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2019 | Pentagon Review of Civilian Casualties resulting from United States operations in areas of operation under US Africa Command and under the US Central Command between 2015 and 2017

This (heavily redacted) report, completed in April 2018 but released by the Pentagon on 4 February 2019, examines civilian casualties (CIVCAS) resulting from United States operations between 2015 and 2017, in areas of operation under US Africa Command and under the US Central Command. It focuses primarily on Operations “Inherent Resolve” (against ISIL in Iraq and Syria), “Odyssey Lightning” (in Lybia) and other operations in Libya and Somalia. 

The report presents findings and recommendations in regard to five specific task areas: a) guidance, intent, and oversight with respect to civilian casualties; b) internal reporting procedures; c) reconciliation and verification of external reports; d) investigations; and e) response, including solatia payments. The report explains how civilian casualties most commonly occur, the circumstances that make it difficult accurately to track CIVCAS resulting from drone strikes, and the reasons for the current inadequacy of the response to CIVCAS, including the poorly defined policy and practice regarding reparations such as solatia and condolence payments, community projects and apologies.

The report confirms that CIVCAS primarily occurs (i) through collateral damage from an engagement with known enemy forces and (ii) through “misidentification, where civilians are mistakenly believed to be enemy and are engaged because of that belief.” It concludes that the basic protocols designed to mitigate and respond to unintended civilian casualties are being followed, and that the process of positive identification (PID) of legitimate military targets “has sufficient guidance and structure and therefore does not increase the risk of CIVCAS” (see Finding A.4 on PDF p. 12).

However, two members of the study group point out that misidentification of targets is nonetheless a main cause for CIVCAS (p. 6, footnote 3). They cite a 2013 Joint Staff report covering earlier operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and note that its findings are “consistent with incorrect PID being a driver in the major civilian casualty incidents that led to significant DOD reviews in e.g. Uruzgan (2010), Kunduz (2015).” They note also that interview-based studies such as the present one are unlikely to detect PID errors, “because military personnel are generally unaware of misidentifications when they occur.” Moreover, “due to the lack of a robust US presence on the ground and a sometimes overly restrictive process for evaluating external reports [such as the monitoring done by NGO’s], it is reasonable to expect a systematic undercounting of misidentification in UN military reports in the context of OIR.” Naturally, this is likely to prevent many civilians from obtaining any redress for the harm done to family members. 

Findings regarding Task E, (response to CIVCAS), are briefly sketched on PDF pages 18-19. Finding E.1 “Solatia and Other Amends” is that “there are limits to existing policy, doctrine, and guidance on how regional commands should respond to CIVCAS incidents.” Executive Order 13732[1] stipulates that “relevant agencies shall acknowledge U.S. Government responsibility for civilian casualties and offer condolences, including ex gratia payments, to civilians who are injured or to the families of civilians who are killed.” However the report finds this Executive Order to be lacking in sufficient detail as to “whether or how to offer ex gratia payment for civilian harm, issue an apology, or provide some other form of acknowledgement.” The US’ intention to respect the national reparations policy of the host state and its own limited situational awareness are offered as explanations for not adequately responding to CIVCAS (see PDF p. 19). The report makes no reference to International Law provisions on reparations.


[1] US policy on pre and post-strike measures to address civilian casualties in US operations using force: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/07/01/executive-order-united-states-policy-pre-and-post-strike-measures, section 2(b)(ii)