U.S. fuzzy statements of civilian casualties in military actions reflect apathy, breach of law

Zhang Tao

by Xinhua writer Hai Yang

BEIJING, May 25 (Xinhua) -- In the movie The Avengers II, when the Avengers prevent Ultron from crashing a piece of land into the ground, the collateral damage of civilian casualties is so unbearable that the United Nations is prompted to pass the Sokovia Accords to supervise those superheroes.

Perhaps that could only happen in movies. In reality, the world's only self-proclaimed vigilante -- the United States -- when facing similar situations, would pick up a much easier choice: just doing a little math.

"As the (Barack) Obama administration prepares to publish a long-delayed accounting of how many militants and non-combatant civilians it has killed since 2009, its statistics may be defined as much by what is left out as by what is included," The Washington Post recently reported.

"The totals will almost inevitably be challenged by independent groups that keep their own tallies and for years have charged that the administration undercounts civilian casualties caused by drones strikes," said the report.


According to The Washington Post, the casualty numbers will cover the "outside areas of active hostilities" where the United States conducts airstrikes, such as Yemen, Somalia and Libya.

These areas will likely exclude Pakistan, where the CIA has conducted hundreds of "not publicly" acknowledged drone strikes, although Obama on Monday confirmed that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor had been eliminated there.

To further complicate the math equation, as on whom to be counted in and whom to be not, the report said not all strikes had so far been made public, as some "are considered counterterrorism actions, which must be approved by the highest level of government," while some "are defined as self-defense and can be approved by the defense secretary," not to mention that many drone strikes conducted by the CIA "remain secret."

The U.S. Defense Department replied in an email that it keeps no central list of strikes. The Pentagon, the Central Command in charge of Yemen, and the Africa Command may all keep their own separate statistics.

The calculations got even muddier, as the Intercept news site said citing a cache of secret files it published that the U.S. drone strikes against terror targets in the Middle East and Central Asia caused much more casualties than they were initially intended.

On Oct. 16, 2015, a report from the site said the U.S. military described fatalities from these strikes as "enemy killed in action," even if their identity was unknown or they were not the intended targets.

And the strikes often kill many more than intended, it said. Documents detailing a mission called Operation Haymaker showed that U.S. special operations airstrikes killed over 200 people in northeastern Afghanistan from January 2012 to February 2013, but only 35 were intended targets.

In a five-month period of the operation, nearly 90 percent of those killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets, The Intercept reported.

U.S. government statements minimizing the number of civilian casualties were "exaggerating at best, if not outright lies," said the website citing an unidentified source working in the intelligence community.


With the Pentagon's intensified fight against militant groups in Iraq and Syria, some lives of civilians were sacrificed at the very start, since the Pentagon has authorized more airstrikes that could cause unnecessary casualties.

USA Today reported on April 19 that six Defense Department officials, all speaking on condition of anonymity, described a sliding scale of probable civilian casualties based on the value of the target and the location. For example, a strike with the potential to wound or kill several civilians would be permitted if it prevented IS fighters from causing greater harm.

"The increased tolerance for civilian casualties dovetails with the revised strategy Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in October," said the report.

Among the issues commanders consider before attacking is the target's "non-combatant value." A value of zero means it can be hit with no chance of civilians being killed. However, in some attacks, the value could rise up to 10 or more, said the report.

According to the report, during the surge in Iraq beginning in 2007, the non-combatant value for some targets was as high as 26 people. In Afghanistan, during the surge of troops there in 2010, the value was nine.


Once again the picture in reality is utterly different from that in theater. Superheroes on the screen only cause unintended losses by mistake, but military commanders in real life get to decide how many to kill.

Although the Obama administration has promised more transparency and regulations on drone attacks, with the publication of relevant guidelines expected, the legitimacy of such military actions conducted in non-war zones remains questionable.

Chu Yin, associate professor of the University of International Relations in China, told Xinhua that such airstrikes were certainly breaching international law, as they infringed upon national sovereignty.

"It's a para-war act that may result in massive, collateral civilian casualties," he said.

However, Chu also said modern armed conflicts featured by pinpoint strikes and special warfare have long surpassed the limitations set by the existing law system.

"In an international law system formed decades ago that applies to traditional wars, the Americans can always find some vague zones to operate on," he said, adding that the country is capable of unilateral actions because of its advanced military technology and superior global status.

"Of course the Americans have no right of doing so ... because most countries in the world are facing similar asymmetric threats and in need of similar military actions," Chu said.

"Making new rules cannot be based upon the need of one single country, but rather, it should be thoroughly talked through by the international community, especially by the permanent members of the UN Security Council," he added.

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