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 US 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 US 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 US 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.
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.”
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Another Deadly Drone Mistake: At What Point Do We Say Enough?’.