Defense Department officials have completed work on a DOD instruction that incorporates the direction of the department’s civilian harm mitigation and response action plan.

Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder made the announcement during a news conference today.

The department has long recognized that causing civilian casualties produces a moral dilemma for service members and the protection of civilian populations just makes strategic sense.

When then-Army Gen. Stan McCrystal took command in Afghanistan in 2009, he looked at the situation in the country and concluded that protection of civilian populations in the country was a paramount objective. “We will not win based on the number of Taliban killed, but instead on our ability to separate insurgents from the center of gravity — the people,” he wrote at the time. “That means we must respect and protect the population from coercion and violence — and operate in a manner which will win their support.”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III recognized this priority and in January 2022 he directed the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl to develop a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan to outline steps the department will take, and the resources needed to put the recommendations in place. From this effort would come the DOD instruction, officials said.

The new instruction formally establishes DOD’s enduring policies, responsibilities and procedures regarding preventing and mitigating civilian harm. The U.S. military has long had these concerns, but this places them all under one instruction and re-emphasizes the importance of the concept.

The instruction establishes U.S. policy on pre- and post-strike measures to address civilian casualties in U.S. operations involving the use of force, officials said. It also directs the appointment of a senior DOD civilian official “to develop, coordinate and oversee compliance.”

The instruction demonstrates the importance DOD places on protecting civilian populations and the department’s commitment to the responsible use of military force, officials said.

Moreover, the instruction also spells out that the department understands that better strategic outcomes are achieved by improving civilian harm mitigation and response.

The instruction is the action plan for commanders up and down the chain to follow. It also serves as a standard for all service members to meet and demonstrates DOD’s transparency in this matter.

Overall, the instruction will facilitate establishing doctrine, policies, tactics and operational processes related to civilian harm military response. It also will help develop capabilities and processes that enhance battlespace awareness of the presence of civilians and civilian objects.

The instruction will also emphasize military capability improvements that could reduce risks to civilians.

The instruction will also cover assessments of civilian harm that may have resulted from U.S. military operations and investigations of incidents of alleged civilian harm.

Finally, the instruction will seek to incorporate the policy and practices in multinational operations and operations with non-state armed groups, and the integration of these efforts into DOD security cooperation and security assistance.

The new instruction will not magically stop all civilian casualties. The fog of war is still dense and mistakes happen. It will not answer all questions because each incident or situation is different. How does a unit behave when an enemy is purposely using the civilian population as shields? Are civilian casualties ever justified? Who makes those decisions? Is there any difference between civilian casualties of a nation state and those associated with terror groups?

The instruction calls for continued research and discussion of all aspects of civilian harm mitigation and response.

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