Pentagon report: US military killed 132 civilians in conflicts in 2019

While the number is lower than independent monitors claim, some have still recognized the report as a step forward in accountability.

al-monitor US soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment cover their faces as a Black Hawk helicopter takes off during a mission for Brigadier General Christopher Bentley to inspect an Afghan National Police installation in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, Dec. 16, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

May 7, 2020

The US military said its operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia killed 132 civilians and injured 91 others in 2019, according to an annual report released to Congress yesterday.

The report also said US military actions had caused a previously undeclared 79 additional civilian casualties in 2017-2018.

The number is far lower than independent monitors have assessed, though some rights organizations recognized the report was nonetheless a step forward for US military accountability.

In Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon said 22 civilians were killed and 13 injured in operations against the Islamic State in 2019. In contrast, Airwars, an independent UK-based NGO that analyzes allegations of civilian casualties, assessed more than 1,000 civilian deaths in the first half of 2019 alone.

The report assessed no civilian casualties in Libya or Yemen, nor from US airstrikes against suspected Kataib Hezbollah sites in Iraq in December.

US Africa Command, which oversees operations across the continent, has admitted to inadvertently killing a total of four civilians in two separate incidents in the command’s 13 years of existence.

Both of those incidents were acknowledged retroactively after scrutiny from independent organizations, and both occurred in Somalia, where the US military is conducting near-daily airstrikes and frequent ground operations against al-Shabaab militants.

AFRICOM has never assessed a single casualty in Libya, including from its role in the 2011 NATO bombing campaign against ousted leader Moammar al-Gadhafi.

Despite the discrepancies, Airwars called the report’s level of detail “a welcome sign of evolving Pentagon accountability.”

“It's our view at Airwars that civilian casualties from US military actions are often significantly higher than those publicly conceded. But we also acknowledge that, with the encouragement of Congress and civil society, the Pentagon remains open to accountability improvements,” the organization said on Twitter.

Amnesty International accused the Pentagon on Wednesday of undercounting its civilian victims, including “hundreds” assessed by Amnesty to have been killed in Raqqa during the US-led coalition’s campaign against the Islamic State.

Still, the group noted the assessment “marks some progress in terms of transparency of US military operations.”

“We shouldn't dismiss the significance of having an annual report on civilian casualties,” said Dan Mahanty, director of the US program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

“I don't know of any other country that does such a thing,” Mahanty said. “But the report is just that — it's a vehicle for information. And the information is only going to be as good as the process that yields the contents.”

CIVIC has made a number of recommendations to the Pentagon on reducing civilian harm. Mahanty said the report “raises questions about whether DOD has taken seriously the clear demand signals from Congress that it change its overly high standard of credibility” and implement procedures that allow local communities to report incidents to the US military.

“Right now, too many are forgotten or ignored entirely,” he said.

Last year, President Donald Trump revoked a 2016 executive order by former President Barack Obama that required the government to publicly report estimates on non-combatants killed by US airstrikes outside of conventional war zones.

Last year Congress mandated that the Defense Department standardize its disparate practices on assessing and minimizing civilian casualties.

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