleged US strike.

Despite the testimony of Sherif and Waheeda, the US has not accepted causing the civilian harm. Instead, it designated the allegations “possible” and closed the investigation, leaving the survivors with no clear answers and no route to seek compensation or justice.

 

2. The Ishaqzai family

On November 24th 2018, the village of Loy Manda, ten miles outside of Lashkar Gah in southwestern Afghanistan, found itself on the frontline as Afghan government forces – backed up by their American allies – battled the Taliban.

As a column of Afghan and US Special Operations forces moved into the area, the Ishaqzai family huddled in their home. In an apparent attempt to hit Taliban fighters moving through the area, the US called in an airstrike, witnesses told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. A father and son were killed and 13 members of the extended family injured, 10 of them children.

The US military later admitted that four civilians were injured in a strike in Helmand on this day in their annual report on civilian casualties. This is believed to be a significant undercount.

 

3. The Mubarez family

On the evening of September 22rd 2018, the inhabitants of the village of Mullah Hafiz, in Wardak province, were alerted to the sound of an operation in progress. Explosions ripped through the town as soldiers swept in for a raid on a Taliban prison.

Masih Ur-Rahman Mubarez was in Iran for work but his wife and all their seven children, alongside four young cousins, were killed in an airstrike. His youngest was just four years old.

“Our life was full of love,” Masih told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).

Image compiled by Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Clockwise from top left: Masih’s children Mohammad Elyas (8), Mohammad Wiqad (10), Fahim (5), Samina (7) and Mohammad Fayaz (4) all died in the strike, alongside their two elder sisters, Anisa (14), and Safia (12), and their mother Amina (32). (Fahim appears in both photos in the bottom row)

Initially the US repeatedly denied it had bombed Masih’s house, or even that any airstrike had taken place in the area. Later after The New York Times and researchers from TBIJ investigated further, the military admitted that it did conduct a strike in that location, saying it was “possible, although unlikely, civilians died.”

 

4. The Rais family

On the 28th of September 2016, 15 Afghans were killed in a single US drone strike in the province of Nangarhar, east of the capital of Kabul, according to the United Nations.

The US said it struck militants from the so-called Islamic State, describing it as a “counter-terrorism” strike. The UN said it had hit a gathering of residents welcoming a tribal elder returning from religious pilgrimage to Mecca. The UN did acknowledge reports that IS fighters were among the dead but said the majority were civilians including “students and a teacher, as well as members of families considered to be pro-government.” Haji Rais, the owner of the house hit, lost his son in the strike.

The day after the strike, the then-spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Charles, told The New York Times the allegations of civilian casualties were being investigated. “We continue to work with Afghan authorities to determine if there is cause for additional investigation,” he said.

 

5. Abdul Hamid Alkoazay &  Abdul Rahim

In the early hours of the morning on May 24th 2019, an alleged US airstrike struck a building in Shib Koh district, Farah province, which runs along the border with Iran in western Afghanistan.

Abdul Hamid and Abdul Rahim were colleagues and had decided to stay the night at the offices of the emergency aid NGO they worked for. At approximately 1:20 am the building was leveled, with the two men killed instantly.

Abdul Rahim was 22 and had married just a month before his death. He worked as a supervisor at the charity, which he had joined relatively recently. One colleague said of him: “He was such a softly spoken person. He was a very good man with the best manners.”

The US military ultimately deemed the allegations of civilian harm “possible”, a phrasing neither accepting nor denying responsibility.

 

‘Hand-wringing’

CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for Afghanistan, had not replied at publication of this article to requests from Airwars seeking updates about its investigations into these five cases.

In the years before the final American soldier left Afghanistan last month, the US had relied increasingly on airpower. In 2015 there were about 500 US strikes. By 2019 that figure was more than 7,000. That year the United Nations documented the highest number of civilian fatalities from airstrikes since they began recording in 2009, most of them by US aircraft.

