The U.S. Department of Defense on Aug. 25 unveiled a plan to mitigate and respond to civilian injuries and deaths that result from U.S. military operations, coming almost a year after a botched U.S. drone airstrike killed 10 civilians.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in January ordered top civilian and military officials in the Pentagon to develop the “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan.” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters during a briefing on Aug. 25 that Austin approved the plan earlier this week.
Its release on Aug. 25 comes almost a year after a botched U.S. drone airstrike on Aug. 29, 2021, caused the deaths of 10 innocent Afghan civilians, including seven children, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Pentagon didn’t acknowledge that the drone strike killed innocent civilians and didn’t kill any terrorists until more than two weeks later, on Sept. 17, 2021.
Congressional testimony by three top officials from the U.S. military on Sept. 29, 2021, contradicted earlier military statements about what the government knew in the aftermath of the incident. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) in February this year said he doesn’t understand why U.S. military officials seemingly attempted to deny killing civilians for weeks in the wake of the Aug. 29 strike.
The release of the new action plan also comes after a report in November 2021 by the New York Times that detailed a U.S. airstrike that killed at least 64 civilians in Baghuz, Syria, in 2019, which, until the report, had not been made known to the public.
New Central Hub
Ryder told reporters during a briefing on Aug. 25 that the new action plan involves putting people “who are trained to have an understanding of civilian harm, the aspects of civilian harm mitigation, and operational planning” at all operational levels throughout the military.
These people will work for the Civilian Protection Center of Excellence, which is established under the new plan.
“The Center of Excellence will be sort of the hub that will provide expertise at a centralized location, but then that will be dispersed throughout the Department of Defense, at the [U.S. Central Command] level, at the component level,” Ryder said. “We estimate this will be approximately 150-plus individuals that will have special training and understand this.”
“The other piece of this will be incorporating it into doctrine, into instructions, into operational planning as a factor. So, that eventually will inculcate itself into the force down to the from the lowest echelon up to the highest level here at the Pentagon,” he added.
“What it does, especially at the combatant command level, is it provides someone who’s trained who understands who can advise at a level that has not always been consistent across the department,” Ryder noted. “And it’s not that we haven’t taken civilian harm or mitigation into account in the past. It’s just trying to apply a consistent approach across the department.”
According to the Pentagon, the new plan aims to “improve strategic outcomes, optimize military operations, and strengthen [the Defense Department’s] ability to mitigate civilian harm during operations.”
The department characterizes it as “a flexible plan that advances the ability of [the Pentagon] to mitigate civilian harm and achieve strategic success across the full spectrum of conflict.” The 36-page document detailing the plan (pdf) says it is inherently scalable, meaning it is “relevant to counterterrorism operations as well as high intensity conflict,” and “relevant to both kinetic and non-kinetic activity.”
The plan prioritizes “the protection and restoration of the civilian environment as a critical factor in the planning and conduct of military operations,” among other things that will achieve its aims.
Actions set out in the plan “will facilitate continued learning throughout” the Pentagon to improve its approach, including in assessing and investigating previous U.S. combat operations; and improve the department’s ability to “effectively respond” in the case of civilian harm. It will also include learning about how these approaches “can be tailored to different types of conflicts, operations, and operational theaters.”
The department also said the new civilian harm mitigation plan “will enhance [the Department of Defense’s] ability to identify instances where institutional or individual accountability may be appropriate for violations of [the Department of Defense Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response] policies and applicable law.”
Action points in the plan are also aimed at improving accountability and transparency related to civilian harm as a result of U.S. military operations, according to the Pentagon release.
The action plan will also “enhance the [Department of Defense’s] ability to identify instances where institutional or individual accountability may be appropriate for violations of DoD CHMR policies and applicable law,” the document reads.
The Pentagon will begin implementing the plan immediately, but certain actions “will require additional time to properly implement,” it noted.
Ken Silva contributed to this report.