Rumsfeld’s “renegade unit” blamed for Afghan civilian deaths

From The Independent, May 16, links added:

A single American Special Forces group was behind at least three of Afghanistan’s worst civilian casualty incidents, The Independent has learnt, raising fundamental questions about their ongoing role in the conflict.

Troops from the US Marines Corps’ Special Operations Command, or MarSOC, were responsible for calling in air strikes in Bala Boluk, in Farah, last week – believed to have killed more than 140 men, women and children – as well as two other incidents in 2007 and 2008. News of MarSOC’s involvement in the three incidents comes just days after a Special Forces expert, Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal, was named to take over as the top commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan. His surprise appointment has prompted speculation that commando counterinsurgency missions will increase in the battle to beat the Taliban.

MarSOC was created three years ago on the express orders of Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary at the time, despite opposition from within the Marine Corps and the wider Special Forces community. An article in the Marine Corps Times described the MarSOC troops as “cowboys” who brought shame on the corps.

The first controversial incident involving the unit happened just three weeks into its first deployment to Afghanistan on 4 March 2007. Speeding away from a suicide bomb attack close to the Pakistan border, around 120 men from Fox Company opened fire on civilians near Jalalabad, in Nangahar province. The Marines said they were shot at after the explosion; eyewitnesses said the Americans fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and civilian cars, killing at least 19 people.

The US Army commander in Nangahar at the time, Colonel John Nicholson, said he was “deeply ashamed” and described the incident as “a stain on our honour”. The Marines’ tour was cut short after a second incident on 9 March in which they allegedly rolled a car and fired on traffic again, and they were flown out of Afghanistan a few weeks later.

The top Special Operations officer at US Central Command, Army Major General Frank Kearney, refuted MarSOC’s claims that they had been shot at. “We found no brass that we can confirm that small-arms fire came at them,” he said, referring to ammunition casings. “We have testimony from Marines that is in conflict with unanimous testimony from civilians.”

At the military hearings on the incident, which were held back in the US, soldiers said the MarSOC troops, who called themselves Taskforce Violence, were gung-ho and hungry to prove themselves in battle. The inquiry also heard testimony suggesting there were tensions between the Marine unit and its US Army counterparts in Nangahar province.

Col Nicholson told the court the unit would routinely stray into areas under his control without telling him, ignoring usual military courtesies. “There had been potentially 25 operations in my area of operations that I, as a commander, was not aware of,” he said. Asked about the moment he was told of the March shootout, he added: “My initial reaction was, ‘What are they doing out there?’ ” The three-week military inquiry ultimately spared the Marine unit from criminal charges.

There are around 2,500 troops in MarSOC. Around half are frontline troops, the rest are support and maintenance. Originally the unit was used to plug gaps in the Special Forces world and it has operated in more than 16 countries since being set up by Mr Rumsfeld in 2006. However, in a recent interview, its commanding officer, Major General Mastin Robeson, revealed he has been ordered to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today MarSOC answers to the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command, based in Kabul. That in turn answers to US Forces Afghanistan, which is led by the top US commander, David McKiernan, who is soon to be replaced by General McChrystal.

In August last year, a 20-man MarSOC unit, fighting alongside Afghan commandos, directed fire from unmanned drones, attack helicopters and a cannon-armed Spectre gunship into compounds in Azizabad, in Herat province, leaving more than 90 people dead – many of them children.

And just last week, MarSOC troops called in the Bala Baluk air strikes to rescue an Afghan police patrol that had been ambushed in countryside in Farah province. US officials said two F18 fighter jets and a B1 bomber had swooped because men on the ground were overwhelmed. But villagers said the most devastating bombs were dropped on compounds some distance from the fighting, long after the battle was over, and when Taliban forces were retreating. Afghan officials said up to 147 people were killed, including more than 90 women and children.

US officials dispute the number of people killed in each of the MarSOC incidents, which sparked angry public demonstrations and condemnation from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Greg Julian, denied reports that commanders have lost confidence in the Marine unit. “MarSOC was involved in these incidents, but it’s not all the same guys. They get the lessons passed on from all of the rotations and experiences. Yet, they are human,” he said. “They have the same rules of engagement that everyone has.”

The so-called “tactical directive” was introduced last September in the wake of the international uproar that followed the Azizabad deaths. It requires troops to exercise “proportionality, restraint, and utmost discrimination” when calling in air strikes. Claims that bombs were dropped in last week’s incident in Farah long after the fighting finished suggest those directives may not have been followed by MarSOC.

