Opinion: US military must do more than apologize for deadly “mistake” in Kabul

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But last week, General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, who oversaw the drone attack, presented the results of an investigation into the operation which found it had not targeted operatives. ISIS, but killed Afghan civilians, including seven children. . “It was a mistake and I offer my sincere apologies,” he said.

The confession and apology was staggering, especially since the unmanned drone strike was one of the last US military actions with troops still on the ground in Afghanistan, ending a 20-year military presence in the country.

Yet beyond the specifics of this attack, the case provides insight into the inevitable problems of an emerging new form of warfare that has dominated US efforts in the last years of post-9/11 conflicts. The anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria and the past seven years of US action in Afghanistan have relied heavily on aerial attacks with precision munitions managed remotely and with a minimum, US military presence on the ground.
Remarks by General McKenzie reviewed the covert processes by which drone operations are managed, revealing the extraordinary military capability of the United States as well as the difficulty of achieving the stated goals of targeting combatants only and avoiding civilian casualties.
General McKenzie explained that following ISIS-K’s deadly attack on Kabul airport, the military received several intelligence reports on how the group would use a white Toyota Corolla, the one of the most common cars in the Afghan capital, in an upcoming operation. No less than six MQ-9 Reaper drones were surveying the area and noticed one such car near a site that would be used by ISIS-K, according to General McKenzie. For eight hours, the US military and intelligence services watched the car, its driver and others live as they moved from location to location, loading objects in and out of the vehicle.
In the afternoon, as the car was parked near a building in an area where ISIS was operating, a man “considered at the time to be a co-conspirator” approached and the drone shot up. attack. General McKenzie Explain that the strike team delayed authorization of the attack until the car was stationary to avoid civilian casualties on the street, and the weapons team had adjusted the missile’s fuse Hellfire so that it explodes inside the vehicle to further minimize damage to civilians.

When the strike produced an additional explosion, it was taken as evidence that she had correctly targeted a vehicle full of explosives in preparation for an attack.

General McKenzie’s point was that the erroneous targeting of the vehicle, while unfortunate and tragic, was justified given the pressures to protect U.S. forces at the airport and the significant evidence gathered and reviewed by teams of military professionals and the military. intelligence.

Yet how could the situation have turned so spectacularly wrong? How could this extraordinary level of technical ability misinterpret each piece of evidence as proof that the car was being driven by an ISIS-K member when in fact it was involved in day-to-day operations? of a Humanitarian organization based in the United States?
He is on the FBI's most wanted list and is now a key member of the new Taliban government

There is no single answer to these questions, but what is clear from this case, along with evidence of similar problems from other US airstrikes, is that it is often very difficult to assess. a situation with limited field verification, leading to devastating consequences.

Despite the failure of the August 29 attack, General McKenzie explained that the event in no way raised concerns about the ability of the U.S. military to conduct future strikes effectively. He discussed other operations around the same time, including an attack that killed key ISIS-K operatives in Nangarhar.
General McKenzie also pointed out that the drone strike in question was based on self-defense and, as such, was distinct from the attacks on the horizon in which he claimed the United States would be able to collect information over longer periods to establish “Life models” and thereby ensure with greater certainty that those targeted were combatants and not civilians.
However, it is not at all clear that an admission of this “tragic error” would have occurred had the attack taken place outside Kabul. Indeed, even amid a chaotic withdrawal and uncertainty from the new Taliban government, international journalists in the city immediately investigated the attack after it happened and quickly presented an evidence-based counter-narrative to the military’s claims of a successful operation.

After all, the vast majority of U.S. airstrikes, whether by drones or other platforms, in Afghanistan and elsewhere occur in remote, often rural areas, where the ability to independently assess whether a strikes targeted combatants or killed civilians are limited.

So what can the United States do now? It is to the credit of the US military for publicly acknowledging its mistake (after all, few opponents would face a similar situation as well). Yet this is not enough.

General McKenzie suggested that the army was “explore the possibility” to pay condolences to the families of those killed in the strike, an issue of particular importance given that US Department of Defense $ 3M Fund designated to compensate for civilian damage caused by military operations a largely unspent. What is needed in this case, however, is a vigorous effort to publicly address the profound impact of the attack by going beyond the idea of ​​condolences through direct consultations with the families of the victims regarding their needs, along with a commitment by the United States to provide them with remedies designed – as best as possible – to redress the harm they have suffered. This will help demonstrate the seriousness of an American commitment to civil rights and it should happen as soon as possible.


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