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Defense secretary orders 'action plan' on preventing civilian deaths in U.S. strikes

Lloyd Austin issued the directive months after the Pentagon admitted that a U.S. drone attack in Afghanistan in August had mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including 7 children.
Image: Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gather around the incinerated husk of a vehicle targeted and hit by an U.S. drone strike that was supposed to target ISIS-K suicide bombers but instead killed civilians in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2021.
A U.S. drone strike that was supposed to target ISIS-K suicide bombers instead killed 10 civilians in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August. Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday directed the U.S. military to step up efforts to prevent and respond to civilian casualties caused by American airstrikes, calling the protection of civilians "a strategic and a moral imperative."

In a two-page memo, Austin ordered senior civilian and military officials to send an "action plan" to his desk within 90 days.

"The protection of civilians is fundamentally consistent with the effective, efficient, and decisive use of force in pursuit of U.S. national interests, and our efforts to mitigate and respond to civilian harm are a direct reflection of U.S. values," Austin wrote in the directive.

Austin issued the order after intense criticism of a U.S. airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 29. The drone strike, meant to target terrorists, mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children, Pentagon officials admitted in September.

A funeral on Aug. 30 for the civilians killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul.
A funeral on Aug. 30 for the civilians killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul.Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

"We now assess it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were associated with ISIS-K," Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said in September, referring to the Islamic State terrorist groups' affiliate in Afghanistan. "It was a mistake."

Austin's directive came the same day the Rand Corp., a federally funded think tank, released a report that found "considerable weaknesses" in the process the Pentagon uses to assess the deaths and injuries of innocent people.

The military's internal reporting on civilian casualties is not always reliable or complete, and reports of civilian deaths often appear to be dismissed, the Rand report found.

"Civilian casualties were alleged to have occurred, the military indeed attacked the alleged location, and available military information neither confirmed nor ruled out civilian casualties. Thus, these cases were determined to be not credible."

The report also found that U.S. intelligence efforts focus too heavily on enemy combatants, limiting the resources available to "understand the broader civilian picture."

"Without reliable operational data that are easily accessible to commanders, the military will be limited in its ability to understand the root causes of civilian casualties, characterize patterns of harm, and identify specific measures to mitigate civilian harm while preserving mission-effectiveness and force protection,” the report said.

Defense Department spokesman John F. Kirby told reporters Thursday that Austin is familiar with the issue of civilian deaths from his time as a ground commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the steps he outlined in the memo were “informed by recent studies, independent as well as department reviews,” including the Rand assessment.

Kirby added that Austin’s goals were also shaped by “recent press reporting” on civilian casualties.