Anatomy of a tragic error

How a cascade of false assumptions led to a fatal U.S. military strike on a group of Afghan civilians

NEARLY THREE MILES above the rugged hills of central Afghanistan, American eyes silently tracked two SUVs and a pickup truck as they snaked down a dirt road in the predawn darkness. The vehicles, packed with people, were three and a half miles from a dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, who had been dropped into the area hours earlier to root out insurgents. The convoy was closing in on them.

At 6:15 a.m., just before the sun crested the mountains, the convoy halted. “We have 18 pax [passengers] dismounted and spreading out at this time,” an Air Force pilot said from a cramped control room at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Sitting 7,000 miles away from Afghanistan, the pilot was flying the Predator drone whose cameras had picked up the vehicles’ movement more than an hour earlier. He was using a joystick to operate the craft while watching its live video transmissions and radioing information to the unit on the ground.

The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. “They’re praying,” said the Predator’s camera operator, seated in Nevada near the pilot. By now, the Predator crew was sure that the men were Taliban. “This is definitely it, this is their force,” the cameraman said. “They’re gonna do something nefarious,” chimed in a third man in Nevada—the mission’s intelligence coordinator.
At 6:22 a.m., the drone pilot radioed an update: “All…are rallying up near all three vehicles.” The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles. “Oh, sweet target,” he said.

NONE OF THOSE Afghans was, in fact, an insurgent. They were men, women, and children going about their business, unaware that a unit of U.S. soldiers was just a few miles away, and that teams of U.S. military pilots and video analysts had taken them for a group of Taliban fighters. Though the Americans were using some of the most sophisticated tools in the history of war, the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

The Afghan travelers had set out early on the cold morning of Feb. 21, 2010, from three mountain villages in southern Daikundi province, a remote region 200 miles southwest of Kabul. More than two dozen people were wedged into the three vehicles. They included shopkeepers going to Kabul for supplies, students returning to school, people seeking medical treatment, and families off to visit relatives. There were several women and as many as four children younger than 6. They had agreed to meet before dawn for the long drive to Highway 1, the country’s main paved road. To reach it, they had to drive through Oruzgan province, an insurgent stronghold.

“We weren’t worried when we set out,” said Nasim, an auto mechanic who says he was traveling to buy tools and parts. “We were a little scared of the Taliban, but not of government forces,” he said referring to the Afghan national army and its U.S. allies. “Why would they attack us?”

AMERICAN AIRCRAFT BEGAN tracking the vehicles at 5 a.m. The crew of an AC-130, a U.S. ground attack plane, spotted a pickup and an SUV converge from different directions. At 5:08 a.m., they saw two of the drivers flash their headlights in the darkness. With that, the travelers became targets of suspicion.

A few hours earlier, a dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, known as an A-Team, had been dropped off by helicopter near Khod, five miles south of the convoy. The elite unit was moving on foot toward the village to search for insurgents.

Another U.S. special operations unit had been attacked in the district a year earlier, and a soldier had been killed. This time the AC-130, the Predator drone, and two Kiowa attack helicopters were in the area to protect the A-Team.

Under U.S. military rules, the Army captain leading the A-Team, as the operation’s ground force commander, was responsible for deciding whether to order an airstrike. At 5:14 a.m., six minutes after the two Afghan vehicles flashed their lights, the AC-130 crew asked the A-Team what it wanted to do about the suspicious vehicles. “Roger, ground force commander’s intent is to destroy the vehicles and the personnel,” came the unit’s reply.

To actually employ deadly force, the commander would also have to make a “positive identification” that the adversary was carrying weapons and posed an “imminent threat.” The evidence to support such a decision would come from two distant sources: In addition to the Predator crew in Nevada, a team of “screeners”—enlisted personnel trained in video analysis—was on duty at Air Force special operations headquarters in Okaloosa, Fla. They sat in a large room with high-definition televisions showing live feeds from the drone.

“We all had it in our head, ‘Hey, why do you have 20 military-age males at 5 a.m. collecting each other?’” an Army officer involved in the incident said later. “There can be only one reason, and that’s because we’ve put [U.S. troops] in the area.”

AT 5:15 A.M., the Predator pilot thought he saw a rifle inside one of the two vehicles he’d first spotted. “See if you can zoom in on that guy,” he told the camera operator. “Maybe just a warm spot,” the operator replied, referring to an image picked up by the infrared camera. “Can’t really tell right now.”

At 5:30 a.m., not long after the first two vehicles were joined by another SUV, the convoy halted briefly, and the drone’s camera focused on a man emerging from one of the vehicles. He appeared to be carrying something. “I think that dude had a rifle,” the camera operator said. “I do, too,” the pilot replied. But the ground forces unit said the commander needed more information from the drone crew and screeners to establish a “positive identification.” The small convoy continued south, in the general direction of Khod.

