US defence chief orders military to better protect civilians

Lloyd Austin’s memo comes amid condemnation of US drone attacks that killed civilians in Middle East, Afghanistan.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the Pentagon.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called the protection of civilians vital to US military success and a 'moral imperative' [Alex Brandon/AP Photo]

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has issued a directive ordering the United States military to do more to protect civilians from harm in drone attacks and other combat operations.

In a two-page memo to top Pentagon civilian and military officials, Austin on Thursday ordered a comprehensive overhaul of the US Defense Department’s posture towards protecting civilians in conflict zones.

“The protection of innocent civilians in the conduct of our operations remains vital to the ultimate success of our operations and as a significant strategic and moral imperative,” the memo reads.

The defence secretary asked for an action plan from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prevent harm to civilians and improve US responses when such incidents occur. That plan is due within 90 days.

Austin also ordered the creation of a civilian “center of excellence” to advance US knowledge and the military’s thinking on “preventing, mitigating and responding to civilian harm”.

“The end of our military mission in Afghanistan and our transition in Iraq to an advisory capacity, as well as recent investigations and studies, offer us new opportunities to improve our ability to mitigate and respond to civilian harm,” the memo said.

The directive comes after a US drone attack in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, drew widespread condemnation and calls for accountability.

The Pentagon initially defended the bombing, stressing that it killed operatives from the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) – but it later acknowledged that civilians were killed and Austin personally apologised.

The Pentagon ultimately did not punish any troops, maintaining that the August 29 bombing in the Afghan capital did not violate the laws of war and was not caused by misconduct or criminal negligence.

That decision sparked more criticism, and a group of Democratic legislators recently demanded an “overhaul” of Pentagon policies governing drone attacks “to center human rights and the protection of civilians”.

“In too many instances, US drone strikes have instead led to unintended and deadly consequences – killing civilians and increasing anger towards the United States,” the group of 50 US legislators wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden on January 20.

Meanwhile, recently obtained Pentagon documents showed the US air wars in the Middle East have been marked by “deeply flawed intelligence” and “faulty targeting” that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 civilians over the past decade, according to a New York Times investigation.


Pledges of transparency and accountability had regularly fallen short, the newspaper reported, as “not a single record provided includes a finding of wrongdoing or disciplinary action”.

This image from video, released by the Department of Defense, from video footage, shows a fire in the aftermath of a drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan .
The US drone attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August killed 10 civilians [File: Department of Defense via AP]

Austin on Thursday cited an independent review conducted for the Pentagon by the RAND Corporation, a US-funded consultancy, which found the Defense Department is “not adequately organized, structured or resourced to sufficiency mitigate and respond to civilian-harm issues”.

“There are not enough personnel dedicated to civilian-harm issues full-time, and those who are responsible for civilian-harm matters often receive minimal training on the duties that they are expected to perform,” the RAND report said.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Austin’s memo was intended to prompt a sweeping re-thinking of the US military’s approach.

It also builds on policy work done under previous defence chiefs and Austin’s own command experience, Kirby said, as well as media reporting on civilian casualties.

“The secretary was a ground commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not an issue that he’s not familiar with. So it’s informed by a lot,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera