U.S. Special Operations Forces ordered an airstrike that killed at least 27 civilians in southern Afghanistan. The soldiers may not have satisfied rules of engagement designed to avoid the killing of innocents. The airstrike Sunday hit a convoy of two Toyota Land Cruisers and a truck in a remote part of the south near the border between Uruzgan and Daykundi provinces. The area is hundreds of miles from Marjah, where the largest allied offensive since 2001 is now in its second week.
The area is under Dutch military control, and if Dutch forces were involved in the incident it could have serious political repercussions in the Netherlands, where the government collapsed Saturday over an effort to extend the stay of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan. But the Dutch defence ministry spokesman in The Hague said Dutch forces were not involved in calling the airstrike.
NATO’s Afghanistan task force said its forces believed the convoy was carrying insurgents who were on their way to Kandahar province to attack Afghan and NATO troops. It engaged the vehicles with “airborne weapons,” NATO said in a statement, without elaborating. (Wall Street Journal) Troops then went to the scene “and found women and children,” the statement said. The wounded were taken to a NATO facility for treatment.
How the soldiers came to the conclusion that insurgents were onboard was unclear. According to a senior U.S. military official, “Air assets picked up the movement of the vehicles after an extensive overhead monitoring, the ground force commander ordered the strike.” (CNN) However, according to Gen. Abdul Hameed, an Afghan National army commander in Dehrawood, part of the Oruzgan Province, there had been no request from any ground forces to carry out the attack.
Afghan officials originally claimed that 33 civilians were killed, but then later adjusted that number to 27. The governor of Uruzgan province told the BBC that all of the dead were civilians. One of his spokesmen said that more than 40 people had been traveling in the three vehicles that were attacked. The Afghan Interior Ministry said investigators had collected 21 bodies and that two people were missing. The ministers say that 12 others were injured and on their way to Kandahar.
The airstrike underscored the risks of expanding use of Special Operations Forces, whose core mission is hunting down hard-core Taliban, as the leading edge of the fight against the insurgents. Many SOF missions by their nature have led to a string of recent successes against valuable targets. A NATO spokesman said he couldn’t confirm that U.S. SOF called in the strike.
Under the rules, airpower is meant to be a last resort for soldiers who can’t pull back from an imminent threat or sit it out. Airstrikes are also allowed on targets engaged in clearly predatory action, such as planting a hidden roadside bomb, one of the deadliest threats faced by coalition forces.
The countless airstrikes killing civilians have reportedly handed the Taliban propaganda victories. The errant strikes now pose a direct challenge to counter-insurgency strategy laid out by U.S. Army Gen. McChrystal, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, and endorsed by President Barack Obama. Sunday’s airstrike appears to be precisely the kind of incident that Gen. McChrystal and his team were trying to avoid.
Afghanistan’s Cabinet called the latest airstrike “unjustifiable”. (WSJ) “Afghanistan’s council of ministers strongly urges the NATO forces to closely coordinate and exercise maximum care before conducting any military operations so that any possible mistakes that may result in harming civilians – considered to be a major obstacle for an effective counterterrorism effort – can be avoided.” (The Globe & Mail)
“Nobody has an idea what they were doing there because they don’t share anything with the Afghans,” said an official at the presidential palace. He added that U.S. Special Operations Forces “arrest people and they raid houses without keeping the Afghans in the loop.” (WSJ)
McChrystal expressed regret on Monday over the incident. “We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives,” said McChrystal, who spoke to President Hamid Karzai Sunday evening. “I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will double our efforts to regain that trust.” (CNN)
Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials ordered an immediate investigation into the incident, and both sides dispatched investigative teams to the site. The NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has begun an investigation on the incident.