Austin: Pentagon 'must work harder' after new report on civilian casualties

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinPhotos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles Overnight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine National Guard Bureau chief tests positive for COVID-19 MORE on Wednesday said the Pentagon “must work harder” to reduce the civilian casualties that come from U.S. airstrikes and to reveal more information to the public about such military operations.

Austin told reporters that the Defense Department is in the midst of two reviews that will scrutinize how it conducts airstrikes and assesses their potential harm to civilians. He also committed to adjusting Pentagon policies and procedures “to make sure that we improve.”

“The American people deserve to know that we take this issue very seriously and that we are committed to protecting civilians and getting this right both in terms of how we execute missions on their behalf and how we talk about them afterward,” Austin said. “We have more work to do in that regard, clearly ... and I’m committed to doing this in full partnership with our military leaders.”

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The Pentagon chief made the comments after the weekend release of an investigative report by The New York Times that detailed a 2019 U.S. airstrike in Syria that killed 70 civilians, including dozens of women and children, and allegations that top officers and civilian officials tried to hide the casualties. 

U.S. Central Command on Tuesday confirmed the strike killed multiple civilians.

The second review — ordered by Congress in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act — will take a wider, annual look at U.S. strikes and their harm to civilians and is due by May 1. 

Austin has already been briefed on the Syria airstrike by U.S. Central Command head Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who oversaw the air campaign in Syria, but he said he looks forward to reading the two studies and “benefiting from them as we conduct operations going forward.”

The Pentagon is also still answering for how it handled an Aug. 29 drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, instead of an Islamic State target. An initial Air Force inspector general investigation into the tragedy, released earlier this month, found errors were made in identifying the intended target but recommended no disciplinary action.

Austin said he asked the McKenzie and U.S. Special Operations Command head Gen. Richard Clarke to bring him their plans to implement changes based on that review,

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“They’ve done that, and I’m working my way through their recommendations,” he said.

Austin also stressed that “every civilian casualty is a tragedy” and said he has “no doubt that we can work harder, and I’d go beyond that and say we must work harder. I'm committed to adjusting our policies and our procedures to make sure that we improve, and I'll be holding all our senior leaders responsible for putting those policies and procedures into effect as we go forward.” 

CORRECTION: The Rand Corp. is not analyzing the 2019 air strike. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.