Report faults drone crews in attack that killed Afghan civilians
KABUL, Afghanistan — A series of failures by two command posts in Afghanistan combined with “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting by unmanned drone operators in the U.S. led to an airstrike that killed about two dozen civilians in southern Afghanistan earlier this year, according to a military investigation.
The Feb. 21 airstrike near the village of Khod in Uruzgan province came after U.S. special forces mistook a convoy of civilian vehicles for a Taliban force attempting to flank their position, the report said.
A redacted summary of the investigation into the incident, released Saturday, raised new question both about the use of unmanned drones, which are often piloted remotely from the U.S., and about oversight of Special Operations teams in Afghanistan.
The report said two children were seen among the vehicles prior to the airstrike but that Predator drone operators at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada “ignored or downplayed” indications that the vehicles contained civilians. U.S. troops tracked the convoy for roughly 3½ hours before helicopter gunships arrived and opened fire with missiles and aerial rockets.
Meanwhile, “poorly functioning” command posts in Afghanistan “failed to analyze the readily available information and communicate effectively” with the commander of the U.S. ground patrol, the report said.
The report identified one of those command posts as a high-level operations center attached to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan. The other command post was redacted.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in the country, issued letters of reprimand to four U.S. officers involved in the incident, including “senior leaders at the Battalion and Brigade level,” the military said, without identifying the officers. In addition, two junior officers were given letters of admonishment.
McChrystal moved to bring most special operations troops in Afghanistan under his direct control in mid-March. Previously, Special Forces had reported to a separate chain of command.
It was unclear whether that move was directly linked to the February incident in Uruzgan, but Afghan officials and some commanders of conventional U.S. forces have criticized special operations units for causing a disproportionate number of civilian casualties.
The investigation also criticized the special operations headquarters in Afghanistan for initially refusing to report the likelihood that civilians had been killed despite video from a Predator drone showing women and children at the scene. The helicopters called in to destroy the vehicles also reported that they stopped firing after they noticed bright clothing and suspected women were present.
The civilian casualties were only reported up the chain of command as required some 12 hours later by a surgeon treating survivors who had been evacuated to a U.S. hospital, the report said.
According to the U.S. investigation, 23 men were killed in the airstrike while 12 people were injured, including a woman and three children. The Afghan cabinet has said 27 people were killed, including four women and a child. The bodies of the deceased were turned over to local officials at the scene.
McChrystal has repeatedly said civilian casualties deeply undermine the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and has apologized for the February incident several times, including in a televised video address. Civilian casualties from airstrikes have declined this year after McChrystal issued tougher rules on the use of air power.
The investigation recommended improvements to pre-deployment training for troops heading to Afghanistan and called on the Air Force to “quickly codify command level guidance” on the use of aerial drones.