Pentagon spokesman John Kirby was grilled by reporters on Tuesday for the lack of accountability for a 2019 airstrike in Syria that killed dozens of people, including women and children.
Last year, The New York Times reported that a US airstrike in Baghuz, Syria killed up to 70 people, including 64 women and children, one of the highest reported casualty incidents in the US air war against ISIS. The Times report said the death toll was almost immediately known, and the strike was flagged as a possible war crime. But at every turn, the Pentagon did what it could to conceal the deadly strike, and a proper investigation never happened.
The Times report prompted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to launch a new inquiry into the Baghuz strike led by Gen. Michael X. Garrett, a four-star who heads the Army’s Forces Command. The Pentagon released the results of the investigation on Tuesday, which said mistakes were made in the original inquiry but found no wrongdoing in the strike and did not call for disciplinary action.
“General Garrett found that the ground force commander made the best decisions that he could, given the information he had, at the time, given a very lethal, very aggressive ISIS threat in a very confined space,” Kirby told reporters.
Garrett’s report also offered a much different civilian death toll, claiming only four civilians were killed and two were injured. It said 52 enemy combatants were killed in the strike. The report said of the civilians, one woman and three children died, and one child combatant was killed.
But the Pentagon has a long history of downplaying and hiding civilian casualties, especially in the brutal air campaign it waged against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The original Times report quoted a US analyst using a secure chat at the time of the strike, who was monitoring drone footage of the area. “We just dropped on 50 women and children,” the analyst said.
When asked by reporters why nobody is being held accountable for the deadly strike, Kirby — who recently appeared to be choked up when talking about alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine — claimed that the military is being held accountable by sharing details of the report.
“We are holding ourselves accountable for letting you see everything. Now, did anybody get fired because of Baghuz? No, but it’s not because we’re trying to protect careers. General Garrett had a completely independent look at this strike,” Kirby said.
Kirby drew comparisons between the US and Russian militaries, arguing that the US was better because it admitted to killing civilians. “The difference is, we’re admitting that yes, we killed some innocent civilians, women and children in 2019, in Baghuz, Syria. It’s all out there for you to see. We’re admitting that we made those mistakes,” he said.
When reminded that the investigation was only carried out after the Times report, Kirby said, “I’m not denying that The New York Times report spurred this review. I mean, that’s one of the most valuable things about a free press is you find things out that maybe we weren’t aware of.”
The lack of accountability for the Baghuz strike follows a pattern of the Pentagon investigating itself and not reprimanding its personnel over civilian casualties. Last year, a US drone strike in Kabul during the final days of the Afghanistan withdrawal killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
The US military initially claimed the Kabul strike targeted ISIS-K fighters, but an investigation from The New York Times revealed only civilians were killed, prompting an investigation. But after the Pentagon concluded its inquiry, nobody was punished.
The strikes in Kabul and Baghuz are not anomalies, as US airstrikes frequently kill civilians. In 2015, documents leaked by whistleblower Daniel Hale revealed that during a five-month period between 2012 and 2013, 90 percent of the people killed by US drone strikes were civilians. Last year, Hale was sentenced to 45 months in prison for leaking the documents.