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Political Editors / November 11, 2021

In Brief: No Accountability for Botched Drone Strike

A review cleared any officers of wrongdoing for a strike that killed civilians. This is a disgrace.

Just as Joe Biden was surrendering Afghanistan to the Taliban, two suicide bombers attacked Kabul airport and 13 Americans and about a hundred Afghans lost their lives. Biden lashed back with an ill-advised drone strike that killed a U.S. aid worker and nine other civilians, seven of whom were children. The Pentagon investigated and decided to do nothing.

An active-duty combat-arms officer writes under the pen name Robert M. Berg that such a lack of action is utterly unacceptable.

Accountability for the botched drone strike by the U.S. military that killed ten civilians in Kabul must lie somewhere. Having personally conducted countless dynamic-targeting situations while running current operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I can attest that you do not just strike a car you have been actively tracking for eight hours that is loaded with civilians without people making serious mistakes. Likely these mistakes came at much higher levels than Air Force lieutenant general Sami Said’s review cared to look.

What I find most interesting is that Said focused all his comments on the “strike cell” and the information that our military had at the time. While I am not for micromanaging our current operations cells, where this strike would have been tracked and processed, it is hard to believe that general or flag-level officers (abbreviated GOFOs, a term used to refer to general or admiral-level officers within our military) were not directly involved in approving this strike. Who were these GOFOs, and how actively were they tracking the situation? We don’t know. But we should.

After tracking the car for eight hours, our personnel had to have known there were other people in the car. Berg says in all the car bombs he’s personally witnessed, “Never has there been more than one person inside the suicide vehicle.”

In instances such as this, a single person has final-strike authority. So who authorized the strike for the supposed car bomb that had multiple occupants? I suspect it was a GOFO. It is the job of such an officer to be a dispassionate observer and to approve such a strike. Said conveniently leaves out who the approving authority of the strike was. But that is where at least one level of accountability should rest. That, however, would require accepting culpability for a completely botched strike at senior levels. It’s much easier to clear low-level troops of blame and then call the incident investigated.

Obviously, not all intelligence in such situations is perfect and, he says, “failures do happen.” But Berg wonders if this wasn’t “a case of trusting the Taliban to provide reliable information.”

Was there pressure to respond to the suicide attack that killed 13 U.S. service members only days before this strike? It is hard to discount pressure from Pentagon and White House officials to live up to President Biden’s declaration that “we will hunt you down and make you pay.”

Berg walks through numerous other questions and a few answers that indicate something here is still amiss. He concludes:

The clear pattern here is that the Pentagon intentionally overlooked potential failures of GOFOs, senior defense and intelligence officials, and White House officials to shield them from culpability in the deaths of ten civilians. This is yet another black eye in the national embarrassment of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Instead of actually investigating the failures that led to this strike, Said simply cleared low-level operators who were under-resourced, fed bad intelligence, placed under political pressure from possibly as high up as the president, and operating under restricted ROE they did not set. To take any investigation seriously to clear the Department of Defense and Biden administration of “misconduct or negligence” for the strike, we need to look much higher than the “strike cell.” What a complete disgrace and just the latest example of senior officials skirting any accountability.

National Review subscribers can read the whole thing here.

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