US report faults drone operators in civilian deaths

Grave errors made in air strike that killed 23 Afghans

A boy ran past a burning tanker carrying fuel for NATO forces Friday near Kabul. It was allegedly attacked by Taliban forces. A boy ran past a burning tanker carrying fuel for NATO forces Friday near Kabul. It was allegedly attacked by Taliban forces. (Rahmat Gul/ Associated Press)
By Dexter Filkins
New York Times / May 30, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The US military released a scathing report yesterday on the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians, saying that “inaccurate and unprofessional’’ reporting by a team of Predator drone operators helped lead to an inadvertent air strike this year on a group of innocent men, women, and children.

The report said that four US officers, including a brigade and battalion commander, had been reprimanded, and that two junior officers had also been disciplined. General Stanley A. McChrystal, who apologized to President Hamid Karzai after the attack, announced training measures intended to reduce the chances of similar events.

The episode, in which three vehicles were attacked and destroyed in February, illustrated the extraordinary sensitivity to the inadvertent killing of noncombatants by NATO forces. Since taking command here last June, McChrystal has made the protection of Afghan civilians a priority, and he has sharply restricted the use of air strikes.

The overwhelming majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by insurgents, but the growing intensity of the fighting, and the big push by American and NATO forces, has sent civilian casualties to their highest levels since 2001. McChrystal’s concern is that NATO forces are wearing out their welcome.

“When we make a mistake, we must be forthright,’’ McChrystal said. “And we must do everything in our power to correct that mistake.’’

The deaths also highlighted the hazards in relying on remotely piloted aircraft to track suspected insurgents. In this case, as in many others where drones are employed by the military, the people steering and spotting the targets sat at a console in Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

The attack occurred on Feb. 21 in Oruzgan Province, a Taliban-dominated area in southern Afghanistan. An American Special Operations team was tracking a group of insurgents when a pickup and two sport utility vehicles moving through the area began heading in their direction.

The Predator operator reported seeing only military-age males in the truck, the report said. The ground commander concurred, the report said, and the Special Operations team asked for an air strike. An OH-58D Kiowa helicopter fired Hellfire missiles and rockets, destroying the vehicles and killing 23 civilians. Twelve others were wounded.

The report, signed by Major General Timothy P. McHale, found that the Predator operators, as well as the ground commander, made several grave errors. The “tragic loss of life,’’ McHale found, was compounded by the failure of the ground commander and others to report in a timely manner that they might have killed civilians.

“The strike occurred because the ground force commander lacked a clear understanding of who was in the vehicles, the location, direction of travel, and the likely course of action of the vehicles,’’ McHale wrote.

That fatal lack of understanding, McHale wrote, stemmed from “poorly functioning command posts’’ in the area that failed to provide the evidence that there were civilians in the trucks. In addition, McHale blamed the “inaccurate and unprofessional reporting of the Predator crew.’’

Using that faulty information, McHale said, the officer on the ground believed that the vehicles contained insurgents.

Predator drones contain cameras that beam real-time images to their operators and some are armed with missiles. In this case, the operators tracked the convoy for more than three hours but failed to notice the women who were riding along, the report said. The report said that two children were spotted near the vehicles, but the Predator operators reported that the convoy contained only military-age men.

After the initial attack, the helicopter’s crew spotted brightly colored clothing, and, suspecting that civilians might have been in the trucks, stopped firing. top stories on Twitter

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