Meanwhile, Afghan MPs have called for new laws to regulate the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and limit use of air strikes, house searches and Special Forces operations. Sayed Hussein Alemi Balkhi, one of the chief proponents of the planned legislation, said: “Special Forces, all forces, should be regulated by the law. If they won’t accept that we have to ask bigger questions about what they are doing here.”

See our last post on civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

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  1. Pentagon admits errors in Afghan air-strikes
    From the New York Times, June 2:

    US Report Finds Errors in Afghan Airstrikes
    WASHINGTON — A military investigation has concluded that American personnel made significant errors in carrying out some of the airstrikes in western Afghanistan on May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, according to a senior American military official.

    The official said the civilian death toll would probably have been reduced if American air crews and forces on the ground had followed strict rules devised to prevent civilian casualties. Had the rules been followed, at least some of the strikes by American warplanes against half a dozen targets over seven hours would have been aborted.

    The report represents the clearest American acknowledgment of fault in connection with the attacks. It will give new ammunition to critics, including many Afghans, who complain that American forces too often act indiscriminately in calling in airstrikes, jeopardizing the United States mission by turning the civilian population against American forces and their ally, the Afghan government.

    Since the raid, American military commanders have promised to address the problem. On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, nominated to be the American commander in Afghanistan, vowed that reducing civilian casualties was “essential to our credibility.”

    Any American victory would be “hollow and unsustainable” if it led to popular resentment among Afghanistan’s citizens, General McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a confirmation hearing.

    According to the senior military official, the report on the May 4 raids found that one plane was cleared to attack Taliban fighters, but then had to circle back and did not reconfirm the target before dropping bombs, leaving open the possibility that the militants had fled the site or that civilians had entered the target area in the intervening few minutes.

    In another case, a compound of buildings where militants were massing for a possible counterattack against American and Afghan troops was struck in violation of rules that required a more imminent threat to justify putting high-density village dwellings at risk, the official said.

    “In several instances where there was a legitimate threat, the choice of how to deal with that threat did not comply with the standing rules of engagement,” said the military official, who provided a broad summary of the report’s initial findings on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry was not yet complete.

    Before being chosen as the new commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal spent five years as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, overseeing commandos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Special Operations forces have been sharply criticized by Afghans for aggressive tactics that have contributed to civilian casualties.

    During his testimony, General McChrystal said that strikes by warplanes and Special Operations ground units would remain an essential part of combat in Afghanistan. But he promised to make sure that these attacks were based on solid intelligence and that they were as precise as possible. American success in Afghanistan should be measured by “the number of Afghans shielded from violence,” not the number of enemy fighters killed, he said.

    The inquiry into the May 4 strikes in the western province of Farah illustrated the difficult, split-second decisions facing young officers in the heat of combat as they balance using lethal force to protect their troops under fire with detailed rules restricting the use of firepower to prevent civilian deaths.

    In the report, the investigating officer, Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, analyzed each of the airstrikes carried out by three aircraft-carrier-based Navy F/A-18 strike aircraft and an Air Force B-1 bomber against targets in the village of Granai, in a battle that lasted more than seven hours.

    In each case, the senior military official said, General Thomas determined that the targets that had been struck posed legitimate threats to Afghan or American forces, which included one group of Marines assigned to train the Afghans and another assigned to a Special Operations task force.

    But in “several cases,” the official said, General Thomas determined either that the airstrikes had not been the appropriate response to the threat because of the potential risk to civilians, or that American forces had failed to follow their own tactical rules in conducting the bombing runs.

    The Afghan government concluded that about 140 civilians had been killed in the attacks. An earlier American military inquiry said last month that 20 to 30 civilians had been killed. That inquiry also concluded that 60 to 65 Taliban militants had been killed in the fight. American military officials say their two investigations show that Taliban fighters had deliberately fired on American forces and aircraft from compounds and other places where they knew Afghan civilians had sought shelter, in order to draw an American response that would kill civilians, including women and children.

    The firefight began, the military said, when Afghan soldiers and police officers went to several villages in response to reports that three Afghan government officials had been killed by the Taliban. The police were quickly overwhelmed and asked for backup from American forces.

    American officials have said that a review of videos from aircraft weapon sights and exchanges between air crew members and a ground commander established that Taliban fighters had taken refuge in “buildings which were then targeted in the final strikes of the fight,” which went well into the night.

    American troop levels in Afghanistan are expected to double, to about 68,000, under President Obama’s new Afghan strategy.

    In his previous job as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, General McChrystal oversaw units assigned to capture or kill senior militants. In his appearance before Congress on Tuesday, he was questioned on reports of abuses of detainees held by his commandos.

