Botched airstrikes prompt US military to order protection for civilians

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WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on Thursday ordered the Army to strengthen its efforts to prevent civilian deaths and improve how it investigates and recognizes allegations of civilian harm in combat operations Americans.

In his most sweeping statement on the issue to date, Austin set in motion a series of measures that military officials say are aimed at changing the way commanders in the field think about their jobs, fostering a culture in which they regard the prevention of civilian harm as an essential element of their missions.

“We can and will improve efforts to protect civilians,” Austin said in a two-page directive to senior civilian and military officials. “The protection of innocent civilians in the conduct of our operations remains vital to the ultimate success of our operations, and is an important strategic and moral imperative.”

The move comes after a series of New York Times investigations into airstrikes that have killed civilians, including the cover-up of a strike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children and a strike by botched drone in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed 10 innocent people in August. Another Times investigation based on a host of reviews of Pentagon strikes found systemic failures to prevent civilian deaths in its air war against Islamic State.

Mr Austin, a former four-star army general with combat experience, pledged in November to review military procedures and hold senior officers accountable for implementing the changes. In his memo, he ordered a standardized civilian casualty reporting process, the creation of a military “center of excellence” and the completion of a new comprehensive policy on the matter that has been in the works for nearly two years.

Austin’s directive also follows a congressional decision to impose restrictions on certain military funds until the Pentagon submits this policy on civilian casualties. It also comes on the same day that the RAND Corporation released a congressional-mandated report evaluating the military’s processes and procedures on civilian casualties. Congress has been notified of the directive.

“While progress has been made in the Department’s response to the civilian harm allegations, it is clear that more needs to be done,” said Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island who serves as the chairman of the forces committee. armies of the Senate, in a press release. .

The RAND report found “significant weaknesses” in the military’s approach to assessing innocent deaths and injuries, including shortcomings in conducting investigations and identifying root causes or lessons that could allow the military to better prevent civilian harm.

In interviews, several members of the military who witnessed civilian casualties said they repeatedly filed official reports with authorities but never received a response, and that airstrike teams spoke rarely how to avoid future accidents. An Air Force officer said this week that the reports seemed to “disappear into the ether.”

The memo does not say whether longstanding calls for the military to investigate civilian harm on the ground will be part of the center’s work.

Against this backdrop, it remains unclear whether Mr. Austin’s efforts will transform the military’s ability to self-monitor and hold back, in part because the Pentagon has previously said it is trying to avoid and mitigate civilian damage.

For example, the US military has long learned that the laws of war prohibit intentionally targeting civilians or conducting strikes when the anticipated scale of bystander deaths is disproportionate to the combat objective. Military leaders and presidents have long formulated a policy of minimizing or attempting to prevent collateral damage.

In recent years, a number of military officials have said regulatory loopholes routinely allow special operations forces to circumvent safeguards.

But Mr. Austin and his senior advisers have declared their intention to significantly revise the military’s political rules and cultural norms. The challenge they face is whether they can translate their abstract intentions into concrete changes on the ground.

To that end, Mr. Austin’s memo directs Pentagon officials to take immediate action on certain issues, such as establishing a standardized system for civilian casualty reporting and creating the Pentagon Center. which would focus on how to prevent, mitigate and respond to civil harm.

The Secretary of Defense also gave officials 90 days to develop a so-called Civil Injury Mitigation and Response Action Plan to implement recommendations from recently completed studies commissioned by the Pentagon, including the RAND report, an inspector general’s investigation into the drone strike in Kabul, and a review of the 2019 airstrike in Syria.

The memo does not say who will oversee this effort. But a person familiar with the matter said it was entrusted to Christopher P. Maier, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

The decision to assign the task to someone on the operational side, rather than Pentagon officials who typically focus on humanitarian concerns, would be a subtle reflection of Mr. Austin’s resolve that fighters on the ground will take to serious about the ideas emerging from the new effort to mitigate civilian harm.

Then, within 180 days of the memo — leaving three months to incorporate any policy plans Mr. Maier will develop — Mr. Austin ordered the Pentagon to complete a broad new policy on civilian harm mitigation that is in progress. being developed for more than two years. . Known as the “Instruction”, it will lock in the changes as Pentagon doctrine.

“He will take a comprehensive approach, reinforcing that DOD efforts to protect civilians are always the responsibility of all department leaders, not just our commanders and field personnel,” Mr. Austin.

Although the memo is sparse on specifics, a person familiar with the internal deliberations leading up to it said the intention was not limited to making changes in the context of the war zone and counter-terrorism strikes at the help from drones and other aircraft, which led to high-profile attacks. civilian deaths in recent years.

With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Somalia and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Syria, the frequency and relative importance of these strikes should decrease.

Rather, the person said, the policy goal is more ambitious and forward-looking: to incorporate new thinking about protecting civilians across the full spectrum of military activity — including emerging areas like offensive hacking and hacking. space – where disabling infrastructure such as power grids or satellites could harm. civilians in many ways, and so-called “information” or propaganda operations.

Mr. Austin’s memo contained veiled hints about the prospective scope of the project.

“We will review how we assess incidents that may have caused harm to civilians, recognize the harm caused to civilians by those incidents, and incorporate lessons learned into the planning and execution of future combat operations and into our tactics. , techniques and procedures,” he said.

A Times investigation based on the military’s confidential assessments of more than 1,300 civilian casualty reports and ground reports at the sites of more than 100 civilian casualty sites showed that the air campaign against Islamic State was marked by misinformation, confirmation bias and little accountability. .

In the deadly drone attack in Kabul during August’s chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, almost everything senior Pentagon officials said in the hours, days and weeks after the attack was turned out to be false. A week after a Times video investigation showed the man driving the car was an aid worker, the Pentagon has acknowledged the strike was a tragic mistake and no Islamic State Khorasan fighter had not been killed.

The Kabul strike investigation led by Air Force Inspector General Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said blamed “confirmation bias” for distorting operators’ interpretation of what ‘they saw. The investigation made several recommendations to fix the process by which strikes are ordered, including putting in place new measures to reduce the risk of confirmation bias and revising the pre-strike procedures used to assess the presence of civilians.

In November, Mr Austin promised to revamp military procedures and hold senior officers accountable for civilian damage. But he did not describe any systemic problem that would have allowed these victims to persist on the battlefields in Syria and Afghanistan.

And two weeks later, after a New York Times investigation described allegations that senior officers and civilian officials sought to cover up victims of a US airstrike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children, Mr. Austin ordered a high-level investigation into the matter.

The attack, by a shadowy special operations unit called Task Force 9, took place near the Syrian town of Baghuz on March 18, 2019. It was one of the largest episodes of civilian casualties in the long war against Islamic State, but the US military had never publicly acknowledged it.

The investigation, led by Gen. Michael X. Garrett, the four-star chief of Army Forces Command, examines the strike and the Army’s initial investigations into it, Pentagon officials said.

Several of the steps in Mr. Austin’s memo include recommendations raised in the RAND report. Many of the findings echo other recent reviews of civilian casualties, which also found problems with the post-strike assessment process.

An April 2018 Joint Chiefs of Staff review found that “feedback to subordinate commands on the cause and/or lessons learned from an incident involving civilian casualties is inconsistent.” A May 2021 report from the Pentagon’s inspector general also raised issues with post-strike evaluations.

“Having civilian harm recognized as a priority at the highest levels of the department is a positive and welcome step,” said Annie Shiel, senior adviser at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “But the impact will depend entirely on the results.”

david phillips contributed reporting from Colorado Springs.

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