However, the US military officially accepted only a fifth of the civilian deaths attributed to it by the United Nations in 2019. Allegations are frequently determined as either “not credible” or “disproved”. Often this is based on the military not having sufficient information to fully investigate.

“There has been a lot of hand wringing and convenient blaming of intelligence over the past weeks,” says Mark Goodwin-Hudson, who in 2016 as a Lieutenant Colonel headed NATO’s Civilian Casualty Investigation Team in Afghanistan. “The killing highlights how shallow and misleading the assumption is that war can be conducted successfully from over the horizon. It doesn’t matter how accurate a modern weapon system is if the intelligence that underpins the strike is flawed.”

“In my experience civilian casualty investigations in Afghanistan were strongly weighted against finding sufficient evidence for an allegation to be recorded as credible,” Goodwin-Hudson added. “In some instances, investigators were denied access to mission critical intelligence, as it was deemed too sensitive to be read by anyone who was not already in the classified compartment that had planned, authorised and implemented the strike in question.”

For the families of those left behind, the mechanisms of getting official recognition that their loved ones were innocent was complicated enough before the US withdrawal. For many it may now be all but impossible.

▲ Library image: A US Navy Super Hornet receives fuel from an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker over Afghanistan, December 7th 2017. (US Air Force/ Jeff Parkinson)

Published

September 6, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Airwars tally offers assessment of the direct civilian impact of 20 years of US strikes

You often find a similar refrain in US media reporting of the cost of two decades of the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ The trope goes something like this: “more than 7,000 US service people have died in wars since 9/11,” an article or news report will say. In the next line it will usually, though not always, try to reflect the civilian toll – but almost exclusively in generalities. Tens, or even hundreds, of thousands.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, and the subsequent launch of the War on Terror, Airwars has been seeking the answer to one important question – how many civilians have US strikes likely killed in the ‘Forever Wars’?

We found that the US has declared at least 91,340 strikes across seven major conflict zones.

Our research has concluded that at least 22,679, and potentially as many as 48,308 civilians, have been likely killed by US strikes.

The gap between these two figures reflects the many unknowns when it comes to civilian harm in war. Belligerents rarely track the effects of their own actions – and even then do so poorly. It is left to local communities, civil society and international agencies to count the costs. Multiple sources can however suggest different numbers of fatalities, meaning that monitoring organisations like Airwars will record both minimum and maximum estimates.

Our key findings of civilian harm from US actions since 9/11 can be seen in this video and the full dataset is available here.

This accompanying article explains the conflicts we covered and our key findings in a little more detail, before outlining our methodology and data sources.

What are the ‘Forever Wars’?

In the days after the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001, in which 2,977 people were killed by Al Qaeda in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, US President George W. Bush announced the start of a new type of war, one without defined borders, boundaries, or timescales.

“Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he told Americans. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

“Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.”

“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he concluded.

So it came to pass. The War on Terror has been a near global endeavour. By 2017 for example, the US Department of Defense said it had around 8,000 “special operators” in 80 countries across the globe.

Dubbed the ‘Forever Wars,’ this conflict has not had clear territorial boundaries, though we have included in our dataset the seven most intensive US military campaigns. The types of conflict vary significantly but broadly fall into three categories:

    Full invasions and occupations of countries – Afghanistan 2001-2021, and Iraq 2003-2009. Major bombing campaigns against the Islamic State terror group – Iraq 2014-2021, Syria 2014-2021, and Libya 2016. More targeted US drone and airstrike campaigns against militant and terror groups – Somalia 2007-2021, Yemen 2002-2021, Pakistan 2004-2018, and Libya 2014-2019.

Key findings

Based on official US military data, we have concluded that the US has carried out a minimum of 91,340 airstrikes throughout the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Particular peaks were seen during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the US declared 18,695 strike sorties. The campaign against the so-called Islamic State also saw a sustained peak, with more than 9,000 strikes a year from 2015-2017.

We then gathered together every reliable estimate of civilian harm as a result of US strikes.

