Unintentional killings of innocent civilians are an unfortunate but inevitable occurrence in sustained wars. The wars associated with our attempt to curb terrorism seem particularly prone to producing such killings by American forces.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the wars fought under Presidents Bush (43) and Obama resulted in U.S. forces unintentionally killing innocent civilians. This might well have been the case under President Trump too, despite the scaled-back and changed nature of his war efforts.
However, the unintentional killing of innocents in that recent Afghanistan drone strike, as we were completing our evacuation of Americans and Afghans, is different in at least two respects. The first is that accidental killings under Biden’s immediate predecessors were carried out as we were trying to win.
By contrast, Biden’s killings occurred after we had given up. Our troops had already pulled out of Afghanistan and the evacuation of civilians, such as it was, had just about been completed. The victims of our attack, including seven children, probably are the last people to die at our hands in Afghanistan for our mistakes there (however one defines them).
This distinction isn’t damning in itself, though. The target of our attack was thought to be on his way to inflict serious terrorist damage. That he actually wasn’t means we made a mistake, but as I said, mistakes are inevitable in the war against terrorists at any stage.
But there’s a second distinction. This particular attack might well have resulted from Joe Biden attempting to save a little face over our disastrous exit from Afghanistan and, in particular, the killing of American forces at the Kabul airport.
Charles Cooke makes that case:
[The killings] happened because Biden felt that it was politically necessary to hit someone in order to change the narrative, and so he hit someone in order to change the narrative. Presumably, it did not help matters that, by August 29, the United States had become reliant upon the Taliban for intelligence.
Cooke isn’t saying that Biden deliberately decided to kill innocent people in order to change the narrative. I think he’s suggesting — as I am — that Biden’s political needs caused his team to be less discriminate than normal in picking and vetting a target.
These political needs included changing the narrative, as Cooke says. They also included being able to claim some measure of revenge for the terrorist killings of Americans at the Kabul airport.
In addition, this seems to have been an attempt to demonstrate to Americans that, even with our troops gone, we still have the “over-the-horizon” capability to kill terrorists (as we thought the target was) in Afghanistan. Biden had promised that, post-withdrawal, we would have “counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats.”
After the drone attack that killed the innocents, Biden touted the strike as a successful example of his over-the-horizon strategy. Scott has observed that the claim that this was an over-the-horizon attack is highly dubious, but the point here is that Biden believed he could sell this attack as evidence of that capability.
The key question, then, is whether Biden’s political need to kill suspected terrorists, and the military’s related desire to save some face and to impress the commander-in-chief, resulted in less care than normal in selecting this target and in going through with the attack. There’s good reason to suspect that it did, but suspicion is not proof.
Secretary of Defense Austin has ordered a high-level review of the attack. I have zero confidence in Austin or in any review he orders.
A finding of no departure from regular procedures wouldn’t carry any weight with me. A finding of departures would leave open the question of why, but should reinforce the already strong suspicion that politics entered into the process.
If Republicans regain control of a chamber of Congress, they could conduct their own investigation. The Democrats would do so, I’m pretty sure, if the shoe were on the other foot.
But that doesn’t mean a congressional investigation is warranted. Maybe it’s best just to pay reparations and move on, with our suspicions intact.