The Times report on the bombing of civilians in Syria in March 2019 has a number of facets. It was an independently operating, secret task force that ordered the bombing. Let’s pull that story out of the larger article.
“Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone
The Times investigation found that the bombing had been called in by a classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. The task force operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions. In the case of the Baghuz bombing, the American Air Force command in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming, an officer who served at the command center said.
It seems dangerous to have a unit in battle that doesn’t inform its partners of its actions. The US has even coordinated with Russia at times in Syria.
The details suggest that while the military put strict rules in place to protect civilians, the Special Operations task force repeatedly used other rules to skirt them.
Over time, some officials overseeing the air campaign began to believe that the task force was systematically circumventing the safeguards created to limit civilian deaths.
The process was supposed to run through several checks and balances. Drones with high-definition cameras studied potential targets, sometimes for days or weeks. Analysts pored over intelligence data to differentiate combatants from civilians. And military lawyers were embedded with strike teams to ensure that targeting complied with the law of armed conflict. In combat situations, the process might take only minutes, but even then the rules required teams to identify military targets and minimize civilian harm. At times, when the task force failed to meet those requirements, commanders in Qatar and elsewhere denied permission to strike.
But there was a quick and easy way to skip much of that oversight: claiming imminent danger.
The law of armed conflict — the rule book that lays out the military’s legal conduct in war — allows troops in life-threatening situations to sidestep the strike team lawyers, analysts and other bureaucracy and call in strikes directly from aircraft under what military regulations call an “inherent right of self-defense.”
Task Force 9 typically played only an advisory role in Syria, and its soldiers were usually well behind the front lines. Even so, by late 2018, about 80 percent of all airstrikes it was calling in claimed self-defense, according to an Air Force officer who reviewed the strikes.
Human rights groups were not the only ones sounding the alarm. C.I.A. officers working in Syria grew so alarmed over the task force’s strikes that agents reported their concern to the Department of Defense inspector general, which investigated the claims and produced a report.
Air Force lawyers started keeping a spreadsheet, recording the self-defense justifications the task force used to call strikes, then comparing them with drone footage and other evidence, according to one officer who viewed the data. The evidence appeared to show that the task force was adding details that would legally justify a strike, such as seeing a man with a gun, even when those details were not visible in the footage.
Though a number of officers in the operations center suspected that the task force was including misleading information in the logs to justify strikes, they did not feel they had enough evidence to press the issue, the officer said.
Central Command said there were no high-definition drones in the area that could get a better view of the target.
The Special Forces officer gave the order to fire. With no precision missiles left, the command said, the ground commander called in 500- and 2,000-pound bombs. The strike log classified the strike as self-defense.
In fact, a high-definition drone was available. The task force did not use it. Circling above, it was streaming footage of the same patch of ground to the operations center in Qatar. Because the task force operated at a high level of secrecy, two officers said, the people in Qatar watching the high-definition drone were not aware the task force was about to call in a strike.
The article doesn’t tell us who Task Force 9 reports to. An org chart would be helpful. Why are they so secretive?
It looks like Task Force 9 is unaccountable even to the military. That’s no way to run an army.
Image from the Times article: A member of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces assists a group of people leaving Baghuz, Syria — the last Islamic State-controlled area — in March 2019.Credit…Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images