Drone operators blamed in airstrike that killed Afghan civilians in February

By Karin Brulliard
Sunday, May 30, 2010; A06

KABUL -- A biting U.S. military report released Saturday criticized "inaccurate and unprofessional" reporting by operators of unmanned drones for contributing to a mistaken February airstrike that killed and injured dozens of civilians in southern Afghanistan.

As many as 23 people were killed in the attack in Uruzgan province, where a strike intended for what military officials believed was an insurgent force hit a civilian convoy. The incident was condemned by the Afghan cabinet as "unacceptable," and it prompted Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to apologize to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The U.S. military said in a statement that four senior officers were reprimanded and two junior officers were admonished in connection with the strike -- disciplinary actions that could damage their careers. In a memo accompanying the military report, McChrystal announced bolstered training to prevent similar incidents in the future, and he asked the U.S. Air Force to investigate the Predator team.

McChrystal has made it a top priority to reduce civilian casualties as the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has shifted from killing Taliban members to protecting the Afghan populace. He has restricted the use of airstrikes, night raids and home searches, all in a bid to quell public hostility.

"Inadvertently killing or injuring civilians is heartbreaking and undermines their trust and confidence in our mission," McChrystal said in a statement.

The Feb. 21 incident in Uruzgan occurred when a U.S. helicopter fired Hellfire missiles and rockets on a three-vehicle convoy approaching the village of Khod, where U.S. Special Forces and Afghan troops were battling Taliban fighters. A Special Forces ground commander had determined the convoy was carrying militants arriving to provide backup to the fighters, according to the report, written by Maj. Gen. Timothy P. McHale.

But the four-page report said that judgment was based on flawed information from "poorly functioning" ground command posts and faulty reports from Predator drone operators, who were tracking the convoy from their stations at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Those operators, the report said, "deprived the ground force commander of vital information" as they tracked the convoy for 3 1/2 hours.

Those observing the convoy reported adult men "moving tactically and appearing to provide security during stops." But Predator operators failed to notice women in the convoy, the report said, and though they did spot two children nearby, the information they provided led the ground crew to believe the vehicles carried only "armed military-aged" men.

The report said the aircraft crew stopped firing when its members spotted brightly colored clothing, leading them to believe women might be at the site. By then, 23 men had been killed and 12 had been wounded, including one woman and three children, the report said.

In a statement, Karzai said he was satisfied with the investigation and measures taken to prevent similar incidents, which he called "deeply regrettable."

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