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

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 contains 11 major objectives aimed at helping commanders and operators better understand the presence of noncombatants before any operations begin. It requires them to consider potential consequences for civilians in any airstrike, raid or other combat action.

It includes steps like embedding officials with the specific duty of mitigating civilian harm through the major commands and policy components of the Pentagon; imposing a new system to reduce the risks of confirmation bias and of misidentifying targets; and creating a 30-person center to handle departmentwide analysis, learning 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 U.S. military is taught that the laws of war prevent intentionally targeting civilians or carrying out strikes where 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.

In a deadly drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, last August, nearly everything that senior Pentagon officials claimed afterward turned out to be wrong. After a Times video investigation, the Pentagon acknowledged that the strike had been a tragic mistake.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Against that backdrop, the Defense Department has come under pressure to do more to prevent civilian harm. Congress has imposed restrictions on some military funds until the Pentagon submits a civilian casualty policy. In January, the RAND Corporation published a congressionally mandated report that critically evaluated the military’s processes and procedures on civilian casualties.

Officials have also credited a series by The New York Times, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting this year. 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. He ordered officials to develop the document released on Thursday, the so-called 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 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.

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.

To that end, much of the document is dense with new bureaucratic procedures aimed at ensuring that greater attention to potential impact on civilians during mission planning is incorporated as basic doctrine.

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