In Afghanistan, halting civilian deaths in strikes is mission impossible

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When Afghan parliament member Obaidullah Helali went to visit his constituents in the village of Garani last month, they confronted him with clubs and stones.

It was three days after a U.S. airstrike killed dozens of civilians in the remote settlement in the western province of Farah. Enraged villagers threatened to beat Helali and other officials and asked why the Afghan government couldn’t protect them -- not from the Taliban, but from the U.S. military.

“If the Americans don’t stop these kind of accidents, the people will never believe the government will keep them safe,” Helali said.


But experiences such as the fateful May 4 airstrike show that halting civilian deaths will not be easy. Fighter pilots and air controllers at the main U.S. air base here, near Kabul, the Afghan capital, say that even the most comprehensive safeguards can fail under the stress and confusion of combat against an enemy that they say often uses civilians as human shields.

The mounting death toll of Afghan civilians from U.S. airstrikes has unleashed a tide of resentment and fury that threatens to undermine the American counterinsurgency effort. From President Obama to the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, American officials have made the reduction of civilian deaths a top priority as they revamp their strategy.

McChrystal, who took command this week, told Congress that the measure of success in Afghanistan should be the number of civilians protected, not the number of insurgents killed. Reducing civilian casualties is “essential to our credibility,” he said.

The U.S. military employs a lengthy set of precautions, including written rules of engagement and multiple levels of approval before bombs can be dropped or missiles launched.

To gauge each mission’s risk to civilians, a collateral damage estimate, or CDE, is prepared.

Yet civilian deaths continue to mount. U.S. commanders have not specified how they intend to reduce them, except to continue rigorously reviewing and enforcing existing restrictions. But the nature of the war almost guarantees more accidental deaths.


When people make split-second life-or-death decisions, and face what they consider a choice between protecting their compatriots or civilians, the decisions have proved imperfect.

“We have a very smart enemy who understands our weakness,” said Air Force Col. Steven Kwast, an F-15 pilot who commands the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing at Bagram.

“And our weakness is the fact that this counterinsurgency is not about killing the enemy,” he said. “It’s about protecting the civilians of Afghanistan. . . . The enemy is good about drawing us into a dilemma we can’t get out of without losing coalition lives.”

A preliminary Pentagon investigation of the May 4 incident -- the final report is expected within days -- found that mistakes were made in the fighting that led to the airstrikes.

U.S. Marines called in Air Force and Navy warplanes after the Afghan army and police were attacked by insurgents. One aircraft was cleared to drop bombs but the pilot briefly lost sight of the target while circling to get into position to attack, the preliminary investigative report says. It also questions whether a B-1 bomber strike on a village compound was necessary at one point in the 8 1/2 -hour battle when Afghan forces were not under direct attack.

“In a perfect world, that pilot would have never lost sight, even for a few seconds, of those combatants shooting at our friendlies” and possibly mingling with civilians, Kwast said. “But you have to take the criticism and say, hey, we could have done better.”


Marines called in the airstrikes after Afghan army and police forces they were mentoring ignored warnings and went to root out insurgents in the village, where they were ambushed, an American security specialist said in Kabul.

Neither U.S. nor Afghan forces secured the village until two days after the attack, allowing the Taliban to control the area and information about the attack, the security specialist said.

The specialist, who has visited the attack site, said insurgent movements reported by Marines late in the battle might also have included civilians running for cover.

After the attack, the specialist said, the U.S. and Afghan governments made solatia, or condolence, payments. They apologized. And they held a council meeting two weeks later that included Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top U.S. diplomats.

Helali and other Afghan officials say 140 civilians were killed. The U.S. estimates that 26 died.

Abdul Ghafar Watandar, the police chief in Farah province, said in an interview that the final death toll could be 75 to 78. He said some villagers could not come up with confirmed names of family members they claimed were killed. He suspected they were fraudulently seeking condolence payments.


Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, claimed in a telephone interview that U.S. forces target civilians “because they are here to kill all Afghans,” not just insurgents. He denied that Taliban fighters mingled with civilians in the May 4 incident.

A recent United Nations report says airstrikes accounted for 64% of the 828 civilians killed last year by U.S. or Afghan government forces. About 1,160 civilians died at the hands of the Taliban or other insurgents.

“People are very angry, because these things happen over and over again,” Watandar said. “They don’t trust the Americans when they say they don’t do this on purpose and they have ways to keep it from happening again.”

Air Force commanders and pilots say they have not been given new procedures as a result of the renewed focus on civilian deaths. But they have received a clear message that finding ways to reduce such mistakes is paramount, particularly because the Taliban uses such incidents for propaganda purposes.

“There are additional changes that I think we’re going to clearly have to make to ensure that we do absolutely everything to make sure civilian casualties are eliminated, if possible, or certainly minimized in every situation,” Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday.

But air supremacy is essential. Without it, thinly stretched ground forces would not have the latitude to pursue the Taliban into remote, rugged areas where they are more prone to be ambushed and cut off.


Insurgents “know air power is something they can’t defend,” Kwast said. “If they could, they would have the freedom of movement and maneuver to win.”

Ground commanders say that before any airstrike is authorized, they work with pilots and Air Force controllers to locate friendly forces, civilians and insurgents. At the same time, commanders back at bases talk to them by radio while watching video feeds from satellites or drones.

When an airstrike is approved, the ground controller can give pilots a “nine-line,” a detailed set of instructions that includes target coordinates, the type of weapon to be used, the angle of attack and any restrictions.

The ground commander is in charge, but Air Force controllers and pilots may refuse to fire if they believe rules of engagement might be violated. They may also abort if they see a sudden change, such as insurgents darting into a home.

Only the controller, not the ground commander, can tell the pilot that he is “cleared hot,” or cleared to fire.

“We own those weapons when they come off the airplane,” said Capt. Ryan McLean, 31, an A-10 Warthog pilot. “If something goes wrong with that weapon, then we are held accountable, even if that ground commander was on the radio screaming for it.”


Capt. Terry Gable, 28, who flies an F-15, said pilots are trained to avoid using their weapons if possible. They make low passes or launch nonlethal targeting rockets to try to force insurgents to stop firing. The intent is to avoid accidental killings of civilians or friendly forces.

“It’s not all about dropping bombs or shooting the weapons,” Gable said. “We go through multiple checklists to make sure the ground guys and us have done everything to make sure buildings are cleared of civilians. And only as a last resort are we going to go kinetic [fire weapons] in order to end contact.”

So-called preplanned air missions are carefully vetted in advance, but the decision-making speeds up when fighter pilots are suddenly called in to support troops under fire. The majority of civilian deaths from airstrikes come during such “troops in contact” missions, when pilots, controllers and commanders are faced with rapidly changing conditions and life-or-death decisions.

“Human beings under great stress, under the fear of death, make mistakes,” Col. Kwast said. “If you do not do this perfectly, you will kill a lot of coalition forces. They’ll be forced to take risks and die because they were not allowed to defend themselves. That’s exactly what the enemy wants.”

Pilots say the issue is not the procedures, but making sure that they are followed scrupulously. They say that after each mission, they spend several hours discussing every detail that went right or wrong, probing for errors. Internal procedures are refined constantly.

Kwast said adhering to procedures every second of every mission is crucial.

“The trick is to have processes and procedures so rigorous and so defined that you minimize mistakes without tipping the balance so that you kill more Americans,” he said.


“That is the million-dollar question. And we deal with that every mission.”


Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.