Military investigators have concluded that some airstrikes that killed civilians during a battle in western Afghanistan last month were mistakes, but are still trying to determine whether the service members who called in the strikes could have known they were no longer in imminent danger when the bombs were dropped.
The investigation questioned the last two airstrikes conducted during the 8 1/2 -hour battle, according to a military official familiar with the inquiry. The 2,000-pound bombs used in those strikes were dropped by an Air Force B-1 bomber at night, when it was more difficult to determine whether civilians were present.
The investigation, conducted by Army Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, concluded that by the end of the fight the ground forces were no longer under immediate threat of being overrun, and probably should have disengaged rather than calling in the bomber.
Another defense official confirmed the outlines of the findings and said the report also concluded that dropping a 2,000-pound bomb was overkill.
U.S. officials have already apologized for the civilian deaths, but they continue to be a source of anger and frustration in Afghanistan. The U.S. thinks 26 civilians were mistakenly killed. The Afghanistan government puts the total at 140.
The report, which has not been finalized, found that the Marines who called in the airstrikes initially urged the Afghan army unit they were with not to attack the Taliban in the village of Garani on May 4.
“Our guys said this was not the place to engage,” said a military official familiar with the report’s findings.
But when the Afghans rejected the advice and prepared to attack, the Marines decided to assist them to preserve “unit cohesion,” the official said.
The fight quickly escalated, and the Afghans asked the Marines to call for an airstrike to prevent their position from being overwhelmed. The initial airstrikes were carried out by a Navy F/A-18 armed with 500-pound bombs. The B-1 strikes came hours later.
The investigation’s conclusion that some of the strikes were mistakes was first reported Wednesday in the New York Times.
The military official familiar with the report cautioned that it was not complete. The findings and recommendations must still be endorsed by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, and forwarded to the Pentagon.
Military officials reviewing Thomas’ report are trying to determine whether the pilots and the Marines could have known that civilians were likely to be hit or that the ground forces were no longer under imminent threat when they called for the two final airstrikes.
“Given what was known, what was seen from the air, and given the threat, was that the right choice? That is the part in deliberation,” the official said.
Although the bomber briefly lost visual contact as it took position to make the strike, the Marines on the ground had continuous view of the site and did not think there were any civilians in the targeted building. But the Marines were not able to do an immediate assessment to determine whether there were civilian casualties.
The official emphasized that the Marines did not act recklessly and took pains throughout the fight to avoid civilian casualties.
“These guys were disciplined and they followed the rules of engagement,” the officer said.