US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday ordered Pentagon officials to make reforms to reduce the number of civilian deaths from military strikes after several unprovoked fatalities.
“The security of civilians is fundamentally consistent with the effective, efficient and decisive use of force in the pursuit of US national interests,” Austin said in a directive issued to the Department of Defense leadership.
“It is a strategic and ethical imperative,” he said.
Austin gave Pentagon officials 90 days to draw up a plan for how civilian casualties in combat operations could be reduced and avoided, adding that the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq were lessons learned and institutionalized. ways in which citizens provide an opportunity to minimize losses.
The move comes after a series of incidents darkened the Pentagon, most recently during the last days of the US presence in Afghanistan that wrongfully killed 10 people, including seven children, in a Kabul drone strike in August 2021.
Likewise, the US military has been shamed by reporting the new York Times This mirrored the poorly managed bombing in March 2019 that killed around 70 civilians in the final days of the war against the Islamic State group.
In that incident the army avoided investigation and accountability, Times said.
Austin’s order came after a study of the causes and reporting of civilian deaths by the Pentagon-appointed RAND Corp painted an ineffective picture of the US military’s procedures for dealing with such incidents.
It said that in planning attacks, the military focuses so heavily on the enemy that it neglects the wider civilian picture – a problem that can lead to avoidable casualties.
And it says the military does not adequately and consistently investigate and record incidents of civilian casualties and does not have a central database that would allow studies to resolve.
“Investigations are rarely conducted,” said Michael McNearney, one of the authors of the RAND report.
Furthermore, data management on incidents, he said, was a “hot mess”.
Rand recommended the Pentagon establish a “center of excellence” dedicated full-time to issues of civilian harm to personnel and strengthen data collection and analysis.
Rand also called for a review of how the military offers condolences for “ex-gratia” payments to the families of non-combatants killed as a result of US attacks.
McNerney said the payments are inconsistent, with some field commanders offering them and others not, and they were often used for civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but rarely in Iraq.
The Defense Department “really needs to explain more clearly the purpose of these payments,” he said.
“Are they only relevant to helping US ground forces and supporting a commander on the ground, as some people in Afghanistan use it?” He asked.
“Or should the US use these payments as a damages acceptance and accountability tool, because it is the right thing to do?”