The US called its strike in Afghanistan a mistake, but that was only because they were caught red-handed. What about the other victims of similar 'mistakes'?

Several days after a US drone strike killed 10 members of a family, including seven children, on the outskirts of Kabul on August 29, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the attack “righteous.”

But this time, unlike the thousands of other drone strikes the United States has executed in secrecy across South and Central Asia, Middle East and Africa during the past two decades, the Pentagon was caught red-handed, clutching the metaphorical smoking gun.

“The strike was a tragic mistake, General Frank McKenzie, Commander of US Central Command, told reporters after a Pentagon investigation was concluded on Friday. 

Cian Westmoreland, a former US drone technician, who built the infrastructure in Afghanistan used by the US drone program to connect operations on the ground and the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) scoffed at the notion the strike was a “mistake.”

“It wasn’t a mistake, it’s not a mistake when it’s been happening for over a decade. It’s being caught red handed that they don’t know who they are targeting most of the time, that’s the mistake,” he tweeted.

The US was forced to admit it had killed 10 civilians, and not suspected IS-K (Daesh-K) militants as initially claimed, because hundreds of international journalists, including dozens of seasoned war correspondents, were stationed in Kabul reporting the US withdrawal from Afghanistan at the time of the attack.

They, including Al Jazeera correspondent Osama Bin Javaid, were able to visit the site, examine surveillance footage, gather forensic evidence, including missile remnants, and meet with eyewitnesses and surviving members of the family immediately after the strike happened.

In other words, a level of scrutiny not afforded to the vast majority of the at least 14,040 drone strikes the US has carried out in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2010, according to the Bureau of Investigation.

“I covered countless US drone strikes and civil casualties during the last years. Not a single time, Washington acknowledged that it murdered civilians. Why? Because strikes mostly took place in rural Afghanistan and not in Kabul,” observes Austrian-Afghan journalist Emran Feroz.

One can only imagine how many civilians the US would be forced to admit it had killed were throngs of international journalists able to reach all or most of the 14,000 sites it has targeted during the past decade.

As it stands, however, the gulf between the number of civilians the US has claimed to have killed, and the number non-governmental agencies and human rights groups has claimed the US has killed, could hardly be greater.

For instance, when the Department of Defence (DOD) released its first report on civilian casualties in 2018, it claimed its forces had killed a total of only 499 civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria during the previous year, but Airwars, a non-profit transparency group, documented more than 3,000 civilian casualties from US air strikes in Iraq and Syria alone.

Even when confronted with allegations and even irrefutable evidence of civilian casualties, the US either flatly rejects the findings or waves them away without comment, which I learnt first-hand after speaking with US drone strike survivors at a refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia last year.

“They [US] began firing down on crops. We saw dead and wounded everywhere. Then the next day it happened again [more strikes] and then it happened a third day in a row,” one survivor told me. “Our homes destroyed, livestock destroyed, crops destroyed, people obliterated. Our children and I faced so much agony and suffering after being forced to flee. And now we don’t even have a single bag, let alone a home to go to,” said another.

While US AFRICOM acknowledged it had carried out five airstrikes in areas located near their village in Janaale on March 16 and 17, 2020 – the same dates the survivors said they were struck – it denied claims of civilian casualties, saying only it’s “aware of social media reports alleging civilian casualties resulting from this strike.”

“As with any allegation of civilian casualties, U.S. Africa Command will review any information it has about the incident, including any relevant information provided by third parties, and take appropriate action based on the outcome of this review,” said AFRICOM.

But it hasn’t reviewed information regarding the incident, not from me, nor from local journalists and NGOs. In fact, the US military has admitted to killing only two civilians during its decade long aerial bombardment campaign against the Somali group Al Shabaab, a claim that flies in the face of allegations made by local media outlets and Airwars, which estimate 139 to 284 Somali civilian deaths from US drone strikes.

Ultimately, we will never know how many civilians the US military has killed in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen, but what we do know for certain is the 10 members of a single family it killed in Kabul on August 29 doesn’t even scratch the surface.

There will never be accountability until there’s transparency, and without both – there will never be a change in the way the US conducts its secretive drone program.

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