Pentagon Plan Aims to Help Avoid Civilian Deaths in Strikes

The Pentagon will set up a new center in the next year to help avoid civilian casualties in military operations around the world through better education and training, and increased screening before strikes are launched.

The plan ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and released Thursday comes on the heels of widespread criticism over a U.S. airstrike in Kabul last August that killed 10 civilians, including children, during the final chaotic days of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A senior defense official said the development of a new Civilian Protection Center of Excellence and other improvements will cost “tens of millions of dollars” per year, and the plan more broadly would involve the addition of about 150 staff. The center would initially start operations in the 2023 budget year that begins October 1 and would be fully staffed and working by 2025. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under department rules to provide details of the plan.

Laid out in a 36-page action plan, the changes approved by Austin call for updated policies and guidelines for military operations, and steps that must be taken in order to better analyze threats, assess who is on the ground and determine what other civilian structures could be affected.

A key criticism of the Afghanistan drone strike was that those making the final decision were too quick to conclude that the white Toyota Corolla under watch aligned with the intelligence and confirmed their conclusion to bomb what turned out to be the wrong vehicle. The new Pentagon plan is aimed at preventing such “confirmation bias” and more consistently involving teams to specifically challenge assumptions to make sure a strike is appropriate.

The plan would put new personnel in each of the combatant commands that are in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific, South America and U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, as well as in all the military services, other senior commands and vital places such as Special Operations Command, Cyber Command and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

There has been persistent criticism, particularly from human rights organizations, that U.S. military strikes in Syria, Iraq and other battlefields have killed civilians but that officials have failed or been slow to acknowledge those deaths. In some cases, the U.S. military’s inability to get to a strike location in its immediate aftermath has led to conclusions that allegations of civilian deaths could not be confirmed.

An independent review done late last year found that better communication between those making the strike decision and other support personnel might have raised more doubts about the Kabul attack or possibly prevented it.

Under Austin’s plan, there will be ongoing education and training and more specific policies about getting positive identification for targeting. Civilian casualty assessments will become a consistent element in military exercises so troops can practice how best to avoid killing the innocent.

The new system will improve data collection and investigations so that the Pentagon can more precisely report civilian deaths. It will set up a new framework for how the Defense Department responds to deaths, including acknowledging them and providing condolences and other aid in the aftermath.

More broadly, the plan accounts for better assessment in counterterrorism strikes as well as the prospects of civilian casualties in a large-scale war, such as one with China or Russia.

A review by RAND Corp. of the August 2021 airstrike in Afghanistan concluded that military’s focus on civilian casualties has for years largely involved operations in places such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. RAND said the Pentagon is not prepared to deal with the issue in that larger type of war, which likely would involve combat in urban areas where it would be more difficult to distinguish between civilian and military targets.

The August 29 drone strike in Afghanistan killed Zemerai Ahmadi and nine family members, including seven children. Ahmadi, 37, was a longtime employee of an American humanitarian organization and was not a militant, as first claimed by military officials.

The Pentagon initially said the attack was valid, despite 10 civilian deaths, but later acknowledged it was a “tragic mistake.” The independent Pentagon review concluded there was no misconduct or negligence.

RAND’s review concluded that the U.S. military follows a flawed and inadequate process for assessing and investigating suspected civilian damage and casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes. It said internal reporting on civilian casualties can be unreliable and incomplete, and it recommended the military take a broader view of damage to include structural damage that hurts basic community functions.

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