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Deadly U.S. Strike Raises Questions Over Collateral Damage in Afghanistan

By September 2, 2021News, Print

Many former officials expect U.S. intelligence to dry up.

As published By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.

A U.S. airstrike aimed at Islamic State terrorists in Kabul over the weekend killed additional people beyond the target, the top U.S. military official acknowledged, an incident that human rights groups worry could indicate a trend toward more collateral damage from U.S. strikes in Afghanistan even as the 20-year ground war wrapped up this week.

Leaving Afghanistan

It was not immediately clear that Sunday’s drone attack killed civilians, as reports from the ground indicated that as many as 10 innocent Afghans died after an U.S. missile hit a house near the airport. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military is still investigating the full extent of the harm caused by the attack’s secondary blasts, which targeted plotters from the Islamic State-Khorasan, the local branch of the Islamic State.

“We had very good intelligence,” Milley said at a briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday. “We went through the same level of rigor we did for years.”

But the Biden administration’s desire to carry out over-the-horizon U.S. military strikes using drones and aircraft from the Persian Gulf instead of troops on the ground has begun to run afoul of human rights groups, who worry the Defense Department could be flying blind in densely populated urban areas like Kabul, where the Islamic State-Khorasan has sought sanctuary. Even after the group allegedly plotted bombings at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than a hundred Afghans last week, advocates said the administration is likely to face questions about the lawful use of force in the drone campaign, another test for U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy agenda, which is seeking to put human rights first.

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“The Biden administration has promised to put diplomacy first, to abide by the rule of law, and to emphasize racial equality and justice,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project. “Continuing the program of lethal strikes outside recognized war zones would break those promises.”

Even as Biden has pledged to end “forever wars,” advocates fear the Pentagon will continue to exact a harsh toll on civilians from the air. Indiscriminate airstrikes during the decades-long war on terror in places like the frontier provinces of Pakistan or Somalia paid some dividends with the elimination of terrorist leaders. But those strikes’ collateral damage, which killed an undetermined number of civilians in multiple countries, ended up undermining the U.S. counterterrorism campaign by souring local public opinion. Human rights groups have repeatedly expressed frustration that strikes in Somalia, for instance, were potentially unlawful and not thoroughly investigated after the fact. For years, Pakistan disputed there were even U.S. airstrikes due to popular backlash in regions like Waziristan, Pakistan.

Fights between the White House and human rights groups—such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union—over civilian harm have intensified in recent years, as the Pentagon often refused to acknowledge reports of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria brought forward by outside groups. And those groups have also tried to dissuade the Pentagon from using highly explosive weapons in cities, where blasts can bounce off walls and multiply in force.

“That’s really a problem: using very large weapons in urban areas,” said Brian Castner, a senior crisis advisor at Amnesty International who previously served as an Air Force explosive ordnance disposal officer in Iraq. “In Raqqa, [Syria], there would be an ISIS sniper on the roof until they drop a 2,000-pound JDAM [joint direct attack munition] and kill a family in the basement. Just not matching the weapon to the target.”

The problem of the Islamic State blending into urban areas, which Biden administration officials have publicly acknowledged, is likely to be compounded by how the United States prefers to fight: from the air, using attacks heavily dependent on intelligence. Milley insisted the United States would maintain a strong intelligence picture in Afghanistan, even without U.S. troops on the ground helping to pinpoint airstrikes. But with Washington not currently collaborating militarily with the Taliban, it will be left with inconsistent overhead surveillance flights coming from hours away to track terrorist groups like the Islamic State-Khorasan. And many former officials expect the quality of the intelligence to dry up.

“I think the intelligence picture is going to be about what it was on Sept. 10, 2001,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration. “We’re not going to have any information because we’re not going to have any people on the ground.”

The Pentagon has made some progress on efforts to try to prevent civilian harm, askingCongress last year for more money to staff up ad hoc teams to track noncombatant casualtieswithin the U.S. military’s geographic combatant commands.

“I don’t have any reason to think that would get better. I would assume it would get worse, given that one of the big challenges, like in Syria, is not having boots on the ground, and now the U.S. won’t have any boots on the ground in Afghanistan,” said Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “So the problems that were already there are just going to be compounded. How will they do investigations? How will they provide redress?”

The Defense Department has yet to deliver a comprehensive policy on how to mitigate civilian casualties, an effort most recently undertaken during the Trump administration. But as that review neared completion under the Biden administration, human rights groups urged the new team to “pump the brakes,” according to one person familiar with the matter, concerned the effort as constructed would do little to stop collateral damage. Biden tapped Sasha Baker, a National Security Council official, to become the number two official in the Pentagon’s policy shop charged with leading that effort, but the Senate has yet to confirm her.

And human rights groups say the Pentagon hasn’t upped its game in admitting fault or investigating errant strikes, pointing to the fact the agency didn’t pay a single dollar to the families of victims of U.S. airstrikes in 2020.

“There’s a massive confirmation bias here,” Castner said. “What the United States military usually says is ‘we have access to information.’ What that really means is ‘we watch this area with drone feed.’ If the lawyers and the commander clear a strike with a drone before, they’re very likely to believe that it looks good afterward.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack