Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War
Still, the increasing toll of civilian killings was putting pressure on the military to change its ways, especially in light of the emerging counterinsurgency doctrine that the new commander, General McChrystal, was putting in place. And the pressure was coming from the top. Two weeks after Farah, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a gathering at the Brookings Institution: “We cannot succeed in Afghanistan—or anywhere else, but let’s talk specifically about Afghanistan—by killing Afghan civilians…. We can’t keep going through incidents like this and expect the strategy to work. [But] we can’t tie our troops’ hands behind their backs.”
That tension would increasingly vex US strategy. At its core, it underscored the enormous difficulty—perhaps the impossibility—of waging a humane counterinsurgency.
A month after the Farah massacre, a Pentagon investigation by Brig. Gen. Raymond Thomas showed that there were “problems” with the military’s actions that day. Geoff Morrell, a spokesman for the Defense Department, said: “There were some problems with tactics, techniques and procedures, the way in which close air support was supposed to have been executed in this case.” He said that a B-1 bomber pilot had erred: “That plane, because of how it takes its bombing routes, had to break away from positive identification of their target at one point to make its elongated approach,” and he called it “the fundamental complaint that was rendered I believe from this investigation.”
The Joint Civilian Casualty Study by Sewall and Lewis reports that General McChrystal issued another tactical directive to ISAF in July 2009, following the killings in Farah, that instructed the military to “look for all tactical alternatives, including withdrawal, when considering airstrikes on compounds,” adding that airstrikes against compounds would be permitted only in self-defense. After pointing out that “air incidents had produced the highest number of civilian casualties over the past few years, the JCCS says:
Units were directed to look for all tactical alternatives, including withdrawal, when considering airstrikes on compounds, and airstrikes were only to be considered on compounds in self-defense when forces were receiving effective fire and had no alternative to save the lives of Coalition forces. The tactical directive also directed that BDA [Battle Damage Assessment] would be done for all airstrikes and uses of indirect fire, in order to assess the effects on civilians from the engagement. This BDA was to be done for all engagements, not just engagements involving compounds.
Long afterward, in 2011, the US Joint Center for Operational Analysis used the slaughter in Farah as a prime example of the military’s continuing failure to adapt its policies and procedures under wartime conditions in a way designed to minimize or eliminate civilian casualties—particularly in regard to training and instruction before troops are deployed. Written by Larry Lewis and Lt. Col. Michael “Strike” Messer and based on more than 200 interviews in and out of Afghanistan, the document, called “Adaptive Learning for Afghanistan,” presents a withering criticism of that failure, though couched in military-speak:
In Afghanistan, lessons learned organizations did not appear to make a significant contribution to in-theater adaptation. The in-theater organizations frequently did not align their efforts or share lessons effectively. In addition, these organizations often lacked the necessary capability and capacity, in terms of resourcing and training, to quickly analyze information and get it back out to the force….
ISAF and the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) also had lessons learned organizations, but they were not resourced adequately with sufficient personnel, and the personnel typically had no experience with lessons or analysis….
There were multiple barriers to effective sharing of information, knowledge, and lessons.
The Farah incident was used by multiple training sources in scenario and vignette-based training…. Since the Farah incident in May 2009, the joint and Service communities have implemented many changes to integrate CIVCAS [civilian casualty] reduction and mitigation into the “road to deployment” for Afghanistan…. [But] in-theater lessons did not always inform longer-term…change.
Yet another study, released in June 2012 and called “Afghanistan Civilian Casualty Prevention,” seems more concerned about the propaganda importance of mass civilian casualties than it does about the casualties themselves: “The unfortunate circumstances of the Gerani [sic] Village incident are a reminder of the complexities of the strategic information battle.” In summarizing the events there, the study says that Taliban forces in the area that day “validated the lawful military nature of the air strikes,” but added, “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.” And it insists that “USCENTCOM’s investigation report estimates that at least 78 Taliban fighters were killed,” adding, “No one will ever be able conclusively to determine the number of CIVCAS that occurred on 4 May 2009. The USCENTCOM investigation does not discount the possibility that more than 26 civilians were killed in this engagement.”