Wherever possible we sought to measure civilian harm just from US airstrikes but in some cases, such as the first years of the Iraq invasion, it was impossible to disaggregate airstrikes from artillery fire and other heavy munitions, which were therefore included.

Likewise in some US-led Coalitions it was impossible to determine whether each individual strike was American, though US airpower has dominated all such campaigns.

Based on our comprehensive review of credible sources, we found at least 22,679 civilians were likely directly killed by US strikes since 9/11, with that number potentially as high as 48,308.

 

The deadliest year came in 2003, when a minimum of 5,529 civilians were reported to have been killed by US actions according to the monitoring organisation Iraq Body Count, almost all during the invasion of Iraq that year. The next deadliest year was 2017, when at least 4,931 civilians were likely killed, the vast majority in alleged Coalition bombing of Iraq and Syria. However, if we include maximum estimates of civilian harm then 2017 was in fact the worst year for civilian casualties, with up to 19,623 killed.

Almost all of the reported civilian deaths from US wars since 9/11 (97 percent) occurred in the two occupations (Iraq 2003-20119, and Afghanistan 2001-2021); as well as in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (2014-2021).

In 2011, at the peak of its 20-year occupation, the US had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That conflict came to an end last month when the final US troops left after a chaotic withdrawal. During the Iraq occupation, troops numbers peaked at 166,000 in 2007, though forces withdrew by 2011.

Just three years later and following the rise of so-called Islamic State, the US and its international partners began an aerial bombing campaign against ISIS in support of allies on the ground. Campaigns to force ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2016-2017 saw some of the most intense urban fighting since the Second World War. In Raqqa alone, Coalition strikes reportedly killed at least 1,600 civilians. While the Islamists lost their last territorial stronghold in April 2019, the war continues at a low intensity.

 

As part of our research, we also sought official US military estimates for the numbers of civilians killed by its own actions since 9/11. Neither CENTCOM nor the Department of Defense have published such findings.

In the Iraq and Syria campaign against ISIS, the US-led Coalition has accepted killing 1,417 civilians – far lower than Airwars’ own estimate of at least 8,300 civilian deaths for that war.

Additionally, in 2016 the US admitted killing between 64 and 116 civilians in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in counter terrorism operations in the years between 2009 and 2015. But it provided no further details, dates or specifics – making assessment of those claims near impossible.

More publicly, the United States has admitted to killing two civilians in Pakistan; thirteen in Yemen; and five in Somalia in recent years. At least 394 and as many as 570 civilians have in fact been killed by US actions in those countries, according to monitoring organisation New America.

Airwars approached CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for most of these conflicts, directly for this project. It said data on officially recognised civilian harm was not readily available. “The information you request is not immediately on hand in our office as it spans between multiple operations/campaigns within a span of between 18 and 20 years,” CENTCOM said in an email, requesting instead that we file a Freedom of Information request. Such requests can take several years to get a response, with no guarantee of the information being released.

It’s important to note that Airwars has examined only direct harm from US strikes since 9/11 – with many of our sources providing conservative casualty estimates. We are therefore looking at a fraction of the overall civilian harm in these countries.

Between 363,939 and 370,072 civilians have been killed by all parties to these conflicts since 2001, according to the well respected Brown University Cost of War programme.

Even so, we believe this research represents the most comprehensive public assessment available of minimum civilian harm by direct US strikes and actions in the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Methodology

Parts or all of the data presented here were peer reviewed by multiple experts in the field, and our full dataset has also been published, to enable scrutiny.

That said, we acknowledge that civilian harm monitoring mechanisms have varied and evolved extensively over the past 20 years, and are rarely consistent across organisations and campaigns.

