WASHINGTON — If there is a single link between the wars fought by the United States in the Middle East and Afghanistan, it is the long list of errant airstrikes carried out by American warplanes. Weddings, funerals, hospitals and friendly forces have been mistakenly attacked, with each strike prompting fresh outrage.
While most of those killed have been civilians — in Afghanistan alone, the United Nations recorded 1,243 civilians killed in airstrikes between 2009 and 2015 — American-led forces have repeatedly struck friendly forces. It is a pattern that was repeated last weekend with a pair of separate airstrikes in Syria and Afghanistan that have again cast a harsh spotlight on the seeming inability of the United States to avoid hitting the wrong targets in its air campaigns.
The two latest strikes, like the many that came before them, each had its own specific and complex circumstances. But military officers and experts say that almost all the mistaken strikes over the years have come down to two main reasons: Faulty intelligence, and what military strategists call “the fog of war,” referring to the confusion of the battlefield.
As long as there are airstrikes, “there’s always going to be some percentage of the strikes that are going to go awry,” said Robert Farley, a professor at the University of Kentucky who has written about the use of American air power.
“People and data are imperfect,” he said. “You’re always going to have some percentage of the time that you’re fed inaccurate data by either the drones above you or the maps you have or the forward air controllers right there on the ground.”
Collateral damage is a problem as old as airstrikes themselves. The first instance of aerial bombardment — an Italian plane dropped grenades against an encampment of enemy troops in Libya in 1911 — resulted in accusations that the pilot had hit a field hospital, injuring several civilians.
Unlike the grenades dropped then, which the pilot had to screw together in midflight, modern bombs and missiles rarely, if ever, miss their mark. If a hospital or friendly troops are hit in an airstrike, it is almost always because the target was chosen in error. There are no known instances in the last 15 years of American-led forces deliberately targeting noncombatants or allied troops in airstrikes (though there have been massacres by American ground troops).
The problem is that “as good as Hollywood portrays what we can know or see from drones or anything else, the situational awareness we’ve got is nowhere near that,” said Scott F. Murray, a retired Air Force colonel who oversaw airstrikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
No matter what the intent, killing civilians by mistake can amount to a war crime, though the military almost never brings criminal charges against those involved. That was the case with the strike on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, in 2015, that killed 42 people. The military’s own investigation found that those who took part in the attack “failed to comply with the” laws of armed conflict, and though 12 service members were disciplined, none faced criminal charges.
Fixing the problem, though, has proved far harder than identifying it. One of the issues, experts say, is the culture of the Air Force itself, which does not give much credence to the idea of the fog of war, experts said.
“One of the core aspects of air power theory is this idea that with enough reconnaissance, with enough data with enough data crunching, we can paint an extremely hyper-accurate picture of the battlefield that is going to not only eliminate accidental strikes, but it’s going to make it so we can strike directly and precisely,” Mr. Farley said.
“So in some sense, that kind of extreme optimism about air-power targeting is baked into Air Force culture, is baked into the Air Force cake,” he added.
But bad information leads to bad outcomes. Faulty readings of surveillance from drones and other sources appear to have been involved in the strike in Syria, which infuriated the Syrian government and its Russian backers, further undermining an already shaky cease-fire there.
The attack occurred on Saturday night when fighter jets from the American-led coalition struck what the military believed was an Islamic State position. The attack was methodical and merciless — the jets took run after run over the camp in an effort destroy it, cutting down men as they fled.
But about 20 minutes into the strike, Russia notified the United States that the jets were hitting troops loyal to the Syrian government, not the Islamic State. Russia and Syria have since said that more than 60 Syrian troops were killed.
Details about the strikes remain closely held by the military, which has started an investigation. But American military officials said the area had been under surveillance from drones for at least two days before the strike — a tank was spotted at the camp and the people there did not appear to be moving in any kind of military formations — suggesting the fault lay with the intelligence analysis used to plan the strike.
The Pentagon is also reportedly investigating a possible explanation for how American officers mistook a Syrian base for an Islamic State position: The encampment that was hit may have been used by the Syrian military to detain soldiers who were being disciplined and who were not wearing uniforms.
But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., on Monday urged against a rush to judgment.
“Maybe before we start going on a path of ‘what went wrong,’ let’s do an investigation and actually ensure that something did go wrong,” he said, according to Reuters.
If the attack was a mistake, it would be unusual in that it came during a planned strike. Typically in recent years, airstrikes have accidentally killed civilians or friendly troops in the heat of an ongoing battle, or during a hastily arranged strike on a moving target. The strike on Sunday in Afghanistan falls into that category.
It occurred when American aircraft were called in to aide a police post that was under attack in Uruzgan, a province in the country’s south. At least seven police officers were killed, Afghan officials said.
But an American official, who asked not to be identified because the incident was under investigation, said it did not appear that the aircraft accidentally hit the police defending the post.
Rather, the official said, it appears that the aircraft struck the men who were attacking the police post. The assailants may have been police themselves, or from a village militia, and were attacking the post as part of some kind of turf war with another faction within the police.
In almost every situation, “What’s going on is very complex,” said Mr. Murray, the retired colonel.
“I’ve lived this on the intel end, and, you know, ‘Eye in the Sky’ was a really good movie. But it kind of does a disservice,” he said. “We tend to focus on simple solutions.”
(via NY Times)