WASHINGTON - Civilian casualties, like the deaths of 10 people in Kabul in a botched U.S. drone strike, are likely to continue under the Biden administration's "over-the-horizon" policy of attacking suspected terrorists from a distance, according to experts and based on a Pentagon report.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed in U.S. airstrikes in recent years, according to Pentagon figures, in the same regions from Africa to Afghanistan that will be targeted under the Biden administration's "over-the-horizon" approach, which will rely on long-range drone and other aircraft to strike targets in Afghanistan and other global hot spots.
Gathering the intelligence to target those terrorists and avoid killing civilians has become more difficult with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and limited deployments of American forces elsewhere, said Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. U.S. commanders previously had been able to tap local sources for information on suspected terrorists, developing patterns of life before striking.
"Ideally you want your own eyes on the target," Jones said. "You want to know what color his underwear is, and what he brushes his teeth with."
A potential problem with the tactic: Terrorists will surround themselves with civilians, knowing that U.S. forces are loath to kill innocent people.
In testimony to the Senate Tuesday, the top commander in the Middle East acknowledged that targeting terrorists has become more challenging.
"As we go forward in our ability to create what we call the ecosystem that allows you to see what's going on in the ground ... [it's] going to get a lot harder to do that - particularly in places like Afghanistan," said Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, chief of U.S. Central Command.
Dynamic vs. deliberate targets
The problem is particularly acute in what the military refers to as "dynamic" targets. Those are suspected terrorists believed to pose an imminent threat to U.S. troops or interests. "Deliberate" targets are those that are struck after a long period of surveillance and various forms of intelligence that could include informants and intercepted communication.
The tragic error in the Kabul strike is an example of a dynamic target, said Scott Murray, a retired Air Force intelligence colonel. Murray helped develop targets for the initial strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and had deployments to Afghanistan. Over-the-horizon targeting can compensate for the lack of informants by fusing intercepted communications, high-definition video and other imagery for deliberate targets, he said.
The 10 people, including seven children, killed in Kabul by a Hellfire missile fired by a Reaper drone proves the limitation of relying on those streams of intelligence for dynamic targets. Military commanders who ordered the strike were outside Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. The strike came days after ISIS-K terrorists killed 13 U.S. troops and 170 Afghan civilians at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
"It's the dynamic targeting that will suffer the most," Murray said. "The situation on the ground is never as it seems from the air.".
What 'over the horizon' may mean in practice
Lacking human sources of intelligence on the ground, the military relies on video from drones and intercepted communications to identify targets. There were more than 60 pieces of intelligence and imagery from several Reaper drones that led to the wrong conclusion and the attack that killed 10 civilians in Kabul, according to the military.
"When you rely on imagery, you can make huge mistakes," Jones said.
Mistakes that are likely to result in more civilians being killed, he said. It's unclear how those mistakes will affect U.S. standing among its allies and adversaries.
"There's so little studied on this," Jones said. "It's a problem that I'm not sure the U.S. government has done any serious analysis on - what the impact of the civilian casualties has been."
Another possibility is that, lacking good intelligence from human sources, commanders will take fewer shots at suspected terrorists, said retired Maj. Gen. Mark Quantock, who was the top intelligence officer for Central Command.
Lethal targeting requires positive identification of the suspected terrorist, he said. Without solid intelligence, you normally don't take the shot. Terrorists can also be aware that U.S. forces are reluctant to fire on targets surrounded by children, women and other bystanders.
"I can recall many missions where we waived off out of concern for CIVCAS," he said, referring to the military shorthand for civilian casualties. "It's a very important consideration for U.S. military operations. The bad guys figured this out pretty quick - so we'd often see them staying close to kids and women. They weren't dumb."
Iraq, Syria hit hardest in recent years
Pentagon officials admitted the drone strike in Afghanistan on Aug. 29 was a tragic mistake and have launched several investigations to determine what went wrong. Yet the Pentagon's own accounting shows deaths and injuries to civilians in places like Syria and Iraq have occurred with alarming frequency in recent years.
The annual report, released last month, noted that the toll continues to change as investigators sort through claims from years ago. The report cites 2017 as a particularly bloody year for civilians in airstrikes conducted in Iraq and Syria. It found 200 reports of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria that year as "credible." The attacks killed 892 civilians and wounded 232 more, according to Michael Howard, a Pentagon spokesman.
Three of the airstrikes in 2017 killed more than 10 people, according to the report. The worst occurred on Jan 6, 2017, when 16 civilians were killed and another three wounded in an attack that targeted suspected ISIS terrorists. The toll of 892 civilians dead coincided with a policy that accepted more civilian casualties as a result of efforts to fight ISIS, a change made during the Obama administration and accelerated after Donald Trump announced that he would "take the gloves off" in prosecuting the war.
Civilian casualties dropped dramatically in 2020, according to the report.
The decline to 23 civilians killed and 10 wounded in U.S. attacks in 2020 came as the U.S.-led air war and local ground forces took back virtually all the ground that ISIS fighters had seized in Iraq and Syria beginning in 2014.
US allots $3 million a year for civilian casualty payouts
U.S. commanders also take precautions that routinely go beyond requirements in the law of war to protect civilians, Howard said. When civilians have been killed or wounded, the Pentagon has offered payments to affected families. In Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 15,000 payouts have occurred.
There were payments of $259,899 during fiscal year 2020 and $858,240 in 2019, Howard said.
Congress in 2020 authorized a fund that allots $3 million per year to be used for payments for civilian casualties. The Pentagon is also developing a first-of-its-kind policy to address harm done to civilians by U.S. attacks, Howard said.
"We recognize that our military operations do result in civilian suffering," Howard said in a statement. "It is important that we have the right policies and processes in place to appropriately assess and respond when civilian harm occurs, and we continue to actively examine how we can improve our approaches to doing so."
ISIS-K, al-Qaida, al-Shabab
In an address to the United Nations last week, President Joe Biden sought to move beyond the expensive, grinding wars of the past two decades since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"I stand here today for the first time in 20 years with the United States not at war," Biden said. "We've turned the page."
The next chapter, however, will continue to record U.S. attacks on suspected terrorists, albeit from a distance. In recent weeks, the Pentagon has struck an al-Qaida leader near Idlib, Syria, and al-Shabab fighters near Cammarra, Somalia. Military officials judged that no civilians were harmed in the airstrikes.
Syria and Somalia are among the countries where U.S. attacks on extremist groups are likely to continue, Jones said. Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen are others.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan drone strike stirs fear of civilian deaths under Biden