Airwars itself was formed in 2014, and has collated data on many of the US’s conflicts since then, using our all-source monitoring in local languages to gather allegations of civilian harm. However, for much of the data in the years before 2014 and for the entirety of the Afghanistan campaign – which Airwars does not monitor – we are reliant upon other organisations. This section will explain where the data was gathered from.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has released civilian harm data since 2006. This includes likely civilian harm from airstrikes carried out by foreign powers. While the War on Terror was launched by the US, some allies initially joined – including European nations that sent significant contingents to Afghanistan. It was not possible to definitively conclude if all of these strikes were conducted by the US as opposed to allied nations, although the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

In the early years of the conflict, for the period 2001-05 before UNAMA was fully operational, we have relied upon an investigative dataset compiled by The Nation, which though well researched did not claim to be definitive.

Iraq 2003-11

The US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, and then maintained an occupation with the support of other nations until withdrawing all forces in 2011. In the vacuum after Hussein was unseated, multiple militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor of the Islamic State, thrived. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed in ensuing conflict-related violence.

The NGO Iraq Body Count has been collating tolls of civilian harm since the 2003 invasion. It kindly agreed to provide Airwars with all data related to allegations of civilian harm caused by US actions between 2003 and 2013. According to IBC, in many cases such as the initial invasion, and the assaults on the city of Fallujah in 2004, it was near impossible to disaggregate civilian harm caused by airstrikes with artillery and other munitions. As such, the data from Iraq Body Count presented here relates to deaths caused by airstrikes and explosive weapons. Incidents where only small arms fire was involved have been excluded. As with Afghanistan, it is impossible to know for certain whether each strike was carried out by the US or partner nations, though the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

Iraq and Syria 2014-2021

In the years after the Arab Spring rippled through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the Islamic State militant group seized a swathe of territory spanning northern Iraq and Syria which was roughly the size of the United Kingdom. From 2014 onwards, the US led an international coalition in a bombing campaign against the group, eventually forcing it to cede its last area of territorial control along the Iraqi-Syrian border in April 2019.

Airwars has monitored civilian harm related to the ongoing seven-year war against the Islamic State since the beginning of the campaign, using a standardised methodology and approach for all our civilian harm monitoring projects. Our researchers conduct daily monitoring of local Arabic-language media and social media in Iraq and Syria, documenting and archiving all claims of civilian harm including those claims reported by the local communities themselves. Each event has a unique assessment online, where an archived version of all sources used is also available. Events are considered ‘live’ – constantly updated as new information is found.

Libya

Al Qaeda had a limited presence in Libya following the defeat of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and was the target of a small number of US strikes. Then from 2014, an Islamic State affiliate emerged in the country – seizing control of several cities and towns a year later.

Airwars researchers have actively monitored all civilian harm caused by all parties in Libya for many years. Based on hyperlocal media monitoring, and reflecting the same methodology and approach as our Iraq-Syria assessments, we have aggregated the number of alleged civilian deaths related to US strikes against both Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State in Libya since 2012.

Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen

In the years after 9/11 the United States launched an initially secret drone campaign targeting militant organisations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. These campaigns led to often significant allegations of civilian harm.

In Pakistan, the data was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with those archives transferred to Airwars in 2019. There have been no reported US strikes since July 2018.

In Somalia, Airwars has published a comprehensive review of all civilian harm allegations from both suspected and declared US strikes and actions since the conflict began in 2007.

In Yemen, the data from 2002-2016 was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Airwars has actively monitored the US counter terrorism campaign in Yemen since 2017, and all associated allegations of civilian harm.

Differing methodological approaches

In every conflict, those organisations monitoring civilian harm have applied different methodologies. Airwars, TBIJ and Iraq Body Count are for example remote monitors – meaning that they gather all information publicly available and reflect any uncertainties in their findings – for example by using high and low casualty ranges, rather than definitive figures.

UNAMA employs a different methodology for Afghanistan. Based until recently in Kabul, it deployed field researchers in each province to physically investigate where possible sites of alleged civilian harm, and to interview witnesses. While this approach can lead to more certainty about circumstances and casualty numbers in an individual event, it may also mean that some locally reported cases can be missed. UNAMA also does not provide casualty range estimates – publishing just one number of confirmed civilians killed per year.

