Tags: Afghan | air | strike | mistake

U.S. Special Operations Ordered Errant Strike

Monday, 22 February 2010 08:58 PM

KABUL—U.S. Special Operations Forces ordered an airstrike that killed at least 27 civilians in southern Afghanistan and the soldiers may not have satisfied rules of engagement designed to avoid the killing of innocents, Afghan and coalition officials said Monday.

The airstrike Sunday hit a group of minibuses in a remote part of the south near the border between Uruzgan and Daykundi provinces. The area is hundreds of miles from Marjah, where the largest allied offensive since 2001 is now in its second week. But the airstrike nonetheless illustrated one of the major problems for coalition forces as they try to win over civilians in Marjah and across Afghanistan: figuring out who is a civilian and who is an insurgent—and not killing the civilians.

It also underscored the risks of the expanding use of Special Operations Forces, whose primary mission is hunting down Taliban, as the leading edge of the fight against the insurgents. Many Special Operations missions by their very nature emphasize the use of violent force, and coalition officials say they have led to a string of recent successes against valuable targets.

By contrast, operations now being carried out by conventional forces, such as the Marines fighting in Marjah, place a greater emphasis on protecting ordinary people.

Afghanistan's cabinet called the latest airstrike "unjustifiable." Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials ordered an immediate investigation into the incident, and both sides dispatched investigative teams to the site, officials said.

A large proportion of the thousands of civilians killed by coalition forces since 2001 have been slain in errant airstrikes, and the anger over such deaths runs deep here.

Afghans can often recite from memory the deadliest coalition mistakes: the bombing of fuel tankers in the northern province of Kunduz in September that killed up to 142 people, many of them civilians; the 2000-pound bomb dropped by a B-1 bomber during a battle in western Farah province in May that left dozens of civilians dead; the November 2008 airstrike on a wedding in the southern province of Kandahar that killed 37 people.

The incidents have repeatedly handed the Taliban propaganda victories. The errant strikes now pose a direct challenge to the counter-insurgency strategy laid out by U.S. Army Gen. McChrystal, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, and endorsed by President Barack Obama.

The strategy uses conventional forces to protect civilians and emphasizes the role of governance in an effort to win the trust of the Afghan people and wean them from the Taliban. Special Operations Forces are being more quietly employed to go after the middle and upper ranks of the insurgency, in theory presenting them with a choice of giving up the fight or facing the consequences, say NATO officers with knowledge of the effort.

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Monday, 22 February 2010 08:58 PM
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