“During the operation, the Afghan and coalition security force observed a large group of heavily armed insurgents engaging in insurgent activity. After ensuring there were no civilians in the area, the security force engaged the insurgents with a precision airstrike. After the strike, the security force conducted an initial follow-on assessment and confirmed the strike had not injured any civilians or damaged any civilian property.”
But the statement raises many questions. How, exactly, does ISAF know that no civilians died? How do they distinguish between armed and unarmed civilians, those that may support or at least lean toward the Taliban, and hardcore Taliban fighters? According to news reports, the Obama administration dealt with the inevitable conundrum that drone strikes create by redefining combatants to include all “military-age males” in a strike zone, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,” to use the New York Times’ phrasing. This is a faulty, catch-all term that makes no real distinction between, say, the Taliban and civilians. It also gives the military an incentive to avoid conducting an extensive probe into drone strikes, as these might uncover “explicit intelligence” proving that some of the military-aged males were not combatants. Thus, it’s hardly surprising, then, that the ISAF statements merely says it “observed a large group of heavily armed insurgents engaging in insurgent activity,” and completely ignores the report that at least some of those killed were adjudicating a local, family dispute. And, while ISAF says that it conducted an after-action investigation at the scene, an ISAF spokesman refused to say anything about how the inquiry was conducted or how thorough it was.
According to Xinhua, the Chinese news service — which says “about 50 militants were killed” — Najibullah Khan, the district chief of police, said: “The drone targeted four suspected vehicles in Shinallai area of Chapah Darah district at around 1 p.m. local time Saturday, killing 50 militants, including 13 insurgent local commanders.” Even if those were the targets, it’s unlikely that 50 people were crammed into four vehicles, making it clear that many if not most of the dead were villagers who’d gathered for the event. Another account reports that the bombing occurred “as Taliban swarmed around their intended victim(s) in preparation of carrying out an execution.” That, like other reports, suggests that a large gathering was underway when the drones fired what ISAF calls a “precision airstrike.”