U.S. report faults drone crew, command posts in Afghan civilian deaths

A U.S. military investigation has harshly criticized an Air Force drone crew and U.S. ground commanders for misidentifying civilians as insurgents during a U.S. Army Special Forces operation in Oruzgan province that killed up to 23 civilians on Feb. 21.

The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, responded by punishing six U.S. officers and ordering a sweeping review of counterinsurgency training.

The investigation was ordered by McChrystal, who on Saturday called civilian deaths “heartbreaking.” A redacted investigative report released Saturday faulted a Nevada-based Air Force Predator drone crew for wrongly concluding that three vehicles carrying 30 civilians were insurgents rushing to attack U.S. and Afghan ground units.

“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 U.S. Army general concluded.

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

The report said “poorly functioning” command posts 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 three-and-a-half 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 that an officer’s career is effectively over.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has bitterly criticized NATO forces for killing civilians, said McChrystal had personally promised him an exhaustive investigation. “I believe this has been done,” he said in a statement Saturday.

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

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 drones to supply real-time intelligence to ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Predator and Reaper drones operated by the CIA in Pakistan are frequently accused of killing civilians while pursing Al Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban insurgents. But while human rights groups say U.S. Air Force Predators and Reapers in Afghanistan rarely fire directly on civilians, they often provide intelligence for ground troops or manned aircraft whose weapons inadvertently kill civilians.

In the Oruzan incident, which also wounded 12 civilians, a Kiowa attack-reconnaissance helicopter launched Hellfire missiles and rockets at two SUVs and a pickup. 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. Three children and a woman were among those wounded.

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.

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

They are assisted by other analysts watching drone 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 Oruzgan. Inaccurate reporting by the Predator crew led the Special Forces ground commander to believe that insurgents in the vehicles were rushing to reinforce insurgents 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” by the Predator crew’s inaccurate reporting and failure by the two command posts to properly analyze the situation.

Most drone crews are manned by former fighter, bomber and cargo plane pilots. But increasingly, the Air Force is training non-pilots such as computer operators or military police to fly drones. The report did not indicate the type of crew involved in the Oruzgan incident.

Airstrikes accounted for 61 percent 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 as an extra 30,000 troops ordered by President Obama arrived, increasing the rate of civilian casualties this year.