More information on conflict casualty standards and methodologies can be found at Every Casualty Counts, which publishes global standards on casualty monitoring, based on the expert work of more than 50 specialist member organisations.

▲ Library image: A US Air Force B-52 refuels during the US campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Credit: Department of Defense)

Published

August 27, 2021

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Assisted by

Georgia Edwards

As the international war against ISIS enters its eighth year, the UK must urgently improve its approach to the protection of civilians and civilian harm monitoring, reports Airwars' advocacy team.

Over the last decade, warfare has undergone significant changes. Countries such as the UK and US have increasingly done their best to avoid large-scale ground deployments of their own troops, focusing instead on supporting local forces, for instance by providing air power.

Through the monitoring of nearly 60,000 locally alleged civilian deaths caused by belligerents across multiple conflicts, Airwars has documented the risks to civilians that this form of engagement can pose in nations like Iraq and Syria, with heavy uses of explosive weapons in urban environments often leading to very significant civilian casualties and major destruction of civilian infrastructure.

Despite acknowledging the potential risks from recent actions, which saw “the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II”, the UK has failed to improve its approach to the Protection of Civilians (POC). In fact, the UK remains hesitant to openly acknowledge harm from its own actions. Leaving behind this current approach, by introducing public transparency and accountability for identification, review and admissions of casualties is vital to reduce present and future civilian casualties.

This article will assess current UK government action with regard to developing and updating its protection of civilian policies.

The Ministry of Defence

One of the most comprehensive reviews of UK military action in recent times, the 2016 Chilcot report, repeatedly emphasised that the MoD has failed to accurately estimate possible civilian harm that would arise from the 2003-2011 war in Iraq. In fact, the report states the MoD mistakenly estimated the war would ‘only’ cost civilian lives in the “low hundreds”. In reality, Iraq Body Count estimated that more than 114,000 civilians died as a result of violence in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

The Chilcot report called for the UK to improve how it reaches pre-conflict estimates of civilian harm, declaring that a ‘government has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians.’ It also said governments should make ‘greater efforts in the post-conflict period to determine the number of civilian casualties’ and to understand the broader impact of these actions.

In response, MoD officials pledged to improve the protection of civilians in the future. Nevertheless, the key challenges to effective POC identified in the Chilcot report persist to this day, including a lack of accountability; a lack of understanding of the impact of British airstrikes on the ground; and a false belief that the use of ‘smart’ guided munitions might automatically lead to fewer casualties.

This is highlighted by the MoD’s continued claim that it has evidence of only a single civilian casualty from its ongoing seven-year campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This does not mean, as the MoD has repeatedly emphasised, that they believe their actions have only caused a single civilian death, but only that they claim to have the evidence of one casualty.

However the US-led Coalition has itself concluded that fifteen additional civilians were killed in at least three actions in Iraq and Syria which are known to have been British airstrikes.

Airwars, along with other monitoring organisations, humanitarian organisations, and news outlets, have demonstrated that their own mechanisms to capture civilian harm reports are often far more accurate than those of militaries. For the past two years for example, the majority of officially declared civilian harm reports by the US-led Coalition originated with Airwars, rather than internal military reports. The UK government must therefore reflect on why it has consistently failed to incorporate adequate civilian casualty monitoring mechanisms into all recent operations.

As Airwars’ ‘Europe’s Shame’ investigation highlights, the UK’s allies are often better able to understand and report on the harm that comes from British actions than the UK itself. This was reaffirmed by the recent publication of a Pentagon report to Congress in which they detailed civilian casualties known to have been caused by allies, including Britain.

Library picture: A RAF Typhoon lands in Cyprus hours after UK voted to extend airstrikes to Syria (UK MoD)

This is not to say that there has been no progress at the MoD since the findings of the Chilcot report. When it comes to responding to requests for information regarding specific alleged civilian harm events during the war against ISIS, the MoD has been quick and responsive – at least compared to allies. Yet a number of key changes are required within the Ministry of Defence to ensure that the UK consistently and effectively protects those on the ground when it goes to war, and is transparent when things do go wrong.

