Jan 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Defense taking steps to mitigate civilian harm after botched airstrikes

Photo of Lloyd Austin speaking from a podium with the Pentagon sign behind him

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia on Sept. 1, 2021. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a directive Thursday to improve the U.S. military's approach to civilian harm mitigation and response, calling it a "strategic and a moral imperative."

Why it matters: The Pentagon has faced criticism for years for amassing civilian casualties in its missions, especially in the Middle East. New York Times investigations have found systemic failures in efforts to prevent civilian deaths, as well as a cover-up of a 2019 airstrike that killed dozens of women and children in Syria.

Details: Austin is directing the department to standardize civilian-harm reporting and data management processes; establish a "civilian protection center of excellence"; and review guidance and implementation of how Defense responds to civilian harm, such as condolence payments and public acknowledgment.

  • The department will also develop an action plan for implementing recommendations from studies of civilian harm as well as independent reviews of strikes that led to civilian casualties.
  • The action plan, which is due within 90 days of Austin's memo, will inform a comprehensive new policy on the issue.

What they're saying: "The protection of civilians is fundamentally consistent with the effective, efficient, and decisive use of force in pursuit of U.S. national interests, and our efforts to mitigate and respond to civilian harm are a direct reflection of U.S. values," Austin wrote.

  • "We will revisit the ways in which we assess incidents that may have resulted in civilian harm, acknowledge the harm to civilians that resulted from such incidents, and incorporate lessons learned into the planning and execution of future combat operations and into our tactics, techniques, and procedures."

ACLU's National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi called the move long overdue, but added that "[w]hat’s needed is a truly systemic overhaul of our country’s civilian harm policies to address the massive structural flaws, likely violations of international law, and probable war crimes that have occurred in the last 20 years."

Don't forget: Defense did not discipline any U.S. troops involved in the August strike that mistakenly killed 10 civilians in Kabul.

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