Unplanned Air Strikes Kill Civilians All the Time
Bad intelligence and endangered troops often lead to civilian casualties
On Oct. 6, U.S. Gen. John Campbell, the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, called the air strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz a mistake. He testified before members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. Special Operations forces were aiding Afghan troops in an effort to repel a resurgent Taliban.
“On Saturday morning, our forces provided close air support to Afghan forces at their request,” Campbell said. “To be clear, the decision to provide aerial fires was a U.S. decision made within the U.S. chain of command. A hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a medical facility.”
The strike, carried out by an AC-130 gunship, killed 22 people at the hospital.
To be sure, U.S. and coalition forces have long taken pains to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Planned airstrikes require lots of intelligence, planning and consideration. Unplanned airstrikes are different, and civilians often die as a result.
We’ve known this for a long time. “A common thread was that the air strikes were not planned, but occurred in fluid situations where intelligence was limited and the fog of war was high,” explained a Human Rights Watch report on civilian deaths due to U.S. and NATO air strikes since 2008.
“These situations often occurred when small Special Operations Forces teams were in contact with much larger groups of insurgent forces, and when U.S. or NATO forces were in pursuit of insurgent forces.”
Again, the U.S. military is really good at minimizing or avoiding civilian casualties in planned air strikes. “In 2008, no planned airstrikes appear to have resulted in civilian casualties,” the HRW report noted. “In 2007, it appears that only one planned airstrike resulted in civilian casualties. In 2006, at least one attack resulting in civilian deaths may have been a planned attack.”
Civilian deaths occur more often in unplanned air strikes. On May 8, 2007, a group of U.S. Special Operations Forces and Afghan National Army troops fought a 16-hour-long battle with Taliban fighters in Helmand province. “The ANA and coalition force maintained contact with the enemy as Taliban fighters took cover in compounds or continued firing on coalition forces,” a Pentagon news story explained.
“Coalition close air support aircraft destroyed three enemy command and control compounds including an enemy underground tunnel network located along the upper Sangin River Valley.”
At least 21 Afghan civilians died in the bombings.
On June 27, 2008, the Taliban ambushed a group of U.S. and Afghan soldiers in the town of Haderabad. The Taliban fighters detonated mines, destroying two armored vehicles during the initial attack then followed it up with mortar and small arms fire.
The U.S. and Afghan forces called in air strikes on Taliban positions in the village. More than 100 insurgents died. NATO claimed the strike killed 12 civilians, the Afghan government said 45 and villagers in Haderabad said the number was between 45 and 65.
It’s also important to note that a favorite Taliban tactic is occupying civilian areas, sowing chaos and coaxing air strikes.
In June 2007, Taliban insurgents took control of several villages in Uruzgan province and began a campaign of terror among the civilians. U.S. and Afghan forces arrived in the villages to root out the Taliban. The battle lasted three days.
The insurgents pressured the villagers to join the fight against the coalition. When the villagers refused, the fighters cut off heads and hands and set people on fire. Toward the end of the fighting, Afghan army forces called in air strikes. One resident told HRW he “believed the Taliban wanted to have NATO attacks kill civilians so the village elders would turn away from NATO and support the Taliban.”
The Taliban knows very well that civilian deaths resulting from air strikes rebounds to its advantage. Kunduz is a tragedy, but it’s not the first time U.S. forces — who are supposed to protect civilians — acted on bad intelligence and killed them. Another problem is that many Afghans do not care about the Pentagon’s reasons for its mistakes.