The tally obtained by The Washington Post, which also includes “battle damage” outlays and payments to families of local partner forces killed in the line of duty, provides a rare glimpse into the military’s uneven, typically opaque handling of the civilian toll of battlefield operations.
But activists said the military must do far more to mitigate civilian harm, calling on the Pentagon to standardize and increase amends payments under a more transparent system, even as the United States seeks to wind down nearly two decades of counterinsurgent wars.
In recent years, operations have been conducted largely from the air, meaning that troops have little up-close interaction with adversaries — and the noncombatants who are sometimes caught in the crossfire.
Daniel Mahanty, director of the U.S. program for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), said the Pentagon has become more responsive but that “the process has been stymied by a lack of transparency or consistency and internal doubts about the value of the program.”
Those factors have made it “impossible to know where the military stands on providing condolence payments to survivors and victims, and making it nearly impossible to know how to pursue a claim,” Mahanty said.
The new data, which details payments from 2015 to 2018, comes as the Trump administration seeks to conclude the long campaign in Afghanistan with plans to withdraw additional troops ahead of hoped-for peace talks and reduce involvement in other areas that have dominated Pentagon officials’ attention since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Together with 2019 data made public earlier this summer, the information provides new insights as the Pentagon develops its first-ever military-wide policy on preventing and responding to civilian casualties, an initiative that began in 2018 amid scrutiny over a massive discrepancy between estimated death tolls recorded by the U.S. military and outside groups.
In the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for example, the watchdog organization Airwars estimates that at least 8,200 civilians have been killed since 2014. The U.S. military puts that figure far lower, around 1,380.
The Pentagon has made amends payments to civilians for decades, since at least the Korean War, but they have generally been distributed in an ad hoc manner, varying significantly between conflicts and incidents. It has typically been difficult for civilians to seek out such payments.
In recent years, some components of the U.S. military have introduced new measures to respond to reports of civilian deaths. U.S. Central Command created a process to assess allegations of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, gradually incorporating reporting from the news media and civil society groups into information used to validate allegations. U.S. Africa Command established a public Web portal for people to directly make allegations.
Military officials say extensive measures have been taken to avoid civilian harm, including aerial observation and precision munitions. The U.S. military has been significantly more transparent than other governments, including European partners that also take part in the Islamic State battle, in owning up to incidents of accidental death.
David Trachtenberg, a former senior Pentagon official who until his departure last year oversaw the effort to develop new rules on civilian casualties, said the recent disclosures “demonstrate the seriousness with which DOD continues to address this issue.”
The historical data on condolence payments in Afghanistan in some ways raises more questions than it answers. The number of payments varied from 11 in 2015 to nearly 300 in 2016.
But officials provided no information about the location or circumstances of the incidents that resulted in the payments, which can be divided among multiple recipients. It was not clear how the payments were made or who authorized them. Unlike other American commands, Resolute Support, which oversees U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, does not routinely release the results of investigations it may conduct into alleged civilian casualty incidents.
In some of those years, the condolence payments total was dwarfed by the amount offered for “battle damage” payments or “hero” payments to the families of Afghan forces. In 2018, for example, some 50 condolence payments amounted to $153,000 while almost 300 hero payments exceeded $710,000, a possible reflection of the extensive casualties insurgents have inflicted to Afghan security forces.
The reverse was true in 2016, when condolence payments totaled $1.4 million and hero payments were only $25,800. Some activists have questioned the Pentagon’s inclusion of battle damage and hero payments in its accounting of payments related to civilian harm.
According to the United Nations, insurgents continue to be responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. But in its report on civilian casualties in 2019, the U.N. attributed more than 500 civilian deaths to operations by international forces, mostly airstrikes.
The data on hero payments, which totaled $1.94 million from 2015 to 2019, provides fresh clues about the high casualty rate that has long plagued Afghanistan’s security forces. While the U.S. and Afghan governments no longer provide figures for those casualties, which are seen as an indicator of the Afghan government’s vulnerability to the Taliban despite two decades of outside support, the Pentagon has said they remain high.
Activists are also urging the Pentagon to reconsider its characterization of ex gratia payments as a tool for advancing U.S. counterinsurgency objectives rather than a way to make up for civilian losses.
Under interim guidelines released in June as part of a series of new congressional requirements around civilian casualties, the Pentagon described the payments as intended chiefly to secure “friendly relations with and the support of local populations.”
They are not “an admission of wrongdoing and not for the purpose of compensating the victim or the victim’s family for their loss,” the department said.
Daphne Eviatar, director of the security with human rights program at Amnesty International, said that characterization of condolence payments as a counterinsurgency tool — typically focused on winning over local populations in areas where U.S. troops are operating — diminished the incentive to make payments in areas where the United States relies mostly on air rather than ground operations, such as Syria.
“Yet those civilians are in just as much need of assistance, and they’re well aware that it’s the U.S. conducting airstrikes and killing or injuring their family and community members,” she said. “So the strategy ignores the U.S. longer-term interest in not creating new enemies on the ground.”
In 2019, the military also paid six condolence payments in Iraq ranging from $1,500 to $10,000. No payments were reported in Syria or other areas where the United States conducts periodic airstrikes or military operations, including Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
While historical data was not immediately available for Iraq, condolence payments appear to have been far more limited than in Afghanistan. Officials acknowledged for example that no payments were made for a March 2017 airstrike that killed at least 100 people during the battle for Mosul, the single biggest U.S.-linked civilian casualty incident in the war against the Islamic State.