Pentagon is undercounting civilian casualties from US military operations, Democratic lawmakers say
Stars and Stripes December 19, 2022
WASHINGTON — The Defense Department could be undercounting civilian casualties from U.S. military operations abroad and is failing to make sufficient amends to victims and survivors, according to two Democratic lawmakers.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., made the allegations in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday, arguing the Pentagon’s September 2022 report on civilian casualties did not align with reporting from news media and independent sources.
The Pentagon report determined about 12 civilians were killed and five were injured as a result of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Somalia last year but did not note any civilian deaths in Syria. The lack of reported casualties in Syria does not track with findings by civilian monitors who documented at least 15 civilian deaths and 17 injuries in the country in 2021, the lawmakers wrote.
Warren and Jacobs also took issue with reporting on the actions of the Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational military formation led by the U.S. against the Islamic State. The Pentagon disclosed four deaths and 15 injuries from a 2019 air strike by the group in Baghuz, Syria, but local sources counted at least 160 civilian deaths, including up to 45 children, the lawmakers said.
“This vast difference between independent reporting and the DOD investigation raises concerns and undermines DOD credibility on civilian casualty reporting,” Warren and Jacobs wrote.
Lawmakers sent a similar letter last year also complaining the Defense Department was undercounting casualties and making no payments to grieving civilians. Congress this month voted to establish a Civilian Protection Center of Excellence, which will serve as a focal point for civilian harm and mitigation, to help address the issue.
Warren and Jacobs said they were concerned by a shroud of secrecy around cases that were deemed non-credible and cases that still remain under investigation.
“Transparency is essential to increasing trust in DOD reporting, something which is undermined by the failure to clarify dismissals of cases or when pending cases will be resolved,” Warren and Jacobs wrote.
The lawmakers faulted the Defense Department for not giving appropriate weight to outside sources when investigating civilian casualty reports and putting too much trust in military sources who are more likely to miss casualties in strikes on structures.
Warren and Jacobs also admonished the military for making just one condolence payment last year to civilian victims and survivors despite the Pentagon confirming a large number of credible cases. Congress allocates $3 million each year for the payments to “advance the U.S. mission on the ground, build rapport with local communities and reinforce the U.S. relationship with the host-nation government,” they wrote.
Warren said an attorney contacted her and said attempts to secure payments for years prior to 2021 were denied by the Pentagon without clear explanation. An email sent to the attorney by the Defense Department stated payments are typically made up to 90 days after an incident — a deadline that is not reflected in public policies, according to Warren’s office.
The letter requires a response from Austin by Jan. 16 and urges the defense secretary to improve mechanisms for civilians to report harm. Warren and Jacobs are proposing the military set up a dedicated phone hotline to field concerns as well as translate the Pentagon’s webpage for reporting civilian harm into local languages.
“The current primary mechanism, an online webpage with relevant email addresses, is inaccessible to many affected civilians due to language limitations, internet access restraints, and lack of awareness or transparency around how reports are used,” the lawmakers wrote.