The August 29 Drone Strike In Kabul

On August 29, an American drone killed ten people in Kabul, seven of them children, none of them terrorists. The man targeted was an employee of a humanitarian organization.

Making sense of partial information half the globe away from the scene is difficult, but there seem to be obvious weaknesses in the evaluation that led to this tragedy. There is little reason to believe that these weaknesses are not replicated in the targeting of other drone attacks.

The US military has been remarkably transparent about their investigation, although not all the intelligence has been released. Additionally, the military position is that this incident was regrettable, but they seem unwilling to publicly acknowledge that the weaknesses they’ve identified may exist in other drone missions.

Luke Hartig has summarized many of the questions that remain. The New York Times and the Washington Post have examined open-source information to reconstruct the circumstances of the attack. A large part of the military’s problem seems to have been confirmation bias, in which an interpretation of some of the data leads to corresponding interpretation of other data. If that initial interpretation is erroneous, so will be the rest of the finding. That happened here.

In reviewing this coverage, many of us have wondered what would have happened if not for the extraordinary Times and Post coverage of the strike. The Times’ video investigation of the strike was a remarkable almost minute-by-minute account of Mr. Ahmadi’s movement on Aug. 29, complete with security camera coverage of his comings and goings across the city, all made possible by years of reporting from Kabul. This type of coverage and insight has been lacking in the countless strikes that have occurred in places like the remote reaches of Nuristan, Afghanistan; Marib, Yemen; or Lower Shabelle, Somalia.

Indeed, we have many such examples, where local journalists and international human rights groups have alleged civilian casualties. In years past, the military often didn’t even address the allegations. Now the military will usually address the situation, but quite often that means disputing the account without saying why. Certainly there are times when journalists or NGOs get it wrong, but in some cases, it’s reasonable to assume that there were civilian casualties but a military relying on flawed procedures pronounced the strike righteous anyway. The Kabul strike will only deepen this credibility gap, and additional steps toward transparency may not be enough to bridge it.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money