The US military has committed to doing more to prevent civilian deaths following the release of a damning report that found the Pentagon had failed to consistently identify, investigate and share lessons learned when civilians have been harmed in US military operations.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will implement a 90-day review of the military’s handling of civilian casualty incidents and a subsequent 90-day implementation period to make changes to how the military handles them after the findings of a congressionally mandated RAND Corporation report was released. The Department of Defense received the report’s findings in February, a senior US defense official said.
The review and proposed changes come after a series of recent and widely criticized civilian casualty incidents, including a botched drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 10 civilians. The report found that the department’s use of “air campaigns,” or air strikes, have “inherent problems for detecting civilian harm.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged that reporting by members of the media about US military-caused civilian deaths in airstrikes, including in Kabul and Syria, were part of the impetus for those changes.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say that some of the thinking that the ways the secretary wants to have a more structural implementation of changes is also quite frankly informed by some press reporting, and it would be wrong of us to also not mention that,” Kirby said during a press briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Austin instructed the Defense Department to take a number of steps to improve the way the military works to prevent civilian casualties before a commander authorizes a strike. Those steps include standardizing the reporting and data management around civilian casualties, reviewing the measures DoD takes after civilian harm, the creation of a civilian protection center of excellence, and more.
Although the Pentagon has before examined the issue of civilian harm and devised different plans, few have been effectively instituted across the Defense Department, acknowledged a senior defense official who spoke with reporters Thursday.
“This is not a well-resourced area, nor one where we have spent a lot of time building expertise,” the official said.
Austin’s goal is to change that, particularly after a series of reports exposed the failures of the military to prevent civilian deaths.
While changes will not be implemented immediately, both US Central Command and US Special Operations Command have made some changes internally to better prevent civilian casualty incidents, a senior US defense official said. The changes were spurred by the August 29 US airstrike in Kabul that killed 10 Afghan civilians, seven of them children, the official added.
The Pentagon initially defended the strike in Kabul in late-August during the final days of the withdrawal from Afghanistan before ultimately admitting that it was a botched operation that led to the deaths.
In November, the US acknowledged for the first time that a strike in Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019 days before the fall of ISIS killed multiple civilians.
“We need to be evaluating whether commanders have additional tools at their discretion, both pre-lethal action, pre-operation and post-operation,” said the defense official. “We’re talking about war here and I don’t think even with all the effort in the world, we’ll ever make that as sterile and precise as anybody would like because there’s frankly a lot of things out of our control.”
The report, conducted by the nonprofit RAND corporation, found that the Department of Defense needs to share information about civilian casualties more widely, needs to create a standardized “civilian-harm operational reporting process” and needs to expand guidance on civilian-harm assessments across the “full spectrum of armed conflict.”
The report found that while the US military has a “strong foundation” for compliance with the law of war, the way civilian casualty incidents are reviewed after the fact is not consistent and the information from those reviews is not shared widely across the military.
Investigations of civilian casualty incidents were often treated as “independent events,” the report authors found, but those investigations provided the most comprehensive tool for documenting what happened, they said. The authors recommended standardizing the process for how civilian casualty incidents are reviewed in a “civilian-harm operational reporting process.”
The Department of Defense, according to the report, needs to better share lessons learned from past civilian casualty incidents across all parts of the US military. Not sharing them widely has left the military ill-equipped to deal with future potential conflict, specifically with Russia and China, the report found.
The report warns that future conflict with Russia and China would likely occur in more urban areas where it would be difficult to differentiate between military and civilian targets.
“It is also likely that Russia and China would heavily politicize incidents of civilian harm caused by the United States in an effort to portray it in the most negative light possible,” it states.
The report also recommends that the department create a final policy on how ex gratia payments are handled after civilian casualty incidents. The report’s authors found that Department of Defense handling of ex gratia payments were “ad hoc” creating a “lack of transparency” around them.
The department issued an interim ex gratia policy in June 2020, but the report recommends further changes and asks that a final standing policy be issued. The final policy should include “how payment amounts are determined and how the payments are disbursed,” the report states.
The department was also inconsistent in documenting civilian casualties, the report found. The 2018 Joint Staff Review, a previous report the RAND authors used in their research, found that 58% of the total number of civilian casualties DoD identified were identified by external sources between 2015 and 2017.
Estimates of civilian casualties from external sources and other nongovernmental organizations are often much higher than the Department of Defense’s estimates, which is a “challenge” to DoD’s credibility, the report states. The report recommends that DoD engage more with such organizations, as well as be more transparent and cooperative with them.