Washington has released unclassified information detailing how many civilians died worldwide as a result of US military actions in 2020. After reviewing hundreds of reports, the Pentagon admitted to 23 unintentional deaths.
“Approximately” 23 civilians were killed and 10 others injured in 2020 US military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, according to the US Department of Defense’s assessment. The unclassified parts of its annual report on civilian casualties were made public on Wednesday, with the Pentagon noting that each section “may include a classified annex.”
The US military said it had formally investigated “all-source reporting” assessed as “relevant and credible” in compiling the report, which must be annually submitted to congressional defense committees. Those sources include information received from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as from media and social media, and private individuals. The Pentagon has also reviewed and reassessed information on civilian casualties resulting from its military actions in the previous years, it said.
In Afghanistan, 165 reports of civilian casualties related to US forces’ operations were received in 2020. Seven of those reports have been assessed as credible, with the Pentagon admitting “approximately 20 civilians killed and approximately 5 civilians injured” both in its airstrikes and ground operations. The civilian death toll in Afghanistan – where Washington is conducting operations “to support the Government,” “mitigate the threats posed by violent extremist organizations” and “promote stability,” is the highest in the report.
In Iraq and Syria, the document said “369 new reports of potential civilian casualty incidents occurring from 2014 to 2020” were received last year, adding to a total of 2,531 reports conveyed by NGOs. Noting how “seriously” it takes reports of casualties and cautioning that some “remain under assessment,” the Pentagon decided US operations resulted in civilian casualties in 351 of those reports from between 2014-2020. Reporting on 2020 non-combatant deaths in particular, the US military said that as of February 2021, just one civilian had been killed as a result of an air operation in Iraq, where it is fighting ISIS and “Iran and Iran-supported militias.”
The Pentagon also admitted one civilian death and five civilian injuries in its military operations in Somalia. It assessed eleven reports as credible, out of 71 received in 2020. In Nigeria, no civilian casualties related to US missions have been reported, the document said. The exact number of “enemy combatants” killed or wounded is not tallied systematically in any of the war zones where the US is involved, the report said, arguing that running a “body count” would not necessarily provide a “meaningful measure” of military success.
Acknowledging that “civilian casualties are a tragic and unavoidable part of war,” the report said the US military is “committed to limiting harm to civilians.” To reduce civilian casualties, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) technologies and precision-guided weapons are used by the US forces, it said.
Meanwhile, various international NGOs believed the US military had undercounted the civilian casualties. “The minimum public estimate” for 2020 was almost five times higher than the officially released numbers, said Airwars, a transparency organization assessing civilian harm claims in conflict zones, adding that other NGOs, including Amnesty International, “place the actual toll significantly higher.” In Afghanistan alone, the United Nations Mission (UNAMA) attributed 89 civilian deaths to international military forces – of which US forces make up the majority – in 2020. While the Pentagon’s report is a “significant transparency breakthrough,” its estimates are still apparently understated, Airways commented, saying that “civilians surely deserve better.”
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