USFOR report: Alleged responsibility of drones operators for Afghan deaths

The New York Times reports that the American military on Saturday 29 May released a scathing report on the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians, saying that “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting by Predator drone operators helped lead to an airstrike in February on a group of innocent men, women and children.

The report said that four American officers, including a brigade and battalion commander, had been reprimanded, and that two junior officers had also been disciplined. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who apologized to President Hamid Karzai after the attack, announced a series of training measures intended to reduce the chances of similar events.

The civilian deaths highlighted the hazards in relying on remotely piloted aircraft to track people suspected of being insurgents. The attack occurred on the morning of February 21, near the village of Shahidi Hassas in Oruzgan Province, a Taliban-dominated area in southern Afghanistan. An American Special Operations team was tracking a group of insurgents when a pickup truck and two sport utility vehicles began heading their way.

The Predator operators reported seeing only military-age men in the truck, the report said. The ground commander concurred, the report said, and the Special Operations team asked for an airstrike. An OH-58D Kiowa helicopter fired Hellfire missiles and rockets, destroying the vehicles and killing 23 civilians. Twelve others were wounded.

The report, signed by Maj. Gen. Timothy P. McHale, found that the Predator operators in Nevada and “poorly functioning command posts” in the area failed to provide the ground commander with evidence that there were civilians in the trucks. Because of that, General McHale wrote, the commander wrongly believed that the vehicles, then seven miles away, contained insurgents who were moving to reinforce the fighters he and his men were tracking.

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