No civilians were killed as a result of U.S. military operations in 2022, the Pentagon said in an April 25 report. But a federal watchdog cautions the military has more work to do to ensure that pattern continues.

The Defense Department in 2022 also developed a plan to ensure it prevents further civilian casualties after critics highlighted flaws in how the department considers potential harm to the communities surrounding its daily missions.

Still, the Government Accountability Office argues that strategy is missing key components to ensure the military effectively avoids civilian deaths — and responds to those that do occur — going forward.

A March GAO report found that DOD officials — many of whom were part of the team that developed the civilian-protection action plan — did not know what constitutes improvement under the strategy, or how it applies to cyber operations that may cause harm without the use of force.

The watchdog recommended the Pentagon establish benchmarks to track how effectively it is carrying out the plan, and that the department clarify how the strategy relates to non-kinetic activities.

But the Pentagon agreed with only some of the report’s findings.

Maren Brooks, deputy assistant secretary of defense for irregular warfare and counterterrorism, told the GAO that the action plan already contains several comprehensive objectives, plus the steps required to achieve them. Brooks also highlighted a new rule, announced in December, that established measures to address civilian casualties.

Brooks argued it would be infeasible to set the type of goals for reducing civilian harm the GAO outlined because there have been few cases of those incidents in recent years. She noted the military’s regional combatant commands around the globe are already exploring how to better mitigate and respond to civilian harm, whether it be from physical or digital activities.

While reports of possible civilian casualties surface around the world each year, U.S.-led investigations don’t always find American troops at fault.

The U.S. military’s operations across the world in 2022 — the year after it withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving one of its longest-running wars — raised 14 reports of potential incidents that may have resulted in civilian deaths, according to the Pentagon’s latest casualty report. But the department concluded it was unlikely that those deaths were caused by American missions.

“In some cases, DOD has not been able to assess a report due to insufficient information provided or because reports are still pending review,” the casualty report noted. “However, DOD continues its assessments, and existing assessments are reconsidered if new relevant information becomes available.”

The Pentagon also offered updated numbers from years prior, based on new and revised assessments. The U.S. military now believes it was responsible for killing 18 civilians and injuring about 11 others in airstrikes in Syria between 2018 and 2021.

Though DOD may offer money or medical care to those affected by an American military operation that caused damage or death in a civilian community, the department did not provide any financial compensation for civilian-casualty cases in 2022, according to the report.

“The U.S. military is steadfastly committed to limiting harm to civilians,” the Pentagon report said. “We are committed to continuing to improve our approach to civilian harm mitigation and response.”

Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media

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