Monday, June 16, 2008

Reflex


Recently an incident has raised the temperature between Washington D.C. and Islamabad. Pakistan claimed that the U.S. bombed and killed 11 of its troops at an outpost along the Afghan-Pakistani border… The U.S. denied this and claimed that those targeted and killed were Taliban fleeing into Pakistan after carrying out a cross-border raid. The Pentagon then released Predator video to “prove” their version of events. Much was made of the fact that the video was “clear that there are no military structures or outposts in the impact area...” OK, clear.

Subsequently it turns out that the Air Force's official records of combat action for the date in question say that a B-1 bomber and two F-15 fighter-bombers dropped laser- and satellite-guided bombs on "anti-coalition members in the open and in buildings in the vicinity of Asadabad." Oops. Now the Pentagon says that perhaps the Predator video is “incomplete” and a Pentagon spokesman “… conceded there may have been another strike that occurred outside the view of the drone's camera…” An investigation is ongoing.

OK, so it is understandable that mistakes happen, regrettable incidents occur, etc. Fog of war and all that. What you do is apologize, study the record to ascertain what happened and what lessons can be learned to avoid repeats, etc., etc. As has happened on multiple occasions, the Pentagon’s first reflex after any error is to deny everything, then to deny everything, then to partially admit the possibility of an error (if the evidence becomes irrefutable) while obfuscating the issue, but never to forthrightly admit that an error has been made. This is a clear pattern over many incidents over many years. OPED 21 from March 2002 went through one incident, reprinted below:

Pakistan airstrike video may be incomplete, Pentagon says

March 2002 OPED21 "Straight talk" on Hazar Qadam (reprint)

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has the reputation of a man who tells it as it is, and has achieved an almost cult status for his daily briefings at the Pentagon. This is due to his giving the unvarnished facts e.g. "... we would really like to kill them..." However, his folksy, semi-candid delivery shouldn't be mistaken for full candor and a willingness to tell the complete story, especially when it might be embarrassing to the administration.

The DoD's first reflex after any error is to deny everything, then to deny everything, then partially admit the error (if the evidence becomes irrefutable) while obfuscating the issue, but never to forthrightly admit that an error has been made. Rumsfeld has done the same, albeit in a very entertaining manner. A prime example of this reflex is what transpired following the raid on Hazar Qadam.

  • January 23rd US forces attacked two compounds at Hazar Qadam, a district of Oruzgan town. Pentagon spokeswomen Victoria Clark said a AC-130 gunship (picture above) strafed and destroyed a cache of arms and ammunition after special forces killed 15 Taliban fighters and captured 27, including "relatively senior" Taliban. "We have been watching this facility for a while", said Admiral Stufflebeem. US forces expected to capture Al Qaeda in the raid and were surprised to find Taliban and an ammunition cache. A defense official said "That is an area where Omar (Ed note: Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban) reportedly has been."
  • Within days locals were giving a different story, that those killed and captured were allies of Afghan government leader Hamid Karzai, there defending a cache of weapons surrendered by Taliban. One of the 'compounds' was a school, the other an administrative building.
  • "We take great care to ensure we are engaging confirmed Taliban or Al Qaeda facilities," Maj. Bill Harrison, an U.S. Central Command spokesman, said. "As a result of this mission, we detained 27 individuals, and believe that our forces engaged the intended target."
  • On different occasions Pentagon spokesman Major Mike Halbig said the descriptions of events by the Afghans "don't fit with any of the information we have", and that he found it hard to believe that US special forces would make this sort of mistake given the procedures they follow when undertaking operations. A Kandahar-based army spokesman said suggestions that pro-government forces were wrongly attacked are "not consistent with our intelligence".
  • Lt. Col. Jim Yonts, spokesman for the US Central Command in Tampa, said, "It doesn't add up. We don't know anything about any attack on a school. We don't have anything that supports that claim."
  • Admiral Stufflebeem said that he had seen no reports that the detainees still being held and interrogated had corroborated the locals' story. "There have been no indications that support this... assertion from the other locals."
  • Later "senior military officials" told the Associated Press that some of those killed, but not all, might have been loyal to the new government and that the individuals captured and killed including persons of mixed political loyalties.
  • February 4 DefSec Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that "friendly" Afghan forces might have been killed during the raid.
  • February 5th Afghan interim government leader Hamid Karzai described the raid as "a mistake of sorts" resulting from "an unfortunate movement of people at the wrong time". He said that the US acknowledged the mistake and offered financial compensation. Capt. Timothy Taylor, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on Karzai's remarks.
  • February 6th the detainees were handed over to officials of the Afghan interim government. Several claimed that they had been mistreated - beaten and kicked with fists and guns. Maj. Ralph Mills, a spokesman for Central Command, maintained, "The release of the detainees isn't an admission that we made a mistake."
  • Rumsfeld said that the detainees handed over to the Afghan government officials were criminals and that the Afghans had taken them into custody.
  • Pentagon officials acknowledge that an investigation had been begun. "When the people you associate with over there... bring up the question, you're obligated to look at it, so that's what we are doing," said General Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rumsfeld said "it is true that there are Afghan factions... that don't get along. It is true that that people say things in ways that... they feel might advantage them." The DefSec said it was "perfectly possible to go on a raid... get shot at, shoot back, and end up having someone say 'those people were Taliban' and somebody else say that 'those were people we were engaging in our local government' and both can be true in as confused a situation as it is..."
  • Feb 21st at a DoD news briefing DefSec Rumsfeld and General Myers admitted that there was a mistake, sort of... Speaking of the compounds Rumsfeld said "They were observed, we are told, over a period of several weeks. The signature and the intelligence information that was gathered over these several weeks were persuasive and compelling." "I think the way to characterize it is that there -- it is -- it appears to the people who reported to me that in fact these individuals were not Taliban or Al Qaeda..." In response to the question "Since these people were not Al Qaeda and were not Taliban, would you say in retrospect that the raid was a mistake?" Rumsfeld answered, "I do not think it is a mistake for people to observe carefully and make a judgment about behavior on the ground, and then make a calculation that there is compelling evidence of Taliban or Al Qaeda activity, but not sufficiently compelling to use air power, instead to go in on the ground, I think that is certainly no mistake. and once going in on the ground, it seems to me no mistake at all, if you're fired on to fire back..." Q: "In your review of this, you say you're looking back for the lessons learned. Where, then, is the error in the persuasive and compelling information that you said..?" Rumsfeld: "I don't think it is an error. I think it's just a fact that circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan are difficult. It's untidy" Q: "Because there's a lot of people, then, who were innocents here that were killed. What is happening --" Rumsfeld: "Well, wait a second. They fired -- let's not call them "innocents". We don't know quite what they were. They were people who fired on our forces"
  • In a March press conference General Franks refused to admit that there had been an intelligence failure - "I am satisfied that, while unfortunate, I will not characterize it as a failure of any type."

OK, so mistakes can happen under the best of circumstances, let alone in the morass that is Afghanistan. When they do occur they need to be acknowledged and the appropriate lesson learned so that they are not repeated. The Afghans know what happened, they were there. And reportedly the CIA has apologized and paid $1,000 to each of the families who lost members in this raid. So the only people being kept in the dark by attempts to obfuscate are the U.S. public. Since the truth will eventually out, why risk diluting one's credibility? This would seem to violate one of Rumsfeld's Rules (PDF file) - 'You and the White House staff must be and be seen to be above suspicion. Set the right example.' Folksy and fun Rumsfeld's press conferences may be, but there should be a suspicion that he is not being entirely candid....

US releases captives from 'mistaken' raid

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