U.S. report faults Air Force drone crew, ground commanders in Afghan civilian deaths

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A U.S. military investigation has harshly criticized a Nevada-based Air Force drone crew and American ground commanders in Afghanistan for misidentifying civilians as insurgents during a U.S. Army Special Forces operation in Oruzgan province in February, resulting in the deaths of as many as 23 civilians.

Six U.S. officers will be punished and a sweeping review of counterinsurgency training will be undertaken, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Saturday.

The investigation into the Oruzgan incident had been ordered by McChrystal, who on Saturday called civilian deaths “heartbreaking.”

A redacted investigative report faulted the Air Force Predator drone crew operating from a Las Vegas-area base for wrongly concluding that three vehicles carrying 30 civilians were insurgents rushing to attack U.S. and Afghan ground units. Using that misinformation, a helicopter airstrike was authorized and many of the civilians were killed.

“Information that the convoy was anything other than an attacking force was ignored or downplayed” by the Predator crew, whose reporting was “inaccurate and unprofessional,” the investigation by a two-star Army general concluded.

The rebuke by McChrystal and Maj. Gen. Timothy P. McHale, who wrote the report, was unusually forceful. It focused rare attention on the military’s reliance on unmanned aircraft operated from the United States to supply immediate, life-and-death intelligence to ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Defense analysts have long criticized drone operations because the crews have little experience in Afghanistan and cannot always accurately interpret raw data relayed by the aircraft’s powerful cameras. A drone crew consists of a pilot, a camera operator and an intelligence analyst — all seated in ground control stations on Air Force bases in the United States.

McChrystal asked the Air Force to further investigate the Predator crew’s actions in the Feb. 21 incident with an eye toward revising drone training and operations.

In addition, the report said “poorly functioning” command posts in Afghanistan that are supposed to analyze information provided by drone crews failed to deliver accurate “insights, analysis or options” to the Special Forces ground commander. Instead of immediately reporting likely civilian casualties, as required, the two command posts — one manned by Special Forces and one by conventional forces — waited 12 hours to file a report.

During the 3 1/2 hours the Predator crew tracked the convoy, the report found, it failed to provide the ground commander with evidence or analysis that the vehicles were a hostile threat. The crew “deprived the ground commander of vital information,” the report said.

The vehicles were seven miles from the ground commander, who was conducting a joint operation with Afghan security forces in the village of Khod. Unable to see the vehicles, he relied on information provided by crews flying the Predator from Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas.

The Oruzgan deaths were the worst civilian casualty incident in six months, and came eight months after McChrystal installed sweeping changes in U.S. tactics designed to minimize civilian casualties. The general apologized to the people of Afghanistan shortly after the incident.

“When we make a mistake, we must be forthright and we must do everything in our power to correct that mistake,” McChrystal said in a statement Saturday. “I know our actions following this thorough investigation will help us prevent mishaps that result in harm to the people we are sworn to protect.”

McChrystal issued formal letters of reprimand to four high-ranking officers, including brigade and battalion commanders, and letters of admonishment to two junior officers. A letter of reprimand usually means an officer’s career is in effect over.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has bitterly criticized North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces for killing civilians, said McChrystal had personally promised him an exhaustive investigation.

“I believe this has been done,” Karzai said in a statement Saturday.

The U.S. has also made condolence payments to the families of those killed and wounded.

Predator and Reaper drones operated by the CIA in Pakistan are frequently accused of killing civilians while pursuing Al Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban insurgents. Air Force Predators and Reapers in Afghanistan rarely fire accidentally on civilians. But in cases in which ground troops or manned aircraft inadvertently kill civilians, drones have often provided intelligence.

In the Oruzgan incident, in which 12 civilians were wounded in addition to those killed, a Kiowa attack-reconnaissance helicopter launched Hellfire missiles and rockets at two sport-utility vehicles and a pickup truck. The report indicated that the Predator, normally armed with two Hellfire missiles, did not fire.

The report said the Kiowa stopped firing when its crew spotted brightly colored clothing, indicating women and children. It also said the 23 people killed were men, and that three children and a woman were among those wounded. At the time, Afghan officials said that at least 27 civilians were killed, many of them women and children.

Information from drones is supposed to be analyzed by command post officers, who must complete a long series of checklists before authorizing an attack. Those commanders rely on reports from drone crews, ground commanders, intelligence analysts and Afghan military and civilian sources in assessing fast-moving combat situations.

U.S.-based drone crews are also assisted by other analysts watching video feeds at military bases around the world, controlled by a central air command station in Qatar. In addition, a military air controller posted with the ground unit or at a nearby command post acts as a communications bridge between drone crews and ground commanders.

According to McHale’s report, the system broke down in the Oruzgan case. Inaccurate reporting by the Predator crew led the Special Forces ground commander to believe that insurgents in the vehicles were rushing to reinforce their comrades in the village. Intercepted communications described insurgents massing to attack the U.S.-Afghan force there.

Two children were spotted near the vehicles, but the Predator crew led the ground commander to believe that the vehicles contained only armed insurgents, the report said.

The ground commander “displayed tactical patience in letting the situation develop for several hours,” the report said. “The time bought by that patience was wasted,” it said, by the Predator crew’s inaccurate reporting and the failure of the two command posts to properly analyze the situation.

Most drone pilots are former fighter, bomber or cargo plane pilots. But increasingly, the Air Force is training non-pilots, such as computer operators or military police, to operate the aircraft. The report did not disclose details about the crew involved in the Oruzgan incident.

Airstrikes accounted for about 60% of the 596 civilian casualties caused by NATO or Afghan military forces in 2009, according to the United Nations. Insurgents killed 1,630 civilians last year, the U.N. reported.

Fighting has intensified in Afghanistan this spring with the arrival of 30,000 more U.S. troops President Obama committed to the conflict, increasing the rate of civilian casualties so far this year.

Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.