US military says it killed 12 civilians abroad in 2021; rights groups claim under-reporting

The US military’s claims have been disputed by various groups who claim that the number of civilian casualties has been deliberately underreported to avoid criticism and accountability 

September 29, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Civilian deaths in US operations
(Photo: US Department of Defense)

The US military in a report to the US Congress said that 12 civilians had been killed as a result of its operations globally in 2021. However, groups that monitor civilians casualties said this is a grave under-reporting of the actual figure. 

The report, the fifth since the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, stated that the US Department of Defense had “assess[ed] that there were 12 civilians killed and approximately 5 civilians injured during 2021 as a result of US military operations.”

The report noted that the Department of Defense had received six other complaints of civilian casualties from Iraq and Syria. However, its investigations revealed that three of those reports were not credible, while three are still under investigation. This means that the final number of casualties may rise. 

According to the report, the number of civilian deaths in 2021 came down from 23 in 2020. The data shows a gradual decline since 2017 when the number of civilian casualties was 499; 120 civilian casualties were acknowledged in 2018 and 132 in 2019. 

Airwars, a civilian casualties monitor based in the UK, claimed that between 15 to 33 civilians were killed by the US and its allies in just three countries – Syria, Somalia and Yemen – last year, Common Dreams reported

The Airwars tally does not include Afghanistan where all 12 civilian casualties admitted in the report took place. According to reports by CNN and Democracy Now, US forces were also likely responsible for the death of several Afghans during the bombing of Kabul airport on August 26 last year.  

Earlier this year, Airwars claimed that at least 30,000 civilians had been killed in US operations against ISIS in Iraq since 2014. 

Airwars director Emily Trip told Al-Jazeera that the US acknowledgment of the number of persons killed was below what was reported from the ground. Marc Garlasco, war crime investigator for several international agencies including the UN, claimed that the US Department of Defense had reported “very low numbers” in even those incidents where open source reports had cited higher figures. 

The 12 civilians mentioned in the report include 10 members of a family in Kabul who were killed in a US drone attack in August last year. The US military was forced to acknowledge the deaths following widespread public outrage. However, no personnel was charged for the killings. Instead, the US military investigation later claimed that the attack was in “self defense” and an “honest mistake.”

The US has often been accused of under-counting civilian deaths during its global operations. Common Dreams reported that during the George Bush presidency, when the so-called global war on terror started, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in US operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places. However, the Bush administration refused to acknowledge those deaths. 

During Barack Obama’s presidency, dubious methods were used to under-count the number of civilians killed by US forces in overseas operations, such as redefining the combatants as military-age individuals whether armed or not.