Previously published at Common Dreams
An annual report published Tuesday by the Pentagon claiming that the U.S. military only killed 12 noncombatants last year was met with skepticism by civilian casualty monitors, who perennially accuse the United States of undercounting the people killed by its bombs and bullets.
The U.S. Department of Defense “assesses that there were approximately 12 civilians killed and approximately five civilians injured during 2021 as a result of U.S. military operations,” the report—the fifth of its kind—states.
However, the U.K.-based monitor group Airwars counted between 12 and 25 civilians likely killed by U.S. forces, sometimes working with coalition allies, in Syria alone last year, with another two to four people killed in Somalia and one to four killed in Yemen.
“Once again the confirmed civilian casualty count is below what communities on the ground are reporting,” Airwars director Emily Tripp told Al Jazeera.
Airwars does not count civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan, where all of the 2021 casualties acknowledged by the Pentagon occurred. These incidents include an errant August 29 drone strike that killed 10 people—most of them members of one family—including seven children.
No one was ever held accountable for the attack, which Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley first described as a “righteous strike.”
However, nearly 20 witnesses who spoke to CNN after a suicide bomber killed more than 100 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops on August 26 during the rushed American withdrawal from the country said that U.S. and British troops opened fire on the panicking crowd, killing and wounding many civilians.
“They were targeting people. It was intentional,” said one survivor. “In front of me, people were getting shot at and falling down.”
Although the U.S. military claimed all of the casualties at the airport that day were caused by the bombing, a doctor working at a local hospital said that “there were two kinds of injuries… people burnt from the blast with lots of holes in their bodies. But with the gunshots, you can see just one or two holes—in the mouth, in the head, in the eye, in the chest.”
The Italian-run Emergency Surgical Center in Kabul said it received nine bodies with gunshot wounds following the bombing.
Despite all this—and forensic analysts’ assertions that so many people could not have been killed by a single bomb—a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command refuted the claim that U.S. troops shot civilians at Kabul’s airport, attributing eyewitness accounts, including by people who were shot, to “jumbled memories.”
U.S. administrations have long been accused of undercounting civilians killed by American forces. During the administration of former President George W. Bush, top officials dismissed the carnage that critics warned the so-called “War on Terror” would cause, with one top general declaring that “we don’t do body counts.” The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the war died during Bush’s two terms.
While civilian casualties declined dramatically during the tenure of former President Barack Obama, his administration was criticized for relying heavily upon unmanned aerial drones—whose strikes killed hundreds of civilians in more nations than were bombed by Bush—and for redefining “militant” to mean all military-aged males in a targeted strike zone in a bid to falsely lower noncombatant casualty figures.
Former President Donald Trump dispensed with pretenses, relaxing rules of engagement meant to protect civilians from harm and vowing to “bomb the shit out of” Islamic State militants and “take out their families.” Then-Defense Secretary James Mattis—who earned his “Mad Dog” moniker during the fight for Fallujah in which hundreds of civilians were killed or wounded by American forces—said in 2017 that noncombatant deaths “are a fact of life” as the U.S. transitioned from a policy of “attrition” to one of “annihilation” in the war against Islamic State.
The result was a sharp increase in civilian casualties as U.S. and allied forces laid waste to entire cities like Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria, killing and wounding thousands of men, women, and children. As Common Dreams reported at the time, Trump’s decision to loosen rules of engagement was blamed for a more than 300% spike in civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
U.S.-caused civilian casualties have declined precipitously with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, although deadly incidents still occasionally occur. The initial annual Pentagon civilian casualty report, released during the Trump administration’s first year, admitted to 499 civilians killed by U.S. forces. The true figure is believed to be much higher.
Last month, human rights groups cautiously welcomed news that the U.S. military—which has killed more civilians in foreign wars than any other armed force on Earth in the post-World War II era—published a plan aimed at reducing noncombatant casualties.