In Afghanistan in July 2006, a U.S. reconnaissance drone spotted 190 Taliban fighters, all standing in the open, in a neat, tight formation, shoulder to shoulder, with no civilians around. It was a target acquisitioner’s dream come true, providing an opportunity to deal the militants a devastating blow. As all airstrikes required command authority, planners awaited final authorization before engaging the enemy. But the operation ground to a halt when orders were received the Taliban were not to be engaged.
After careful analysis of the reconnaissance video by intelligence personnel, it was determined the militants had assembled in a cemetery to attend a funeral for a fallen comrade. In such a situation, the rules of engagement prohibited attacking enemy forces. Undoubtedly, had the tables been reversed, there is little doubt the Taliban would have ignored the rules of fair play and attacked our soldiers. But the mission that day was abandoned by the Americans with no regrets. Although we will never know how many more American lives would be lost by failing to take out the 190 Taliban soldiers spared that day, nonetheless we had played by the Queensberry rules.
Fast forward 15 years to 2021 as President Joe Biden orders an Afghanistan withdrawal that was pure chaos, allowing the Taliban to capture the country before the U.S. could even get all its forces, citizens and Afghan allies out, leaving behind $83 billion worth of military equipment in the process.
As U.S. forces guarded the withdrawal at Kabul Airport, a suicide bomber killed 13 of our warriors, along with dozens of fleeing Afghans. Learning the attack was carried out by the anti-Taliban terrorist group ISIS-K, American commanders quickly tried to locate the plotters to conduct a retaliatory strike. Within a very short period of time, an ISIS-K suspect was located as he was transporting numerous explosive devices in his vehicle. A strike was ordered. Sadly, the vehicle was not that of a terrorist but of an Afghan aid worker and his children. Ten people were killed in the attack.
These two incidents reveal two opposite ends of the spectrum in the conduct of military airstrikes.
In the 2006 incident, adequate time was taken for intelligence officers to carefully assess the aerial video of the target’s location to determine what had generated such a large assembly of enemy soldiers in one place and in such an exposed position. As that became clear, the law of land warfare dictated the enemy was in a safe zone where it could not be attacked.
In the 2021 incident, it is clear that America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan infuriated the American public, which blamed Biden and those military leaders responsible for overseeing it. The death of the 13 Americans further inflamed public opinion. Military commanders who normally would exercise extreme caution before initiating such a retaliatory strike, may, perhaps, have been motivated to move faster than usual to atone for the terrorist attack.
That retaliatory strike did seem to come much too quickly to be based on solid intelligence. Yet, shockingly, no one involved in the operation was ever held accountable for the tragic loss of innocent lives. Does that suggest senior commanders, knowingly responsible for their subordinates sacrificing accurate intelligence in favor of speed, sought to cover their own tracks by dismissing accountability for all involved? After all, military commanders have been relieved of duty for committing far less, such as Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller – the Marine battalion commander relieved of duty for simply going public about the irresponsible actions of his senior commanders leading to the 13 deaths. Biden ultimately announced impunity for all involved in the tragic airstrike.
While our initial instinct might be to think what a difference 15 years of warfare made in how target acquisition assessments were undertaken, if a New York Times article concerning hidden Pentagon reports it recently obtained is accurate, failed military targeting incidents in the Middle East were more common than realized.
The reports, including 2016 airstrikes in Syria and both a 2015 and 2017 bombing in Iraq, reveal a pattern of inaccurately conducted missions resulting in numerous civilian casualties due to faulty intelligence.
The 2015 airstrike in Iraq occurred after someone was observed dragging a heavy object into a building defended by ISIS. Only after the strike was it learned the object being dragged was a dead child who had been killed during nearby violence.
The 2016 airstrike was of “staging areas” maintained by the terrorist group ISIS in Syria. Since the targets were hit late at night, it was not noticed that over 120 villagers – mostly farmers – were present at the time.
In 2017, as a vehicle fleeing Iraq reportedly had a bomb in it, a U.S. airstrike was called in. Only later was it learned the occupants were a family attempting to escape battlefield violence.
While such attacks increased during the tenure of the supposedly transparent administration of President Barack Obama and despite sophisticated Pentagon algorithms for determining civilian casualties, the numbers for the latter were often erased.
Again, as with the Afghanistan retaliatory strike, there was not a single record indicating those responsible for the faulty strikes were ever held accountable. Meanwhile, Obama claimed the strikes were “the most precise in American history,” noting America’s “extraordinary” technology neutralized the right people while not harming the wrong ones. But Pentagon reports failed to support Obama’s claim. As a result, few condolences were ever even offered to family survivors.
Our Mideast aircraft strikes have proven to be ugly – taking out both the good and the bad guys. Perhaps our senior military leaders should spend less time worrying about teaching Critical Race Theory and catering to non-existent biological genders – placing woke-pronouns into the military lexicon – by devoting more time instead to training our forces on how to conduct better targeting.
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