    Under questioning by Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is the committee chairman, General McChrystal said he was uncomfortable with some of the harsh techniques that were officially approved for interrogation. At the time, such approved techniques included stress positions, sleep deprivation and the use of attack dogs for intimidation.

    He said that all reports of abuse during his command were investigated, and that all substantiated cases of abuse resulted in disciplinary action. And he pledged to “strictly enforce” American and international standards for the treatment of battlefield detainees if confirmed to the post in Afghanistan.

  2. Pentagon report on Afghan air-strikes: try not to kill people
    From the Los Angeles Times, June 20:

    U.S. report on Afghan civilian deaths urges caution
    Reporting from Washington — A newly released report says that the U.S. military in Afghanistan must give higher priority to avoiding civilian casualties when calling for airstrikes, but that the practice of using warplanes to support units engaged in battle should continue.

    The U.S. military investigation examined a battle May 4 in western Farah province that resulted in at least two dozen civilian deaths and prompted outrage among Afghans. The report concluded that at least two airstrikes on buildings should not have been ordered.

    “We made mistakes that led to civilian deaths,” said Air Force Maj. Kristine Beckman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military’s Central Command.

    Afghan authorities said the attack killed more than 100 civilians. The U.S. investigation estimated that 26 civilians were killed, but played down that disparity in an apparent attempt to minimize friction with the Afghan government.

    “We will never be able to determine precisely how many civilian casualties resulted from this operation, but it is inconsistent with the U.S. government’s objective of providing security for the Afghan people to conduct operations that result in their death or wounding, if at all avoidable,” the report said.

    “Civilian casualties can — and must — be reduced further,” said Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who heads Central Command. He said he had approved the report’s recommendations.

    The report recommends that the military refine its rules for using airstrikes in situations where civilians could be hurt, and that troops be retrained.

    The report is also critical of the military for failing to assess battle damage quickly, and calls for the creation of an investigative team that can respond within two hours of a reported incident.

    The new commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has begun pushing the military to react more quickly to reports of fighting and to better communicate what it is trying to do. Beckman said that Navy Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, who has overseen public affairs for Central Command and for commanders in Iraq, had been sent to Afghanistan to overhaul the military’s communication efforts.

    Although the report does not explicitly criticize the use of a B-1B bomber for close air support, as in the Farah incident, it calls for “a review of the appropriateness” of the aircraft in use in Afghanistan. Petraeus said that the review was underway but that he believed that B-1B bombers should “remain in the mix.”

    The broad outlines of the report’s findings have been known for weeks, but Central Command released an unclassified executive summary Friday.

    The report finds that the first round of airstrikes conducted during daylight by Navy F/A-18F fighters complied with military guidance meant to avoid civilian casualties.

    But the report is critical of a second round of airstrikes carried out after sunset by a B-1B. The report says the strikes followed the laws of war but did not adhere to the commanders’ directives.

    According to the report’s summary, late in the battle, the B-1B bomber crew observed two groups of Taliban moving rapidly in formation across rough terrain and eventually enter two buildings. The U.S. ground commander ordered that both buildings be bombed.

    The report concludes that those two strikes were mistakes because neither the ground force commander nor the aircraft crew could confirm that there were no civilians in the buildings. It says the strikes were legal under international law, because enemy fighters had been identified with multiple forms of intelligence.

    “However,” the report said, “the inability to discern the presence of civilians and assess the potential collateral damage of those strikes is inconsistent with the U.S. government’s objective of providing security and safety for the Afghan people.”

    The report contains only mild criticism of the personnel involved in what Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said was a long and intense fight.

  3. US to rein in Afghan air-strikes?
    From CNN, June 23:

    New directive to restrict U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan
    The new U.S. commander in Afghanistan plans to issue a directive that will restrict the use of U.S. airstrikes in areas where civilian casualties might be a risk, his spokesman told CNN.

    Gen. Stanley McChrystal will issue the classified directive by the end of this week, according to Rear Adm. Gregory Smith. It will tell troops that they have the right to defend themselves when they are under fire, but that they must consider the possibility of casualties when firing into an area where there might be civilians.

    The new guidelines tell commanders, “in a situation where you are receiving fire from the enemy in a potentially populated structure and there is an option to extract yourself and your troops, consider that as a first option,” Smith said. “Don’t simply return fire where you have unknown consequences against innocent civilians that may be inside that structure.”

    Meanwhile, VOA reports that NATO has staged a major “air assault” on one of the remaining Taliban strongholds in Helmand province…

    The operation was complex. It involved 12 Chinook helicopters, supported by 13 other aircraft, including helicopter gunships, jets and unmanned drones. The aircraft dropped hundreds of British troops into Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah in Helmand.