Another Deadly Drone Mistake: At What Point Do We Say Enough?

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Another Deadly Drone Mistake: At What Point Do We Say Enough?

An MQ-9 Reaper lands in Afghanistan. (Photo: U.S. Airforce)

It was an obscure item last week that drew little media attention. An apartment building in Afghanistan’s remote Nangarhar province was apparently hit by an American drone strike, killing at least fifteen civilians and injuring thirteen more. The villagers were gathered to welcome a returning tribal leader.

Such stories are easy to ignore as inevitable errors of war. But the tally of people killed by U.S. drone strikes has grown significantly, jeopardizing America’s strategic interests, damaging its foreign policy, and playing squarely into the hands of both terrorists and hostile states. Even a cursory review of such incidents, where bad intelligence and advanced technology have come together, suggests the need for a fundamental review of U.S. intelligence and targeting standards.

“Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us,” President Barack Obama has often admonished those who work in the drone program. And in 2013, he noted that such attacks were never undertaken without “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

But such reassuring words do not comport with the harsh reality on the ground.

Last month, more than sixty Syrian troops were killed and another hundred wounded in an airstrike written off as an “intelligence failure.” The Syrians were offered a backdoor apology via their Russian benefactors, but the impact of the attack was not so easily erased. Imagine if a foreign power inadvertently wiped out an entire company of U.S. soldiers. There would be hell to pay. A “sorry” wouldn’t cut it.

During the past decade and a half, coinciding with the War on Terror and the development of advanced technologies, similar intelligence failures have produced a string of staggering failures. Among them:

  • In August 1998, cruise missiles were launched from a submarine in the Red Sea against a Sudanese plant it believed had connections with Osama bin Laden, killing a night watchman. The CIA claimed precursors to chemical weapons had been found in the surrounding soils. In fact, there was no such connection and no link to chemical weapons, just a factory that had made pharmaceuticals for the sick in Africa. The attack disrupted regional relief efforts and turned the rubble of the plant into a memorial to American aggression. (Eight years later it was learned a CIA analyst had, at the time, expressed grave doubts about the plant’s links to terrorism.)
  • In May 1999, NATO bombed a building in the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade believing it to be an army warehouse. It was, in fact, the Chinese embassy. Three Chinese journalists were killed, more than twenty people were injured, and violent protests erupted in Beijing. To this day, many Chinese believe the attack was deliberate.
  • In February 2002, U.S. intelligence targeted a man on an eastern Afghan hillside because he was tall and being treated deferentially. Believing it to be bin Laden and his lieutenants, the United States dispatched a missile that killed three peasants gathering scrap metal. Later, the military tried to conceal the error, threatening to shoot a reporter who attempted to visit the site.
  • In July 2002, an American AC-130 gunship bombed a wedding party in Afghanistan, killing forty-eight people and wounding another 117. It was said that the celebrants, firing guns into the air, were mistaken for anti-aircraft artillery. Another wedding party near Deh Bala was bombed in July 2008, killing forty-seven. Yet another wedding party was struck in December 2013, killing ten and wounding twenty-four. From the air, any gathering looks menacing, but not all are.
  • In August 2008, an American airstrike killed ninety civilians, including sixty children, in the Afghan village of Nawabad as the village prepared for a memorial service.
  • In October 2015, the United States mistakenly bombed a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing thirty doctors, patients, and civilians. It was mistakenly thought to be a Taliban-controlled building.

Have I left anything out? Oh yes, the 2002 targeting of the entire nation of Iraq—based on the faulty intelligence of nonexistent WMDs. That debacle unleashed chaos in the region, resulted in the deaths of well over 100,000 Iraqis, the killing of more than 4,000 US troops, another 32,000 wounded, and a cudgel handed to terrorists who to this day reap the fruits of that erroneous intelligence.

Is there something to be learned from these lethal debacles that might help us avoid future calamities?

Actionable intelligence is just that—intelligence that is timely enough that one can take action based upon it. But intelligence is never foolproof, especially in an age of overhead satellite imagery. In the past, the process of delivering deadly payloads often provided a window of time to reassess and even recall a mission. Now decisions are made faster, often with tragic consequences.

The casualties of these mistakes cannot be counted in bodies alone. Also lost is strategic, political, and moral capital. Last month’s attack in Syria put the fragile ceasefire there in even greater jeopardy and gave Syrian and Russian forces a get-out-of-jail-free card for their next offense. The Russians have called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council, and as cynical and self-interested as that request surely is, a similar attack on an American ally—say a British or French convoy, much less, an American one—would have provoked a similar response.

The notion that war and intelligence blunders are inseparable twins is inadequate in an age of cruise missiles, drones, and remotely run wars. When opportunism descends into impulsiveness, disaster soon follows. In an era of joystick warfare, high explosives, and public impatience to get the job done, such occurrences are becoming the new norm and the American conscience seems increasingly numbed. Not so America’s adversaries.

America’s intelligence apparatus and the Pentagon needs to step back and see if the pattern of mistakes demands a broader review of the thresholds that must be crossed before buttons are pushed and “precision” weapons dispatched. Otherwise, the military’s after-action reports—and its diplomatic legacy—will increasingly be reduced to six words: “Act in haste, repent in leisure.”

Ted Gup

Ted Gup is a Boston-based author, Pulitzer finalist, and former Washington Post reporter who has written frequently on the CIA and intelligence matters. His books include Book of Honor about the CIA, and Nation of Secrets.

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