Pentagon chief orders closer focus on preventing civilian deaths in airstrikes

Associated Press/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday ordered the Department of Defense (DOD) to develop an “action plan” to improve its mechanisms for how it prevents civilian deaths and the way it responds to and acknowledges claims of civilians harmed by U.S. military operations. 

In a two-page directive to top civilian and military officials, Austin asked for a “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan” that outlines steps to take and the resources required to apply possible solutions to the problem. He said he wants the plan within the next 90 days. 

“We can and will improve upon efforts to protect civilians,” Austin wrote in the memo. “The protection of innocent civilians in the conduct of our operations remains vital to the ultimate success of our operations, and as a significant strategic and moral imperative.” 

The directive comes after public outcry and significant scrutiny over several high-profile U.S. drone strikes, including a botched Aug. 29 attack in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed 10 people, including seven children, and one in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children.

The new guidance also comes the same day federally funded think tank Rand Corp. released a study which found “considerable weaknesses” in how the U.S. military investigates, addresses and reduces civilian harm. 

The DOD’s internal reporting on civilian casualties can be unreliable, incomplete and not easily accessible to commanders, which limits the military’s ability to understand the root causes of and patterns to civilian casualties, the congressionally-mandated report found.  

“DoD has too few personnel trained in civilian harm issues. It lacks structures and capabilities for key tasks, such as analyzing and monitoring civilian harm trends over time and archiving civilian harm-related data,” Rand said in a release on the study.  

To address that, Austin in his memo also ordered the establishment of a “civilian protection center of excellence” to quickly institutionalize the Pentagon’s knowledge, practices and tools for preventing, mitigating and responding to civilian harm. The center would take recommendations from the Rand report. 

Michael McNerney, a senior researcher at Rand, said the Pentagon’s main issue stemmed from a lackluster attempt to document and put right civilian deaths after they happened, calling the data management “a hot mess.”  

“Even the office of the secretary, and even the joint staff, had trouble getting data,” McNerney told reporters earlier on Thursday. He said there was no centralized system to allow analysis and information was scatted across various shared drives, usually only patched together on request.  

The lack of documentation can lead to the Pentagon more easily dismissing the validity of claims of civilian casualties. 

“Civilian casualties were alleged to have occurred, the military indeed attacked the alleged location, and available military information neither confirmed nor ruled out civilian casualties. Thus, these cases were determined to be not credible,” the report found.  

“Even the individuals involved in an incident often never saw the results of the investigation, so they could not learn lessons from what happened,” the report said. 

A senior defense official told reporters that in many cases — especially as the Pentagon attempts to manage in intense operational environments with lots of activity — “there hasn’t been the resources or the capacity to look and have that quick feedback loop if we do have an allegation of civilian harm.”

Austin’s action, while looking to remedy these issues, will likely take time, the official said. 

“There aren’t that many people who actually have this expertise. . . . we need to build that.” 

The Pentagon turns its attention to civilian casualties after several botched drone strikes placed a magnifying glass on how the department identifies potential threats and handles the fallout when civilians are mistaken for the enemy.  

Public outcry came in August when a U.S. drone strike killed 10 civilians, later found to be an aid worker and his family members, in an action initially defended as necessary to prevent “an imminent ISIS-K threat” to U.S. forces evacuating people at Kabul’s airport. 

In November, an investigation by The New York Times detailed a U.S. airstrike that killed 70 civilians and allegations that top officers and civilian officials tried to hide the casualties. The strike, which was carried out by the classified special operations unit known as Task Force 9, was unknown to the public until the Times report.  

Austin has ordered a new investigation into that airstrike. 

Tags Afghanistan Lloyd Austin Pentagon

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