Pentagon Undercounts Civilian Casualties in New Report, Experts Say

The annual report vastly understates civilians killed by the U.S. military, and condolence payments are not offered even in confirmed cases.

An internally displaced man sits with his children at a temporary home in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Herat on September 2,2020. (Photo by HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP) (Photo by HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images)
An internally displaced Afghan man sits with his children at a temporary home in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Herat, Afghanistan, on Sept. 2, 2020. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. military killed 23 civilians and injured another 10 in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia during 2020, according to a Pentagon report on civilian casualties that was released on Wednesday and immediately faced charges of being a whitewash. Experts said the report vastly undercounts the dead and wounded from U.S. military operations, and they noted that the Pentagon failed to provide condolence payments even in the handful of cases where it acknowledges causing deaths or injuries.

“The failure to accurately account and make amends for civilian harm does a disservice to civilians already suffering unimaginable loss, as well as to the Americans who deserve fuller transparency into the ways that U.S. operations have harmed civilians,” Annie Shiel, the senior adviser for U.S. policy and advocacy at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, told The Intercept. She also noted an “enormous discrepancy between DoD’s civilian casualty numbers and those published by civilian harm tracking organizations, human rights groups, the United Nations, and the media.”

A conservative accounting of civilians killed by the U.S. military in 2020, according to Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group, is almost five times higher: 102 noncombatant deaths resulting from U.S. attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. And as Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, pointed out, “The Pentagon’s failure to pay out any compensation to affected civilians during 2020 – despite several million dollars being available for that purpose — suggests a lack of interest in the devastating aftermath of those U.S. actions which go wrong.”

The Pentagon’s dramatic undercount does not include any of the secret attacks carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency, which the U.S. government does not acknowledge. Nor does it take into account the civilian toll resulting from assistance to allies, such as Saudi Arabia, whose bombing campaign has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen.

In past years, the U.S. has provided condolence payments to civilians it acknowledged harming in its operations. Payouts can vary widely, from $125 to $15,000 for a civilian killed in Afghanistan. From 2015 to 2019, the U.S. paid $2 million in condolence payments to civilians there.


Trump, the War President, Leaves a Trail of Civilians Dead in Yemen

Despite a dedicated annual Department of Defense fund of $3 million for payments for deaths, injuries, or damages resulting from U.S. or allied military actions, the new report notes that the Defense Department “did not offer or make any such ex gratia payments during 2020.”

The reasons behind the lack of payments and whether any are pending remain opaque. Michael Howard, a Defense Department spokesperson, told The Intercept that “numerous factors can affect a commander’s decision to offer an ex gratia payment” and “details on the numbers of payments planned or in progress are not available on short notice.”

Experts were vexed by the failure to provide payments. “Congress has repeatedly authorized funding for ex gratia payments for civilian harm, and, confoundingly, the DoD has repeatedly failed to make substantial use of those funds despite the large number of cases where the department has confirmed civilian casualties,” said CIVIC’s Shiel.

This latest annual report covers U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, as well as Nigeria, where a hostage rescue mission was conducted in 2020. It also adds to the Pentagon’s official toll an additional 63 civilian deaths and 22 injuries during 2017 to 2019, mostly in Iraq and Syria.

The Pentagon, Howard noted, continues to “assess new reports concerning past operations after they are received and reconsiders previous assessments if new relevant information comes to light.”

Experts said that the Pentagon appears to be outsourcing the legwork to human rights groups and journalists and then only deeming a few cases credible.

Rather than deploying its sizable resources to conduct comprehensive investigations, experts said that the Pentagon appears to be outsourcing the legwork to human rights groups and journalists — and then only deeming a few cases credible.

“It appears many of the civilian casualties acknowledged in the report come from outside groups or sources asking the military to review its strikes or actions,” Priyanka Motaparthy of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute told The Intercept. “We just don’t see the signs that there’s a serious effort to understand the full impact of U.S. military operations on civilians.”

The Pentagon report marks only the third time the U.S. has acknowledged killing or wounding civilians in Yemen. Last May, the Pentagon stated that it “did not identify any civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations in Yemen” in 2019, but the new Defense Department report now acknowledges the killing of one civilian in Al Bayda, Yemen, on January 22, 2019.

An investigation by the Yemen-based Mwatana for Human Rights, published earlier this year, revealed that an airstrike in Al Bayda on January 21 or 22, 2019, killed Saleh Ahmed Mohamed Al Qaisi, a 67-year-old farmer and painter who locals said had no terrorist affiliations. A witness told Mwatana that a “drone” conducted an airstrike on Saleh’s car. “We are being killed in cold blood,” said a family member.

“The U.S. military has spent nearly 20 years killing people in Yemen but still hasn’t worked out how to properly investigate and ensure accountability,” said Radhya al-Mutawakel, the chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights. “This new, belated admission by the U.S. military shows how inadequate initial US assessments of its own operations are. Its records cannot be trusted.”

Over four years, the Trump administration conducted at least 181 attacks in Yemen, nearly the same total as President Barack Obama carried out during eight years in office. Attacks under Trump resulted in an estimated 76 to 154 civilian deaths, according to Airwars. The Defense Department, however, claims that as few as 13 civilians may have been killed and two wounded in three attacks during that same four-year span.

U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, only acknowledged the January 2019 civilian death about five months after Mwatana presented evidence that Saleh Ahmed Mohamed Al Qaisi was a noncombatant. It’s become a pattern: The Pentagon’s previous Yemeni civilian casualty admissions, both stemming from attacks in 2017 under Trump, followed reporting by The Intercept of a massacre of Yemenis by Navy SEALs and an Airwars investigation of an airstrike that the Pentagon later said wounded two civilians.

“There’s no evidence of CENTCOM ever having reported civilian harm from its actions in Yemen, unless first prompted by media or NGOs. That suggests in our view a lack of command prioritization on this vital issue,” Woods said. “Airwars was shocked to learn for example that — despite reported civilian harm having escalated sharply in Yemen under Donald Trump — no permanent civilian casualty assessment team was created to review such claims.”

Earlier this year, the Biden administration suspended looser Trump-era targeting “principles,” imposed temporary limits on counterterrorism “direct action” operations, requiring White House approval for drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan, and launched a review of such operations. This changes nothing for victims of past attacks, however.

Mwatana reported that Saleh Ahmed Mohamed Al Qaisi was his family’s primary breadwinner and his car, on which his relatives relied, cost thousands of dollars. Other families have also experienced financial hardship in the wake of attacks where the U.S. has admitted civilian casualties but offered no ex gratia payments, despite funds being available in the Pentagon’s budget.

“It is astonishing that the U.S. military has acknowledged new reports of civilian deaths but has not made a single payment to an affected civilian, or as far as we know, any offer of assistance,” said Motaparthy of Human Rights Institute. “Acknowledging errors is an important step but those harmed are left to rebuild their lives and recover from losses with nothing.”

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