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America's Kabul drone strikes shows the folly of the war

That Kabul drone strike was brutal and unnecessary. As were the 20 years of war preceding it.
Image: Caskets being carried towards a gravesite at a mass funeral.
Caskets are carried to the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30.Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Pentagon announced Monday that no U.S. military personnel will be reprimanded or penalized for a drone strike in Afghanistan in August that killed 10 civilians — including seven children.

File that news under “shocking but not surprising.” The story of that drone strike, and the absence of accountability for those who took the lives of close to a dozen civilians that day, powerfully distills why the U.S.’s decadeslong intervention in Afghanistan was so brutal and unjust.

It seems possible that the Pentagon may have never acknowledged this in the absence of extraordinary public scrutiny.

On Aug. 29, just a day before the U.S. officially completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, a U.S. drone struck a vehicle in a courtyard in Kabul. The Pentagon initially claimed that the strike took out the car of a “facilitator” for the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the militant group's Afghanistan affiliate, whose car was packed with explosives, posing a threat to U.S. troops evacuating from Kabul. It said three civilians had been killed, collateral damage in what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called a “righteous strike.”

That turned out to be completely wrong. “Almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, days and weeks after the drone strike turned out to be false,” The New York Times reported in November. “The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were probably water bottles.” The targeted man suspected to be conspiring with ISIS-K turned out to be an innocent aid worker. And nine members of his family, including the seven children, were killed in the blast.

Perhaps even more disturbingly, it seems possible that the Pentagon may have never acknowledged this in the absence of extraordinary public scrutiny. The U.S. military only publicly revised its account of what happened after a New York Times investigation of video evidence surrounding the incident called into question the U.S. military’s description. Later we discovered that the military had video showing a child at the site just two minutes before the launch of the drone attack.

While the military has since admitted that the strike was a mistake, its assessment of what happened was that the error was an “earnest” one. “What we saw here was a breakdown in process, and execution in procedural events, not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, not the result of poor leadership,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said on Monday. “So I do not anticipate there being issues of personal accountability to be had with respect to the Aug. 29 airstrike.” The upshot is that nobody in the military is receiving a criminal charge, a demotion or a reprimand because the Pentagon perceives this as an interpretive error.

Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, many by airstrikes, under the auspices of humanitarianism.

The U.S. military rarely ends up sanctioning its personnel for causing civilian deaths, which is why its decision not to penalize anyone is not a surprise. But even if we grant that the U.S. military's assessment is defensible in a narrow sense — that this was a mistake not born of malice or extraordinary negligence but "earnest" misjudgment — it's still damning. Had the U.S. not been occupying Afghanistan, then it wouldn't have needed to make gambles on the lives of innocent children on the chance that it might protect U.S. forces. But this is exactly what happened for two decades of a pointless and brutal war, during which tens of thousands of civilians were killed, many by airstrikes, under the auspices of humanitarianism. While this specific massacre was scrutinized, condemned and a source of embarrassment for the military, countless other similar massacres were never acknowledged and never made headlines.

Ultimately even if there had there been some kind of formal punishment for someone in the military over this strike, it would never have helped make amends for the circumstances that allowed for it to happen in the first place: a war that should not have been going on.