The drone-strike disaster in Afghanistan on Sunday—a U.S. missile meant for a terrorist that, in fact, killed 10 civilians, five of them children, all relatives of an interpreter who’d worked for Americans during the war—shows what often happens when weapons are fired from the air with no intelligence on the ground.
President Biden has said that he will keep up the pressure on the Taliban after the departure of U.S. troops through “over-the-horizon” (OTH) methods—information gathered, and weapons fired, from afar. Yet the farther away you are (and the nearest U.S. military base to Afghanistan is 1,000 miles away), the more uncertain the methods are. Or, as Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst, now director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, succinctly puts it, “OTH is not precise.”
Usually, in planning air strikes, including remotely controlled drone strikes, myriad sources of intelligence are integrated into as complete a picture as possible—images from satellites and spy planes, views from the pilot in the plane firing the missile (if it’s overhead), and communications intercepts. But it’s best if all this data can be matched by intelligence on the ground—sources who can confirm that the target actually is who the commanders think he is, spotters who can specify and track his location, and others who can go see whether the bomb killed the right people (or destroyed the right object) and didn’t damage the wrong ones.
Before, during, and after Sunday’s attack, U.S. officers and officials had no intelligence on the ground. As a statement from U.S. Central Command put it, after news reports of civilian casualties were published, “It is unclear what may have happened.”
The bomb was said to be aimed at an explosives-filled vehicle that was about to be driven to Kabul International Airport. When the first report of civilian deaths came in, Pentagon spokesmen said they may have been caused by “secondary explosions”—in other words, the drone blew up the vehicle, which may have triggered all the bombs stored therein to blow up.
However, eyewitnesses contacted by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal said there were no secondary explosions—the blast was confined pretty closely to the vehicle.
They also said that the people killed were extended family members of Emal Ahmady, who had worked as a translator for an American company from 2011-14 and was seeking a Special Immigrant Visa to move to the U.S. (The Times story is datelined Kabul; the Journal story appears to have been partially reported from there as well.)
Could this be misinformation? Could Ahmady or his brother, who was driving the car into his yard just before the missile landed, have at some point joined, or been forced to serve, the Taliban or ISIS-K? Possibly.
But with no intel on the ground, we may never know. Whatever happened, the new Afghan leaders—or other forces seeking to rouse mayhem—will claim that it was a massacre, and there is nothing the Biden administration can do or say about it: no strong evidence officials can muster to prove the contrary. This will be true of nearly every OTH air strike that the United States or other Western country launches in the coming weeks and months.
Air strikes are prone to error, by nature, even under the best of circumstances. According to data gathered by Brown University’s Costs of War Project, U.S. air strikes killed 1,357 Afghan civilians between 2016-19. (Bombs dropped by the Afghan Air Force, which stepped up its activities in the last few years, killed another 461 civilians.)
Drones, which tend to fire smaller, more accurate bombs, have inflicted fewer civilian casualties than conventional bombs. Since 2015, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.S. has launched 13,072 drone strikes in Afghanistan—which have killed around 300 civilians and injured at least 658.
Even though this “collateral damage” from drones is relatively modest, compared with the damage from other kinds of bombs, these are staggeringly large numbers, given that one of the U.S. aims in this war was to protect civilians.
In some cases, unintended killings are caused by bombs gone astray—though, with modern GPS-guided “smart bombs,” these cases are thought to be relatively rare. More often, they are caused by poor intelligence—either a misidentification of a target or by faulty information about the people surrounding the target. In the early years of the war, the U.S. relied on warlords, who often fingered their rivals as Taliban or al-Qaida, in effect sentencing them to death from the sky. (These sorts of killings dropped when U.S. commanders built their own intelligence networks.) Drone strikes spiked dramatically after 2017, when President Donald Trump authorized Secretary of Defense James Mattis to loosen the “rules of engagement” on drone strikes—allowing pilots to fire missiles or drop bombs even when there was some suspicion civilians might be killed. (President Obama had tightened the rules to prohibit air strikes unless pilots were almost certain that no civilians were in the area.)
It is not known what combination of mistakes were made—or not made—in Sunday’s strike. It is a fair bet that, if Biden keeps to his OTH strategy, the same mistakes will be made—or reported to be made—in the future.