Killing Civilians in Theory and Practice

Minneapolis anti-war protest: 'Stop Killer Drones', 5 May 2013, Image from wikipedia

[T]he 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.

[A]lmost 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.

WRONG TARGETS

Many of the deadliest American airstrikes to hit civilians in the last 15 years have taken place in Afghanistan.

·         JULY 1, 2002

An American AC-130 gunship struck an engagement party in the village of Kakrak in Uruzgan Province, killing 48 people.

·         MAY 4, 2009

American airstrikes in the village of Granai in Farah Province killed 147 civilians, the Afghan government said. The United States estimated that 20 to 30 civilians and as many as 65 Taliban fighters had been killed.

·         SEPT. 4, 2009

An American F-15E fighter jet, acting on orders from a German commander, dropped a 500-pound bomb on a tanker truck outside the village of Haji Sakhi Dedby in Kunduz Province, killing at least 70 people, and possibly dozens more.

·         OCT. 3, 2015

An American AC-130 gunship, called in by American Special Forces, struck a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, killing 42 people…

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…

One of the issues, experts say, is the culture of the Air Force itself….“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 September 17, 2016  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.

Excerpts from  MATTHEW ROSENBERG,It’s Not Like Hollywood: Why U.S. Airstrikes Go Awry 20, NY Times Sept. 20, 2016

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