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
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.”