Austin Orders Overhaul to Better Protect Civilians During U.S. Combat Operations

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon on Thursday announced sweeping changes aimed at reducing risks to civilians in U.S. military operations by fostering a culture in which those in the field view preventing such harm as a core part of their missions.

A 36-page action plan directs broad changes at every level of military planning, doctrine, training and policy in not only counterterrorism drone strikes but also in any future major conflict. It includes emerging war-fighting tactics like attacks on satellites and computer systems.

The directive — which follows an investigative series by The New York Times into civilian deaths from American airstrikes — contains 11 major objectives. They are aimed at helping commanders better understand the presence of noncombatants before any operations begin, and they require operators to consider potential consequences for civilians in any combat action.

The steps include putting officials responsible for reducing civilian harm inside the combatant commands and Pentagon policy offices; imposing a new system to reduce the risk of misidentifying targets and “confirmation bias” — the tendency to favor information that confirms pre-existing beliefs; and creating a 30-person center to handle departmentwide analysis and training regarding civilian protection.

In a memo to top military commanders and civilian leaders, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said the Pentagon must prioritize civilian protection and incorporate more attentive thinking about that goal as doctrine in its mission planning.

“We will ensure that we are well prepared to prevent, mitigate and respond to civilian harm in current and future conflicts,” Mr. Austin wrote, adding, “Importantly, this plan is scalable and relevant to both counterterrorism operations and large-scale conflicts against peer adversaries.”

(The term peer adversaries is widely understood to be shorthand for major nation-state competitors like Russia and China, which engage in space and cyberoperations as well as traditional air, land and sea combat.)

Some human rights advocates, who have lobbied the Pentagon for years to strengthen its policies and practices to prevent civilian harm, praised the plan’s scope and breadth.

“This is a sea change,” said Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon official who later investigated civilian deaths caused by U.S. military operations for the United Nations. “It doesn’t mean civilians won’t be killed in war anymore. They will. But if this plan is implemented and properly resourced, it will ensure fewer people will die and create a way for the Defense Department to respond when civilians are killed.”

Still, Mr. Garlasco said the plan did not fully address several questions, including how the military would improve its ability to estimate civilian casualties; how information from outside groups would be incorporated into the Pentagon’s civilian harm assessments; and whether individual officials or commanders would be held accountable for violations.

The plan also does not say whether the new efforts will include reopening or studying past incidents that resulted in civilian deaths. “Investigating and making amends for past harm is critical to achieving the kind of accountability and learning that the action plan rightly strives for,” said Annie Shiel, a senior adviser for the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

U.S. military members are taught that the laws of war prevent intentionally targeting civilians or carrying out strikes when the anticipated scale of civilian deaths is disproportionate to the combat aim. Military leaders and presidents have also long articulated a policy of minimizing or trying to prevent collateral damage.

Nevertheless, the laws of war and military doctrine accept that some civilian casualties will occur in combat. But beyond the moral weight of those deaths and damage, the consequences have become far more acute in the 21st century. Among other things, the widespread sharing of videos from cellphones and other sources on social media has sharply increased the risk of backlash that can undermine broader strategic aims.

Against that backdrop, the Defense Department has come under pressure to do more to prevent civilian harm.

Human rights organizations have worked for years to call greater attention to civilian casualties. Reporters at a number of news outlets have written investigative articles about botched strikes. Congress has imposed restrictions on some military funds until the Pentagon submits a civilian casualty policy. Early this year, the RAND Corporation published a congressionally mandated report that critically evaluated the military’s procedures on civilian casualties.

Officials have said that the New York Times series, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting this year, had also helped bring about the changes. It included an investigation into systemic failures to prevent civilian deaths in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, based on a trove of internal Pentagon reviews and visits to the sites of more than 100 incidents. Other parts of the series revealed a covered-up strike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children and a botched drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 people last August, during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Mr. Austin, a retired four-star Army general with combat experience, pledged in November to overhaul military procedures and hold top officers responsible for carrying out changes. In January, he ordered officials to develop the document released on Thursday, the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan.

The drafting of the plan over the past several months was overseen by Colin H. Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official, who worked closely with senior military officers.

A senior Defense Department official, in a briefing to reporters, said the plan envisioned spending tens of millions of dollars per year, some of which would come from the Pentagon budget and some of which they intended to request from Congress as new funding. It would include about 150 new positions throughout the department, including about 30 for the civilian protection center, which is expected to begin work in the coming months.

In his memo, Mr. Austin called the changes “both ambitious and necessary” and said the effort would need continuous support from future administrations to succeed. Officials have said the idea is to embed the new practices and sensibility in a way that would make them difficult to abandon.

“The department has laid out a credible plan for beginning to address these issues, but it now needs to be effectively implemented and resourced,” said Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee.

Much of the document is dense with new bureaucratic procedures aimed at ensuring that greater attention to potential impact on civilians — and civilian infrastructure like power plants and water-purification systems — during mission planning is incorporated as basic doctrine.

“It’s just trying to apply a consistent approach across the department so that this becomes a matter of how we do business systemically vice episodically,” Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters.

Other highlights from the plan include standardizing reporting on how the Pentagon collects, shares and analyzes data related to civilian casualties, with a mechanism for the public to submit allegations and new procedures for investigating such claims.

The plan also expands how the U.S. military can respond to victims, including condolence payments to survivors and family members of those harmed, as well as paying for medical care and the repair of damaged infrastructure.

Recent efforts to provide such aid to civilian casualty survivors and their family members have largely faltered. No one has received condolence payments or other forms of monetary assistance from the U.S. military for the drone strike in Kabul last year, for example.

Joanna Naples-Mitchell, a human rights attorney representing more than a dozen victims of civilian casualty incidents acknowledged by the U.S. military, said that while the plan represents a hopeful shift toward providing more forms of assistance to victims, few payments have been made.

“I myself have submitted multiple cases in the last year for consideration where families have loved ones who were injured or killed or both and they were requesting amends,” she said, “and those requests were denied without any explanation.”

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