At 5:37 a.m., the pilot reported that one of the screeners in Florida had spotted one or more children in the group. “Bull----. Where!?” the camera operator said. “I don’t think they have kids out at this hour.” He demanded that the screeners freeze a video image of the purported child and e-mail it to him. “Why didn’t he say ‘possible’ child?” the pilot said. “Why are they so quick to call kids but not to call a rifle?” The cameraman was dubious too. “I really doubt that children call,” he said.

A few minutes later, the pilot, who was tasked with radioing the screeners’ observations to the ground unit, appeared to downplay the screeners’ report, alerting the A-Team to “a possible rifle and two possible children near the SUV.”

THE PREDATOR VIDEO was not the only intelligence that morning suggesting that U.S. forces were in danger: Teams of U.S. intelligence personnel with sophisticated eavesdropping equipment were vacuuming up cell phone calls in the area. For several hours, they had been listening to chatter in the area that suggested a Taliban unit was assembling for an attack. The drone crew took the intercepted conversations as confirmation that there were insurgents in the convoy.

The screeners continued to look for evidence that the convoy was a hostile force. Even with the advanced cameras on the Predator, the images were fuzzy. The Predator crew and video analysts remained uncertain how many children were in the group and how old they were. “Our screeners are currently calling 21 MAMs [military age males], no females, and two possible children. How copy?” the Predator pilot radioed the A-Team at 7:38 a.m. “Roger,” replied the A-team, which was unable to see the convoy. “And when we say children, are we talking teenagers or toddlers?” The camera operator responded: “Not toddlers. Something more toward adolescents or teens.”

At 7:40 a.m., the A-Team radioed that its captain had concluded that he had established “positive identification” based on “the weapons we’ve identified and the demographics of the individuals,” plus the intercepted communications. Although no weapons had been clearly identified, the pilot replied: “We are with you.” The pilot added that one screener had amended his report and was now saying he’d seen only one teenager. “We’ll pass that along to the ground force commander,” the A-Team radio operator said. “Twelve or 13 years old with a weapon is just as dangerous.”

AT 8:43 A.M., Army commanders ordered two Kiowa helicopters to get into position to attack. By then, though, the convoy was no longer heading toward Khod. The three vehicles had changed direction and were now 12 miles from the special operations soldiers. The drone crew didn’t dwell on that news, thinking the convoy probably was trying to flank the A-Team’s position.

The Predator crew began discussing the coming attack. The drone’s one missile was not enough to take out a three-vehicle convoy. The more heavily armed Kiowa helicopters would fire on the vehicles; the Predator would target any survivors who tried to flee.

A little before 9 a.m., the vehicles reached an open, treeless stretch of road. The A-Team commander called in the airstrike.

“Understand we are clear to engage,” one of the helicopter pilots radioed. Hellfire missiles struck the first and third vehicles. They burst into flames.

ON THE GROUND, the damage was horrific. Nasim, the 23-year-old mechanic, was fortunate that he was merely knocked unconscious. Many fellow travelers were dead. “When I came to, I could see that our vehicles were wrecked and the injured were everywhere,” he said. “I saw someone who was headless and someone else cut in half.”

The Predator crew in Nevada was exultant, watching men they assumed were enemy fighters trying to help the injured. “‘Self-Aid Buddy Care’ to the rescue,” one crew member said. “I forget, how do you treat a sucking chest wound?” said another.

Soon, however, the crew in Nevada and the screeners in Florida realized something was wrong. At 9:15 a.m., the Predator crew noticed three survivors in brightly colored clothing waving at the helicopters. They were trying to surrender. “What are those?” asked the camera operator. “Women and children,” the Predator’s mission intelligence coordinator answered. “Younger than an adolescent to me,” the camera operator said.

U.S. and Afghan forces reached the scene two and a half hours after the attack to provide medical assistance. Medevac helicopters began taking the wounded to a hospital in Tarin Kowt, in Oruzgan. By the U.S. count, 15 or 16 men were killed and 12 people were wounded, including a woman and three children. Elders from the Afghans’ home villages said in interviews that 23 had been killed, including two boys, Daoud, 3, and Murtaza, 4.

That evening, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, went to the presidential palace in Kabul to apologize to President Hamid Karzai. Two days later, he went on Afghan television and promised “a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again.”

In separate investigations, the Army and the Air Force reached similar conclusions. The military has taken steps to address the problems it identified, but no member of the operation faced court-martial.

Several weeks after the attack, American officers traveled to the villages to apologize to survivors and the victims’ families. They gave each survivor 140,000 Afghanis, or about $2,900. Families of the dead received $4,800.

By David S. Cloud. ©2011 by the Los Angeles Times


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