US: End Impunity for Civilian Casualties

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The Pentagon, Washington, DC, United States. 

© 2008 Flickr/David B. Gleason

(Washington) – The US military’s decision to hold no one accountable for killing 10 civilians in an August 2021 drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan is a cause for deep concern, Human Rights watch said today.

The government’s response is particularly problematic because the US has not released the military’s full report into what went wrong in Kabul. Instead, the Pentagon released a characteristically opaque fact sheet with a problematic self-assessment that the strike did not violate the laws of war. To the contrary, the facts of the strike as detailed by the New York Times and Washington Post provide compelling evidence that the US strike team failed to take all feasible steps to minimize civilian harm. Furthermore, the information provided does not justify the decision to absolve US personnel of criminal recklessness or criminal negligence.   

“The news that nobody will be held accountable for civilian deaths is not surprising but it’s still deeply troubling,” said Sarah Holewinski, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “After 20 years of announcements, Congress needs to consider reforms to the military’s justice system and demand answers from the Pentagon about why past reviews of policy and practice have not led to concrete change.”  

On August 29, 2021, the US launched a drone strike on a car it claimed was filled with explosives intended to attack US-led evacuations at Kabul airport. Following preliminary reporting on potential civilian casualties in the days following the strike, the New York Times published a visual investigation on September 10 tracking the hours leading up to the strike and concluded that it was civilians who were killed, and that no one had been taking part in illegal activity.

Throughout this period, the US military defended the strike as a “righteous” attack on Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) forces. A week later, in the face of mounting public evidence, the US Defense Department announced that the strike was a “horrible mistake.” It said that the personnel involved had misidentified a civilian as a member of ISIS-K and had wrongly killed him along with two other adult civilians and seven children. Zemari Ahmadi, the civilian the strike targeted, was in fact an Afghan employed by a California-based aid group.

Following an investigation ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the Pentagon found no “criminal negligence among military personnel” involved in the operation but left administrative decisions about consequences for the strike to two senior commanders. On December 13, the New York Times reported that Austin accepted the recommendation of these commanders, which “found no grounds for penalizing any of the military personnel involved in the episode.”

The Defense Department has repeatedly failed to respond to incidents of civilian harm, including the August Kabul strike and a drone strike carried out by a special operations unit called Task Force 9 in Baghouz, Syria, in 2019. That attack was also uncovered by a New York Times investigation, not by the Defense Department.

Congress should urgently exercise its oversight responsibilities with regard to the Defense Department’s laws of war violations and not just investigate highly publicized incidents. Specifically, lawmakers should initiate a review of 20 years of practices that have resulted in the deaths or injury to civilians.

“Is this message of impunity and secrecy the one the United States government wants to send out to the world mere days after hosting a Summit for Democracy,” Holewinski said. “It defies logic and undercuts US credibility.” 

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