U.S. military underestimated civilian casualties

United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a Member of the House Armed Services and Oversight and Reform Committees, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin, III, regarding the Department of Defense’s (DoD) June 2021 "Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations in 2020." In the letter, the lawmakers urge Secretary Austin to review why significant undercounts of civilian casualties persist and why DoD made zero ex gratia payments to grieving civilians last year despite authorization and funding from Congress.

"As a first step, we request that you review why these significant discrepancies in civilian casualty counts persist, and take steps to ensure that U.S. military investigations into civilian casualties give greater weight to external sources of information rather than relying solely on its own internal records and sources when assessing third party reports of civilian harm," wrote the lawmakers.

In June 2021, the Defense Department submitted its "Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations in 2020" to Congress. As in past years, the report significantly undercounted civilian casualties.

For example, DoD reported 23 civilians killed and 10 civilians injured as a result of U.S. military operations last year, but estimates from credible civilian casualty monitors and the United Nations suggest that number is almost as likely five times higher.

The report also revealed that the Department made zero ex gratia payments to grieving civilians last year despite authorization and funding from Congress and the feasibility of reaching survivors in most cases.

"We need to openly consider all the costs, benefits, and consequences of military action, and that includes doing everything we can to prevent and respond to civilian harm. Strengthening investigations, accurately and transparently reporting on civilian harm, expressing condolences for harm when it happens, and learning from these incidents to prevent harm in the future are all essential steps that reinforce the importance of protecting civilians as a national security priority and as a moral and ethical imperative," continued the lawmakers.

In June 2020, Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna introduced the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act, bicameral legislation that would enhance reporting on civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations, improve investigations into civilian casualties, and strengthen resources for the Department’s policies and practices relating to civilian casualty prevention and responses.

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.

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