Was the drone strike in Kabul in the final hours of America’s retreat truly “righteous,” as Joint Chiefs chair Mark Milley insisted last week? Or was it a potshot based on hunches that may have only created so-called collateral damage — the deaths of ten civilians, seven of them children?
We may never really know, but the New York Times’ tick-tock on the strike — heralded as an example of the US capacity for “over the horizon” operations later — certainly doesn’t build much confidence in any direction.
So far, the post-action assessment hasn’t actually turned up conclusive evidence that the car was a threat:
The officer, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that secondary explosions after the drone strike last Sunday supported the military’s conclusion that the car contained explosives — either suicide vests or a large bomb. General Milley said that military planners took proper precautions beforehand to limit risks to civilians nearby.
But the military’s preliminary analysis of the strike and the circumstances surrounding it offer much less conclusive evidence to support those claims, military officials acknowledge. It also raises questions about an attack that friends and family members of the car’s driver say killed 10 people, seven of them children.
So far, there is no ironclad proof that explosives were in the car. The preliminary analysis says it was “possible to probable” that was so, according to officials who have been briefed on the assessment. Drone operators and analysts scanned the cramped courtyard where the sedan was parked for just a few seconds. Seeing no civilians, officials said, a commander ordered the strike, only for a grainy live-video feed to show other figures approaching the vehicle seconds later as the Hellfire missile raced closer to its target.
But military officials say that the initial analysis also supports a very strong circumstantial case of an imminent and serious threat to the airport, a case that American planners built over eight hours last Sunday, monitoring the movements of the sedan and eavesdropping on the communications of the suspected plotters.
First off, let’s point out that this would have been unnecessary had Joe Biden and the administration employed an intelligent withdrawal plan. If we had maintained logistical and air support for the Afghan army, the Taliban wouldn’t have made it to Kabul for months, if ever. Had we remained in Bagram, not only would we have had a more defensible egress route, thousands of prisoners would not have been suddenly released in the area, including more than a few ISIS-K terrorists. Had we held Kabul ourselves, we could have held off the Taliban while we evacuated all of the Americans and our allies, as Joe Biden promised our partners in Europe.
Because Biden and his team spectacularly failed on all of these points, the US military was left with a cascading series of increasingly crappy options. We let the crazies loose all around us in Kabul by abandoning Bagram, and our previous total withdrawal allowed the Afghan police and army to collapse. We no longer had eyes on the ground nor any good and specific human intelligence, according to this report. All we had was signals intelligence and drone surveillance, the exact set-up on which Biden’s vaunted “over the horizon” counterterrorism plans will rely.
If the NYT report is accurate, however, it means the Pentagon is being less than truthful about this strike and its outcome. It’s possible, of course, that the NYT isn’t giving an accurate accounting of it; they’re not exactly known for their friendliness to the military or to counterterrorism policies in general. On the other hand, they have been reverting back of late to their natural inclination to shield Democrats from the consequences of their failures. Even with a full-on hostage crisis emerging in Mazar-e-Sharif, the Gray Lady’s home page carries not a single mention of the Americans abandoned by Biden in Afghanistan, let alone those trapped on the tarmac of the airport in the northern city.
Let’s assume this is a report against interests and that it’s accurate. If so, the immediate issue for the Pentagon is that they may have committed a war crime. No one will get prosecuted for it, but it may have significant political impact down the line. Even if that turned out to be an ISIS-K bombing run, the choice of target environment will get second-guessed endlessly. (But not by me; as I wrote last week, if that really was an ISIS-K strike, then the responsibility for the collateral damage belongs to the terrorists who hide among civilians.)
More broadly, though, this shows the folly of assuming that “over the horizon” strategy will suffice on its own without any ground presence or intelligence. We hadn’t even yet fully evacuated Kabul at that point and we were already playing guessing games on a lethal strike inside a densely populated city. Imagine how bad that will be in a few weeks when al-Qaeda and other radical-Islamist terror networks start setting up shop in Afghanistan. When the Afghan army and police still existed, we had ways to get human intelligence and discern between real targeting and head fakes. We’ll be reduced to taking potshots in the dark, except on the occasions where terrorists make mistakes big enough to allow for accurate targeting. It won’t take them long, though, to start creating diversions with deliberate “mistakes” that lead us to kill civilians, which will then become a propaganda bonanza for the terrorists.
When that happens — and it’s when, not if — will Milley honestly address that? Or will we hear nothing but “righteous” on these strikes from the Pentagon and the White House? As long as Biden runs the latter, I know which way I’m betting, and I’d also bet that we won’t get too many more of these critical investigative-journalism pieces over it either. When national media outlets start putting the fates of abandoned Americans back on their front pages, perhaps I’ll place my bets in the other direction.