Commentary: We are still at war, and the costs remain high for some

By Elizabeth Shackelford

When President Joe Biden announced the end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, he also vowed that the fight against terrorism would continue, in Afghanistan and across the globe. For Americans, this may be reassuring. For civilians in at least seven countries where we are waging this war, the president’s vow is not so much assuring as terrifying.

With America’s weaponry and resources today, these wars, fought from a distance, are meant to be precise and low risk. And they may be for Americans. But the potential for mistakes and collateral damage is massive.

The United States has conducted more than 91,000 strikes in 20 years of the war on terror. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya have all been part of the conflict zone.

According to a new report by Airwars, a U.K.-based monitoring group, the number of civilians killed directly by U.S. airstrikes in the past 20 years falls somewhere between 22,000 and 48,000. Even the low end of this estimate is disturbing.

For most Americans, this air war is invisible. But we got a glimpse of it on Aug. 29, when a U.S. drone strike in Kabul killed 10 civilians, including seven children. The U.S. military insists it was a “righteous strike” on a car laden with explosives on its way to Kabul’s airport. This may be true, but the evidence so far is inconclusive. The current official assessment is “possible to probable” that the strike really did avert an attack.

The Pentagon has admitted that civilians may have died but places blame for those deaths on the supposed explosives in the car, not the missile that struck it. We may never know whether the strike averted a major attack.

But even if it did, it caused tremendous harm too. Seven children. A father. A fiance. A narrow neighborhood street. A small community blown to bits by a bomb from the sky. Try to imagine what that would do to your community. How understanding would you be if this happened to your family? What must the remaining family members think of America now? Who harmed them? Who is now their enemy?

Worse still is the fact that these victims have no recourse to justice. This happened in a war. The family won’t get answers. At most, they might get condolence payments from the U.S. military. The Pentagon has recently overhauled the system to track and pay compensation, but it is still slow to admit errors, and those it acknowledges fall far short of what human rights groups track.

The Department of Defense has tracked and reported civilian casualties only since 2018, and how it tracks them is questionable, typically relying on the same internal records that led to the strike in the first place. Officials rarely visit strike sites or interview witnesses. Most innocent victims of our direct military action receive no resolution or acknowledgment at all.

The strike in Kabul happened while America was watching. Most strikes do not. Absent a reliable official accounting of civilian casualties caused by the U.S. military, it falls on civil society groups, international organizations and local communities to track. But many claims brought to the military are dismissed as “not credible” without further investigation, and many strikes hit remote areas that few outside observers can even reach to investigate.

With little to no U.S. presence on the ground in countries where our small wars continue, these deaths will be even less visible to Americans.

To understand the impact, take the harm caused by the 10 civilians killed in Kabul and multiply it several thousand times. This is what the wars we’ve waged do to other people. This is why many Afghans in rural areas view the departure of American forces and return of Taliban control as a return to peace.

This isn’t just a tragic story of innocent people killed by war. Years of mounting civilian deaths, with little acknowledgment, apology or recourse, have directly undermined our efforts to fight terrorism. Instead, this ever-present aspect of the war on terror has helped create animosity against the United States and generated greater support for our enemies.

Military leaders like to talk about how our continued counterterrorism activities in countries across the globe are “low cost” and “light footprint.” But low cost to whom? If it continues to be high cost to civilians, ultimately, it will cost the American people more too.

Requiring the Pentagon to report on civilian casualties was an important step, but if the military won’t conduct meaningful and thorough investigations into civilian casualty claims, Congress should empower an independent body to do so instead. The long war may be over, but bombs will continue, and with them, casualties. Without an accurate assessment of damages, we can’t accurately assess the impact of our fight against terrorism and whether it makes us safer.

We lost the war in Afghanistan. If we don’t want to lose the war on terror too, the U.S. government must be more accountable for civilian casualties.



Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”

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