Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered the military to improve the way it assesses reported civilian harm from operations after a review of a 2019 strike in Syria revealed issues with an initial assessment of the incident.
The Pentagon released the executive summary of its investigation of the airstrike, which occurred on March 18, 2019, in Baghuz and killed 70 civilians.
The summary, dated May 11, found that no rules of engagement or laws of war were violated when the strike occurred. However, it flagged issues with missed deadlines and deficiencies when the incident was initially reviewed.
In a memorandum dated Tuesday, Austin said he was “disappointed” in how the investigation was originally handled.
“As the independent review found, the process contributed to a perception that the Department was not committed to transparency and was not taking the incident seriously — a perception that could have been prevented by a timely review and a clear explication of the circumstances surrounding the strike,” he wrote.
Austin in November directed Gen. Michael Garrett, the head of Army Forces Command, to review the strike, which was not public knowledge until The New York Times reported it at the time.
The strike was part of terminal battle against Islamic State fighters. The first review found that four civilians had been killed, and they found that no wrong had been committed by the unit that conducted the strike.
Garrett’s review included a review of 124 documents, 25 reports and 29 hours of video feed. He found that the ground force commander who ordered the strike “did not deliberately or with wanton disregard cause casualties,” and thus did not violate laws of war.
There was also “clear evidence” that the commander “demonstrated awareness and concern” for civilians, and thus tried to mitigate harm. However, he was relying on data that was not fully accurate, according to Garrett’s review.
The revelations have prompted the Pentagon to examine how it mitigates civilian harm from military strikes. In January, the Pentagon chief directed his agency to develop a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan to improve how it responds claims of civilians harmed by the U.S. military.
To address the deficiencies in the original review, Austin wrote in Tuesday’s memo that he directed the military to ensure that deadlines for reporting and reviewing civilian casualty incidents be met promptly. He also said the agency will ensure that all steps in response to a civilian casualty incident are completed.
The Pentagon chief further said that reviews would be “thorough,” and directed the commanders of the combatant commands to reinforce the importance of meeting existing deadlines and following current procedures.
“Protecting innocent civilians is fundamental to our operational success and is a strategic and moral imperative,” Austin wrote. “Our shared commitment to these principles must include embracing opportunities to improve.”
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby was pressed on Tuesday about the lack of accountability for those involved in strikes that killed civilians.
“While we don’t always get everything right, we do try to improve, we do try to be transparent as we can about what we learned, and we’re standing up here taking questions about it,” Kirby said.