Warren, Jacobs Accuse Pentagon of Vastly Undercounting Civilians Killed by US Military

"This vast difference between independent reporting and the DOD investigation raises concerns and undermines DOD credibility on civilian casualty reporting," the lawmakers wrote.

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As U.S. military forces continue to kill and wound civilians in multiple countries during the ongoing 21-year War on Terror while chronically undercounting such casualties, a pair of Democratic lawmakers on Monday asked the Pentagon to explain discrepancies in noncombatant casualty reporting and detail steps being taken to address the issue.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) – who have both led calls to hold the military accountable for harming noncombatants – said they are “troubled” that the Pentagon’s annual civilian casualty report, which was released in September as required by an amendment Warren attached to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), again undercounts noncombatants killed by US forces.

“In this year’s report, the department reported that approximately 12 civilians were killed and five were injured in Afghanistan and Somalia as a result of US military operations during 2021,” the lawmakers wrote. “However, the report did not admit to any civilian deaths in Syria, despite credible civilian casualty monitors documenting at least 15 civilian deaths and 17 civilian injuries in Syria in 2021.”

The U.K.-based monitor group Airwars counted between 12 and 25 civilians likely killed by US forces, sometimes operating with coalition allies, in Syria alone last year, with another two to four people killed in Somalia and one to four killed in Yemen.

Airwars does not track civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan, where all of last year’s casualties acknowledged by the Department of Defense (DOD) occurred. These incidents include an errant August 29 drone strike that killed 10 people – most of them members of one family – including seven children.

“The report also appeared to undercount additional civilian casualties from Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) that occurred prior to 2021,” the lawmakers’ letter continues, referring to the anti-Islamic State campaign launched during the Obama administration and ramped up under then-President Donald Trump – who infamously vowed to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS militants and “take out their families.” 

“For example, the report… only disclosed four civilians killed and 15 civilians injured as a result of the March 18, 2019 strike in Baghuz, Syria,” the lawmakers noted. “But The New York Times investigated this strike in 2021, finding evidence that the military concealed the extent of the civilian casualties, and according to Airwars, local sources alleged that the strike resulted in at least 160 civilian deaths, including up to 45 children.”

“This vast difference between independent reporting and the DOD investigation raises concerns and undermines DOD credibility on civilian casualty reporting,” Warren and Jacobs stressed.

“One reason for this underreporting appears to be that DOD is not giving appropriate weight to outside sources when investigating casualty reports,” the letter contends. “The significant discrepancies between DOD and outside reporting suggests outside sources are still not being sufficiently incorporated into DOD assessments.”

The congresswomen also expressed concern that “this year’s report revealed that DOD made only one total ex gratia payment in 2021, despite an annual $3 million authorization from Congress,” a reference to the compensation sometimes paid by the US military to relatives of civilians its forces kill.

“It is a continued betrayal of our values to continually undercount and refuse to acknowledge or take proper steps to address the civilian casualties that result from US military action,” Warren and Jacobs wrote.

Declaring that “the protection of civilians is a strategic priority as well as a moral imperative,” the Pentagon in August published its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP), which lays out a series of policy steps aimed at preventing and responding to the death and injury of noncombatants.

These steps include establishing a civilian protection center of excellence, improving commanders’ understanding of civilian environments, developing standardized incident reporting and data management processes, and improving the military’s ability to assess and respond when noncombatants are harmed by US attacks.

Almost immediately after publication of the CHMR-AP, Jacobs, along with Reps. Jason Crow (D-Col.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Andy Kim (D-N.J.), And Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) formed a new congressional caucus to “conduct oversight and advance policies to prevent, reduce, and respond to civilian harm.”

Spearheaded by Jacobs, the caucus worked to include $25 million in funding for CHMR-AP implementation in the $858 billion 2023 NDAA.

“Every time Congress is briefed about an instance of civilian harm, we are almost always told that the service member followed the proper protocol and processes,” Jacobs told Politico earlier this month. “So I think it’s clear that it’s an institutional not an individual problem.”

While it is notoriously difficult to track how many civilians have been killed by a military that, in the words of Gen. Tommy Franks, doesn’t “do body counts,” researchers at the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs estimate that combatants on all sides of the U.S.-led War on Terror have killed as many as 387,000 civilians as of late last year.

Airwars, meanwhile, said last September that US airstrikes alone have killed as many as 48,000 civilians in nearly 100,000 bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen since 2001.

The killing continues. Since November, Airwars has posted credible reports of civilians killed by US airstrikes in Syria (two incidents) and Yemen, where two children and a woman reportedly died when a US drone bombed their home in the Al-Hadba area of Al-Wadi while targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula militants on November 30.

Meanwhile, Airwars reports that hundreds of al-Shabaab fighters have been killed in numerous US air and drone strikes in Somalia in recent weeks.

Brett Wilkins is is staff writer for Common Dreams. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. This originally appeared at CommonDreams and is reprinted with the author’s permission.