Improving the MoD approach

To improve the UK Defence Ministry’s approach to POC, the following key steps must be taken. Firstly, the UK must learn from its allies and independent organisations by establishing a permanent civilian harm tracking cell within the Ministry with strong local understanding and relevant language skills, while conducting site visits and witness interviews for assessments where possible.

The UK must also review the exceptionally high bar it sets for determining civilian harm. Senior British defence officials have confirmed to both the BBC and to Airwars that the UK presently requires what it calls ‘hard facts’ when assessing civilian harm claims – an apparently higher standard even than the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ used by UK courts. Civilian casualty assessors within the US military instead use a ‘balance of probabilities’ approach, Airwars understands – allowing them to consider local credible reports of civilian harm in their own investigations.

Transparency must then follow. Information about incidents that may have harmed civilians should be publicly disclosed, investigated and fed into internal lessons mechanisms to inform broader approaches to civilian harm mitigation. As outlined by Mike Spagat from Every Casualty Counts: “Transparency about operations can help build positive relations with the public, improve the quality of field data and, ultimately, improve military performance.”

By better understanding the negative impact of its military actions on the ground and communicating the findings in clear ways, the UK will become more accountable both to its own citizens and to those who live where the UK’s armed forces or close partners engage overseas. This would also place the UK in line with allies like the US, which have made a conscious effort to acknowledge at least some instances of civilian harm, as seen for example in Airwars’ investigation of  “The Credibles”.

As a key step towards this, we urge the British government to follow many allies, primarily European, who are increasingly implementing presumptions against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) in the planning and conduct of operations. As Rachel Hobley from Humanity and Inclusion emphasises: “When explosive weapons with wide area effects are used in populated areas, 90 percent of those killed or injured are civilians. This compares to just 25 percent in non-urban areas.

“These statistics, which have remained the same for the last 10 years, show the systematic humanitarian harm that arises from these practices. Not only are people killed and injured – families’ homes are also destroyed, health clinics decimated, and key services like water and electricity wiped out.”

The aftermath of a confirmed Coalition airstrike two years on. (via Amnesty)

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The MoD is only one actor among many within the UK government which is responsible for protecting civilians on the ground. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is also vital, as it leads on the UK’s official Approach to the Protection of Civilians.

It is particularly concerning that commitments made in the UK’s 2020 Approach to the Protection of Civilians policy, to “investigate any credible reports that UK actions may have caused civilian harm”, have yet to lead to any tangible changes in the UK’s approach.

At the same time, there is a lack of guidance on how the UK will respond when harm does occur. This reflects a broader trend in which cornerstone policies for the UK’s engagements abroad too often fail adequately to address the importance of protecting civilians. For example, while the government’s recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which was published earlier this year, is broad in its scope – covering everything from cyber warfare to terrorism – it fails to mention the protection of civilians once. This reveals a significant lack of prioritisation of POC, despite such protections being identified time and time again as a key to obtaining strategic goals in wars.

In collaboration with partner civil society organisations, Airwars has held positive discussions with Lord Ahmad, Minister of State for the Commonwealth, in attempts to better understand how the FCDO intends to improve its approach. At the same time, several statements from government officials, including Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, have promised to create a ‘conflict centre’. Yet, despite concerted efforts to gain more information, we are left with a long list of questions on what this will focus on; to what degree it will allow for engagement with civil society actors; and how much it will prioritise the protection of civilians.

Finally, in addition to changes that both the MoD and FCDO must implement to be accountable and protect civilians, we urge the Government to ensure that these departments also coordinate with each other as they are jointly responsible for delivering protections on the ground. As it stands, the two departments often do not even use the same terminology, with the MoD focusing on ‘Human Security’ and the FCDO pursuing ‘Protection of Civilians’. While the two agendas are implicitly connected, it remains unclear why the departments have chosen different approaches, and how they will work together to ensure delivery.

