Austin Orders Military to Step Up Efforts to Prevent Civilian Harm

The decision to assign the task to someone on the operational side, rather than to Pentagon officials who typically focus on humanitarian concerns, is said to be a subtle reflection of Mr. Austin’s determination that fighters in the field will take seriously ideas that emerge from the new effort to mitigate civilian harm.

Then, within 180 days of the memo — leaving three months to incorporate the policy plans Mr. Maier will develop — Mr. Austin directed the Pentagon to complete a broad, new policy on mitigating civilian harm that has been under development for more than two years. Known as an “instruction,” it will lock down the changes as Pentagon doctrine.

“It will adopt a comprehensive approach, reinforcing that D.O.D.’s efforts to protect civilians are the responsibility of all leaders throughout the department, always, and not only that of our commanders and personnel in the field,” Mr. Austin said.

While the memo is sparse on details, a person familiar with the internal deliberations that led to it said the intention was not limited to making changes in the context of war zone and counterterrorism strikes using drones and other aircraft, which have led to high-profile instances of civilian deaths in recent years.

With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Somalia and the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Syria, the frequency and relative importance of such strikes is expected to diminish.

Rather, the person said, the policy goal is more ambitious and future oriented: to also incorporate new thinking about civilian protections across the entire range of military activities — including emerging realms like offensive hacking and space — where disabling infrastructure like power grids or satellites could harm civilians in myriad ways, and so-called “information” operations or propaganda.

Mr. Austin’s memo contained veiled hints of the project’s forward-looking scope.

“We will revisit the ways in which we assess incidents that may have resulted in civilian harm, acknowledge the harm to civilians that resulted from such incidents, and incorporate lessons learned into the planning and execution of future combat operations and into our tactics, techniques and procedures,” it said.

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