Report: US air strikes killed at least 22,000 civilians since 9/11

Conflict monitor Airwars says civilian deaths in US 'war on terror' could be as high as 48,000

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More than 22,000 civilians across the Middle East and Africa have been killed by US air strikes launched since the attacks of September 11, 2001, a UK watchdog has estimated.

The London-based group Airwars released its report on Monday before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that triggered what became known as America’s “war on terror”. It said at least 22,679 civilians were killed in drone and air strikes carried out by the US since 9/11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen.

“The US has declared a minimum of 93,527 air strikes over the 20 years. The peak was with invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the US declared 18,695 strike sorties,” the report said.

But the number of casualties could be much higher: “We found that US actions likely killed at least 22,679 civilians, with that number potentially as high as 48,308.”

Based on minimum estimates, the invasion of Iraq helped mark 2003 as the deadliest year, with 5,529 civilians reported to have been killed by reported US strikes. The next deadliest year was 2017, when at least 4,931 civilians were killed, the vast majority reportedly the result of the coalition bombing of Iraq and Syria in an attempt to defeat ISIS.

“If we include maximum estimates, 2017 is in fact the worst year for civilians, with up to 19,623 killed – almost all in the bombing campaign against ISIS,” Airwars said.

The US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan caused the most civilian harm, the group said.

“The vast majority of the minimum civilian harm (97 per cent) occurred in the two occupations (Iraq 2003-2009, Afghanistan 2001-2021) and the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (2014-2021),” the report said.

The Pentagon has lamented the number of civilian deaths from these strikes and expressed the US military's dedication to avoiding causing harm to civilians.

"It is very challenging to assess the overall numbers of civilian casualties that have resulted over the 20-year period since 9/11. While civilian casualties are at times unexpected, and at other times unavoidable, we, too, are deeply saddened by the innocent lives forever affected by recent conflicts," US defence spokesman Uriah L Orland told The National.

He said the US "takes very seriously the consequences of war".

"We recognise that our military operations pose inherent risks to civilians, and we are committed to mitigating the risk of civilian harm. We take very seriously reports of civilian casualties," the official added.

While the Pentagon did not provide casualties numbers of its own, it noted that "over the past several years, we have continued to refine our practices and procedures for reviewing reports of civilian casualties and conducting civilian casualty assessments".

US President Joe Biden, the fourth to manage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ended the 20-year war in Afghanistan last week, but US drone strikes are expected to continue in that country.

“The threat from terrorism continues, but it’s changed. Our strategy needs to change too,” Mr Biden said. He vowed action against ISIS-K, the ISIS branch operating in Afghanistan.

“We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said after the group claimed the August 26 attack that killed 13 US service members and more than 160 Afghan civilians at Kabul airport.

Washington has said it will reportedly pivot to an “over-the-horizon” capability in Afghanistan, relying mostly on drone strikes.

The US military does not provide full accounts of civilian deaths. Airwars cites its data from other sources such as the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Iraq Body Count NGO and The Nation.

Updated: September 07, 2021, 8:45 PM