Making the UK’s approach to the protection of civilians more accountable and transparent is not going to be a quick or simple process. Yet it is a vital one; not only for the sake of the civilians who find themselves caught in conflict, but also to ensure that UK actions abroad contribute to stability.

▲ Ministry of Defence Main Building, Horse Guards Avenue.

Published

July 1, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Coalition of civil society organisations issues joint recommendations to Defence Minister, for improvements to Dutch policy on transparency and civilian harm mitigation

Airwars and our Dutch partners, who are involved in ongoing discussions with the Dutch military on practicable improvements in the protection of civilians, have published a Joint Statement outlining the progress so far, and our collective hopes and expectations moving forward.

In October 2019, it was revealed that the Dutch military had been responsible for a 2015 airstrike in Iraq on an ISIS IED factory, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and hundreds more being injured. The Government had then withheld that fact from the public for more than four years.

As PAX and Airwars later noted in our joint report, Seeing Through The Rubble,  estimates are that the secondary explosions triggered by the Dutch airstrike damaged between 400 and 500 buildings in the area, including many shops, homes and schools. Sources also reported that the airstrike caused major damage to crucial infrastructure, including roads and water pipelines. Six different sources, including Hawijah’s mayor, were interviewed for the report on the recent state of the city after the devastating Dutch airstrike.

As a result of the national scandal and numerous Parliamentary debates on the issue, in June 2020 the Dutch Minister of Defence, Ank Bijleveld, promised to Parliament improvements towards transparency and accountability regarding civilian harm as a result of Dutch military actions. Coupled with other steps taken in the months after the Hawijah scandal, the Netherlands appeared to be shedding its reputation as one of the least transparent members of the international Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State.

One measure adopted by Defensie had recently been proposed by Airwars, Amnesty Netherlands, the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Open State Foundation, PAX and the Utrecht University Intimacies of Remote Warfare Program. This called for a “Roadmap for the Ministry of Defence to review the way in which the Netherlands deals with, reports on, evaluates and accounts for civilian harm as a consequence of Dutch military efforts”.

The starting session of the Roadmap Process took place virtually on November 12th 2020, attended by senior Dutch defence officials, including the Deputy Chief of Defence Lt General Onno. In 2021, a consortium of civil society organisations then participated in four interactive sessions with the MoD. The key objective of these sessions was to share joint perspectives and expertise on how to enhance military transparency and accountability, while also creating conditions for a stronger integration of civilian harm evaluation and mitigation approaches into Dutch military deployments.

MoD staff have committed to using the outcomes of these sessions to inform policy recommendations to be presented to the Minister of Defence. The recommendations centred around improving transparency, as well as aiming to improve broader Dutch policy and practice in order to achieve better protection of civilians in future military deployments generally.

The civil society consortium has welcomed the open manner in which Defensie has engaged during the “Roadmap“ process, and has now issued a joint statement laying out our own thoughts on the way forward for the Dutch Ministry of Defence. The statement includes recommendations to the Minister of Defence for improvements to Dutch policy on transparency and civilian harm mitigation when engaging in military missions.

Read the statement in full here

Published

June 2, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Conservative public tallies of civilians killed by US during 2020 are almost five times higher than DoD admits

The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on civilian deaths and injuries resulting from US military actions around the world has declared more than 100 recent casualties. Researchers and human rights groups, including Airwars, Amnesty International and UN monitors in Afghanistan, place the actual toll significantly higher.

For 2020 alone, the Department of Defence said that its forces had killed 23 civilians and injured a further 10 in Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. An additional 63 historical deaths and 22 injuries were reported for the years 2017-2019, mostly in Syria and Yemen.

By contrast, the minimum public estimate of civilian deaths caused by US forces during 2020 across five conflict nations was 102 fatalities – almost five times higher than DoD admits.

