Kabul: Inexperienced operators of a US drone aircraft ignored or downplayed signs that Afghan civilians were in a group of vehicles blasted by American missiles earlier this year, according to a military investigation report released Saturday.
At least 23 people were killed in the Feb. 21 attack in Uruzgan province. It was the deadliest missile strike for Afghan civilians in six months and occurred as NATO forces were redoubling efforts to avoid killing innocents.
The attack prompted a strong rebuke from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a quick apology from the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who is struggling to gain the broad support among Afghans that is crucial to winning the almost 9-year-old war against the Taliban insurgents.
Attack helicopters fired missiles and rockets into the convoy on a main road near Khod village, where US Special Forces and Afghan troops were battling militants at the time, a summary of the investigation said. Commanders judged that the convoy contained fighters heading toward the village to reinforce the militants.
But the order to attack was based on inaccurate information from the crew at an Air Force base in Nevada that was remotely controlling a Predator drone monitoring the convoy and on flawed analysis of the situation by NATO commanders, Army Maj. Gen. Timothy McHale, who led the investigation, wrote in the report.
Poorly functioning command posts "failed to provide the ground force commander with the evidence and analysis that the vehicles were not a hostile threat and the inaccurate and unprofessional reporting of the Predator crew ... deprived the ground force commander of vital information," the report said.
"Information that the convoy was anything other than an attacking force was ignored or downplayed by the Predator crew," it said.
In a memo released Saturday accompanying the report, McChrystal said he had issued letters reprimanding four senior and two junior officers in Afghanistan. He also called on the Air Force to investigate the actions of the Predator crew.
The report said the convoy drew early suspicion because men in it appeared to be providing security as it was tracked for more than three hours. Its movements matched radio intercepts of militants calling on others to join the battle near Khod, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the site of the attack.
No women were seen in the vehicles, but two children were spotted near them at one point. This was inaccurately reported by the drone crew, the report said.
The helicopter crews that launched the attack stopped firing after spotting brightly colored clothing — a strong clue that women were present — after the initial salvo. Then, video shot from the drone showed women and children present.
McHale criticized the operation`s commanders for failing to report the "ample evidence" of civilian casualties for nearly 12 hours after the attack, while they tried for confirmation.
U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a spokesman for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, said the drone crew could only see a handful of people in the convoy — those traveling in the back of a pickup truck. Others were in closed cars. Smith said the Predator crew should have reported the possibility of civilians in those cars.
"They did not report the ambiguity of what they were seeing," Smith said. "They weren`t clearly seeing a heavily armed threat."
Airstrikes accounted for about 60 percent of the nearly 600 civilians killed by NATO and allied Afghan forces in 2009, according to a U.N. report. That percentage is significantly lower than the previous year, the U.N. said, attributing the drop to NATO directives to only conduct airstrikes as a last resort or if they are certain there are no civilians present.
"Our most important mission here is to protect the Afghan people," McChrystal said in a statement Saturday. "Inadvertently killing or injuring civilians is heartbreaking and undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will do all we can to regain that trust."
Human rights activists welcomed the report as a sign that NATO was being more open about admitting mistakes.
"But transparency and public accountability for the conduct of troops are still the exception rather than the rule," said Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer who works on civilian casualties issues for the New York-based Open Society Institute.
Unmanned aircraft are widely used in Afghanistan although they do not attract the attention here that they do across the border in Pakistan, where they have been used to attack extremist sanctuaries in the uncontrolled tribal areas. Those attacks have created huge outrage in Pakistan because of reports of large numbers of civilian deaths, as well as among insurgent leaders.
Meanwhile, militants ambushed an Afghan police convoy in eastern Afghanistan, killing five officers with a roadside bomb and opening fire before fleeing when NATO aircraft started a bombardment, a local official said Saturday. Two militants were killed and up to six were wounded in the battle Friday in Paktia province, said Ghulam Dastagir, the deputy provincial police chief.