October 13, 2021

Warren, Khanna Urge DoD to Do Everything They Can to Prevent Civilian Harm

In the Response to August 29 Airstrike that Killed Ten Afghan Civilians, Including Seven Children, Lawmakers Urge DoD to Look into Department’s Tendency to Wrongly Target Innocent Civilians

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III in regards to the August 29, 2021 unmanned airstrike that killed ten civilians in Afghanistan, including an aid worker and seven children. In the letter, the lawmakers urge Secretary Austin to use this latest tragedy of civilian harm to look into the Pentagon’s history of accidentally targeting innocent civilians and significantly under-investigate and undercount civilian casualties.

“For too long, U.S. rhetorical commitments to civilian protection have not lived up to reality. The strike in Kabul was the latest example of that persistent fact, and we urge you to seize this moment to reckon with the civilian harm from U.S. operations and take significant steps to prevent and respond to harm,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Kabul strike followed a now-familiar pattern in which DoD’s stated commitment to the protection of civilians does not reflect reality. In Iraq and Syria, while claiming this campaign to be “the most precise in history,” credible monitors estimate that the U.S.-led Coalition operations killed between 8,309–13,176 civilians. And despite the Obama and Trump administrations’ claims of safeguards against civilian harm from U.S. lethal strikes outside recognized war zones, civilian harm has also been a persistent result of these strikes. 

The lawmakers requested DoD provide a response on what procedures govern U.S. strikes, the chains of command used to vet these procedures, and how these procedures relate to and inform the annual congressional requirement to report on civilian casualties “that were confirmed, or reasonably suspected, to have resulted in civilian casualties that the Department continues to defy.” They also urged DoD to swiftly offer ex gratia or condolence payments and other appropriate amends in accordance with the families’ preferences, and undertake rigorous investigations in all the other places and for all the other incidents in which U.S. operations have caused civilian harm, including in Yemen and Somalia, and to recognize and amend harm when harm is confirmed.

“Strengthening investigations, accurately and transparently reporting on civilian harm, expressing condolences for harm when it occurs, and improving future operations with lessons learned from these incidents are all essential steps that reinforce the importance of protecting civilians,” the lawmakers wrote.

In July, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna sent a letter urging Secretary Austin to review why significant undercounts of civilian casualties persist and why DoD made zero ex gratia payments to grieving civilians last year despite authorization and funding from Congress. In June 2020, Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna introduced the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act, bicameral legislation that would enhance reporting on civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations, improve investigations into civilian casualties, and strengthen resources for the Department's policies and practices relating to civilian casualty prevention and responses.