Casualties from US actions in Afghanistan in particular appear to have been officially undercounted. While the Pentagon reports only 20 deaths and 5 injuries from its own actions last year, UNAMA – the respected UN agency in Afghanistan – says that international forces killed at least 89 civilians and injured a further 31. United States personnel made up the great majority of those foreign forces.

For Somalia, DoD declares only one civilian death from US actions last year – while Airwars and others suggest a minimum civilian toll of seven killed.

And for Iraq and Syria, while US forces declare only one death, local reporting indicates at least six civilians killed by US actions.

Only for Yemen is there agreement, with monitoring organisations and the DoD both indicating that there were no likely civilian deaths caused by US actions during the year.

Major decline in US actions

The 21-page Pentagon document, quietly released May 28th and entitled ‘Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations in 2020,’ has been a requirement of US law since 2018.

The latest report captures the very significant fall in tempo of US military actions during the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency. According to Airwars estimates, there were around 1,000 US strikes across four conflict countries during 2020 – down from approximately 3,500 strikes the previous year and a peak of 13,000 such US actions during 2016. Declared civilian deaths fell from 132 to 23 from 2019 to 2020.

The majority of civilian deaths declared by the Pentagon during 2020 were in Afghanistan – despite a major ceasefire between US forces and the Taliban for much of the year. According to the new DoD report, 20 civilians were killed and five injured in seven US actions, primarily airstrikes.

The seven civilian casualty events conceded in Afghanistan by the Pentagon for 2020

However the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) which has been recording extensive data on civilian harm from all parties to the fighting since 2009, placed the toll far higher. According to its own annual report for 2020 published earlier this year, “UNAMA attributed 120 civilian casualties (89 killed and 31 injured) to international military forces”.

While these casualties represented just one per cent of the overall reported civilian toll in Afghanistan for the year – with most civilians killed by the Taliban and Afghan forces – of concern was DoD’s major undercounting of its own impact on civilians – with UNAMA logging four and a half times more deaths primarily from US actions than those officially conceded by the Pentagon.

Reported civilian casualties from US actions against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria have remained low since the terror group’s defeat as a territorial entity in mid 2019. According to the Pentagon, just one civilian was killed by an action in Iraq, after US forces targeted Iranian linked militias at Karbala airport on March 13th 2020. Twenty three year old security guard Karrar Sabbar was killed in that US attack. However the additional reported deaths of two civilian policemen in the attack are not acknowledged by the US.

In Syria, Airwars estimates three to six likely civilian deaths from US actions during 2020, mainly during counterterrorism raids against ISIS remnants. None of these were conceded either.

In Somalia, between 7 and 13 civilians were likely killed by US actions during the year, according to Airwars monitoring of local communities. The US military itself concedes five injuries and one death, in two events in early 2020 near Jilib.

Only for Yemen did human rights organisations and DoD appear to agree, with both reporting no likely civilian deaths from US actions during the year.

US forces in Somalia killed one civilian and injured five others during 2020, according to official estimates

Public transparency

Despite continuing disparities between public and military estimates of civilian harm, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress still represents a significant transparency breakthrough. Close ally France, for example, has refused to declare a single civilian fatality from almost seven years of air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria – and recently lashed out at the United Nations after a French airstrike struck a wedding party in Mali.

Later this year the Pentagon will also issue a major overhaul of its civilian casualty mitigation policies, which it has been reviewing in consultation with human rights organisations for several years. On May 25th, new Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr Colin Kahl confirmed in writing to NGOs that the new policy – known as a Department of Defense Instruction, or DoD-I – would be published by the Biden administration.

“We welcome the Pentagon’s publication to Congress of its latest annual civilian harm report, as well as confirmation that the DOD-I on civilian casualty mitigation will be published by the new administration,” noted Airwars director Chris Woods. “We remain concerned however that DoD estimates of civilian harm once again fall well below credible public estimates, and call on officials to review why such undercounts remain so common. Civilians surely deserve better.”

▲ Aftermath of a deadly US airstrike on Karbala Airport on March 13th, 2020 which the Pentagon admits killed a civilian.