The Pentagon has established new procedures for preventing and responding to civilian harm during U.S. combat operations, following up on a pledge by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to overhaul the system.
The 52-page document, issued last week, delineates responsibilities across the Defense Department and its military commands around the world and requires that possible risks to civilians are considered in combat planning and operations. It codifies an action plan announced by the Pentagon last year to revamp its civilian casualty policy, which had been applied inconsistently across different war zones.
Widely seen as the first of its kind issued by a modern military, the directive also calls for more standardized assessments of deadly incidents, allows for reopening past assessments and provides options for condolence payments, medical care and property repairs even “after time has passed.”
The document includes measures to prevent civilian harm in joint operations with allies and partner forces, but it does not address operations the United States supports through military aid alone, such as Israel’s war in Gaza.
The directive “is a significant step in terms of institutionalizing, formalizing and regularizing considerations regarding civilian harm within the Department of Defense,” said Brian Finucane, an analyst at the International Crisis Group and a former legal adviser to the State Department.
Advocates of civilian protections welcomed the changes.
“It finally opens the door in writing, clearly,” said Joanna Naples-Mitchell, a human rights attorney representing 21 families whose loved ones were killed in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Mosul, Iraq, between 2015 and 2017. The military acknowledged years ago that the cases were “credible,” but the victims have been waiting for a response to requests for condolence payments, often while managing serious injuries and disabilities.
The Pentagon’s announcement has come at an awkward time for the Biden administration. During a trip to Israel last week, Mr. Austin urged the Israeli military to take greater precautions to protect civilians in its onslaught in Gaza. Health officials say Israeli attacks have killed more than 20,000 people, a toll that experts say has few precedents in this century.
President Biden has warned that the “indiscriminate bombing” has cost Israel international support in the weeks since it began retaliating for Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 that killed roughly 1,200 people.
“As I’ve said, protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral duty and a strategic imperative,” Mr. Austin said at a news conference with Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant.
Israel is believed to be carrying out its bombardment of Gaza largely with American-manufactured bombs, nearly half of which are unguided munitions, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment.
The “action plan” released by the Pentagon last year includes a section on arms and security cooperation agreements with partners and allies to promote civilian casualty protections, but it is limited to programs under the authority of the secretary of defense. Arms transfers to allies largely fall under the purview of the State Department.
“This is really about U.S. military operations undertaken unilaterally, but also with partners and allies,” Mr. Finucane said. “It’s not about the sorts of civilian harm concerns that are of foremost significance at the moment to U.S. policy, which is civilian harm resulting from U.S. arms or U.S. arms transfers.”
“We’re not going to find answers for what the U.S. should be doing with Israel in this policy,” said Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch and a former senior adviser on human rights to the military’s Joint Staff.
Advocates have recommended that the Pentagon condition or leverage security assistance to U.S. partners in ways that promote the protection of civilians.
In August, the Biden administration announced that a new State Department program would monitor reported incidents in which civilians are hurt or killed by partner governments believed to be using U.S. weapons, but it is unclear whether that program has been monitoring Israel’s aerial campaign in Gaza.
While the Pentagon’s new policy was mandated by the 2019 military spending bill and had been in the works for years, it took the actions of Mr. Austin to solidify the sweeping changes.
Mr. Austin, a retired four-star Army general with extensive combat experience, pledged in November 2021 to overhaul military procedures and to hold top officers responsible for carrying out the changes.
In August 2022, he approved a 36-page action plan that directed broad changes at every level of military planning, doctrine, training and policy in current and future operations. By codifying that blueprint, the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, Mr. Austin last week effectively made it more difficult for future administrations to alter.
A major overarching goal of the policy is to help commanders better understand whether noncombatants are present before any operations begin. Operators are required to consider potential consequences for civilians in any combat action.
It also puts officials responsible for reducing civilian harm inside the military’s combatant commands and Pentagon policy offices, and imposes a new system to reduce the risks of incorrectly identifying targets and “confirmation bias” — the tendency to favor information that confirms pre-existing beliefs. In addition, it creates a 30-person center to handle departmentwide analysis and training regarding civilian protection.
The Pentagon’s new policy followed a series of New York Times investigations in 2021 into civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan that were marked by flawed intelligence, confirmation bias and scant accountability. Officials have said the series, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting the following year, also helped bring about the changes.
The policy requires the publication of information on the status of civilian casualty reviews and investigations “at least quarterly on the command’s unclassified, publicly accessible website,” but does not systematically require that redacted assessments be made public. In a lawsuit brought by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, U.S. Central Command last week declared a 150-page investigation into a 2019 airstrike in Baghuz, Syria, that killed dozens of civilians fully exempt from public release on the basis that disclosure could harm U.S. interests.
Human rights advocates say the Pentagon’s new approach to mitigating civilian harm has already influenced others around the world. The United Nations is beginning to incorporate similar practices in its peacekeeping operations, and the Netherlands has begun to adopt aspects of the American plan as well, said Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon official who later investigated civilian deaths caused by U.S. military operations for the United Nations.
Still, experts said that how the U.S. military actually carries out the guidance will determine its effectiveness.
“The real measure of its success will be in implementation, and how or whether it delivers results for civilians, both by preventing a repetition of the devastating civilian harm caused by U.S. operations over the last 20 years, and by finally delivering answers and accountability to the many civilians harmed in those operations who are still waiting for acknowledgment from the U.S. government,” wrote Annie Shiel, the U.S. advocacy director at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
Lawmakers who championed a new policy voiced cautious optimism. Representative Sara Jacobs, a California Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said Congress would “keep a watchful eye on if and how these policies prevent, minimize, and address civilian harm and make amends.”