The department found no credible reports of civilian deaths caused by U.S. operations in Libya or Yemen last year.
Outside watchdog groups such as Airwars have put forward much higher death tolls for U.S. counterterrorism strikes. For 2018, despite a significant slowing of the American campaign against the Islamic State, Airwars found that air and artillery strikes by the U.S.-led coalition killed a minimum of 805 civilians in Iraq and Syria alone.
The United Nations has found that international operations, mostly airstrikes, killed 406 civilians in Afghanistan in 2018. Estimates by Airwars, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and New America found that at least 13 civilians probably died in U.S. attacks in Libya, Somalia and Yemen, bringing the minimum for the entire set of countries to 1,224, far above the Pentagon figure.
The gap underscores the differing approaches that outside groups, which typically rely on witness statements and accounts on social media, have taken in piecing together information about U.S. strikes, and that of the military, which has slowly begun to incorporate such data into its assessments.
The White House argued the change was made to avoid duplication with the congressionally mandated report. But the White House report previously included a tally including accidental deaths caused by military and intelligence operations. Its elimination means the public will no longer have access to information about CIA drone strikes.
CIA strikes are far less frequent than they were under Obama, but the agency remains authorized to conduct such attacks.
Dan Mahanty, director for U.S. Program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said the report reflected improved military transparency about its operations overseas. But the lack of information from intelligence agencies “brings the government’s inconsistency further into relief and undermines this achievement,” he said.
“The report also further validates our instinct that we clearly still have work to do on the degree of effort DOD puts into proactively seeking out facts that it doesn’t have at its fingertips,” Mahanty said.
On Thursday, several advocacy groups, including CIVIC and Human Rights First, sent a letter to leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees urging lawmakers to insert more robust transparency and reporting requirements into an upcoming defense authorization bill.
Such transparency “enables the public to be informed about some of the most important policy choices the government makes in its name — ones that involve life and death decisions,” the letter says.
The Pentagon found no U.S.-caused civilian casualties in Yemen at a moment when U.S. involvement there has become a politically charged issue.
Last month, Trump vetoed a measure that would have ended U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia and allied countries battling Houthi rebels in Yemen. On Thursday, a measure to override that veto fell short of needed votes in the Senate.
The U.S. military does not generally attack Houthi targets, but it has provided arms and refueled planes for the Saudi-led coalition, which has been criticized for repeatedly killing civilians. The U.S. military conducts a separate campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen. The Pentagon’s finding that no civilians had been killed referred to that operation, which BIJ said killed at least eight civilians.
Daphne Eviatar, an official at Amnesty International USA, which has conducted investigations of civilian death toll in Somalia and Syria, said more Pentagon analyses were required “to both acknowledge the full scale of the damage and for the survivors still struggling with the aftermath.”