A Pentagon investigation that found a drone attack in Kabul that killed 10 Afghan civilians was an “honest mistake” and recommended no legal or disciplinary action has been met with widespread outrage from Congress and human rights groups.
Critics said the report contributed to a culture of impunity and failed to address systemic problems in the U.S. conduct of drone warfare, making future civilian casualties inevitable.
The victims of the August 29 strike included Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for a U.S.-based aid organization, and nine members of his family, including seven children. Although the investigation by the U.S. Air Force Inspector General, Lieutenant General Sami Said, found that the drone operators had confused a white Toyota Corolla on the spot with a car connected to a terrorist group and also could not see a child visible in surveillance images. two minutes before the strike, it found no evidence of wrongdoing.
“The investigation found no violation of the law, including the law of war. Execution errors combined with confirmation bias and communication crashes led to deplorable civilian casualties,” the report said.
“It was an honest mistake,” Said told Pentagon reporters Wednesday. “But it’s not criminal behavior, random behavior, negligence.”
Said said the high-pressure conditions surrounding the strike and fears of an impending attack on Kabul airport by Islamic State contributed to the error. The report also said that “confirmation bias” was a factor. The drone operators saw what they expected to see, assuming that the white Toyota in the binoculars was the same as the one they had tracked, even though it is one of the most common cars in Afghanistan.
The youngest of the Ahmadi children killed in the attack was two years old. The failure to recommend any legal or disciplinary action led to immediate allegations of impunity in the U.S. military.
“When there is no responsibility for a mistake in this grave and so costly, it sends a message all the way through the command structure that the killing of civilians is just a common cost of war,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said on Twitter. “This is unacceptable.”
Marc Garlasco, a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, who is now a military adviser to a Dutch peace organization, Pax, said the high-pressure conditions should not be used as an excuse for the mistakes. “Stop saying you were under pressure. The Afghans live that every day,” he said.
Adil Haque, a law professor at Rutgers University who writes extensively on the law and ethics of war, said a fundamental problem behind the repeated civilian casualties from drone strikes was the United States’ refusal to ratify or adopt the first Additional Protocol to the 1977 Geneva Conventions, which was about protecting victims of armed conflict.
The protocol states that warring parties have a duty to verify that the people they are targeting are not civilians. The U.S. military only recognizes a duty to take possible precautions in “good faith” to avoid civilian casualties.
“You should not just ask: Are their movements consistent with the hypothesis that they are an Isis operative? You will ask: Is any of this inconsistent with the fact that they are just an innocent civilian driving a Toyota Corolla? said Haque.
“Because the United States does not explicitly adopt this principle, it is suitable for this unstructured collection and analysis of information that does not ask the right questions.”
Steven Kwon, co-founder and president of Nutrition and Education International, Ahmadi’s employer, said: “This study is deeply disappointing and inadequate because we are left with many of the same questions that we started with. I do not understand how the most “Powerful military in the world could follow Zemari, an aid worker, in a commonly used car for eight hours and not find out who he was and why he was at the headquarters of a US aid organization.”
Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “The Inspector General’s findings of error, confirmation bias and communication crashes are all too common with deadly attacks in the United States, and his recommendations do not remedy huge damage here or the likelihood that it will happen again.”