WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said on Wednesday that the military needed to do more to prevent civilian casualties, his first public comments about a U.S. airstrike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children.
Mr. Austin had requested a briefing on the strike after a New York Times investigation over the weekend described allegations that top officers and civilian officials had sought to conceal the casualties.
The defense secretary promised to overhaul military procedures and hold top-ranking officers accountable for civilian harm. However, he did not address any systemic problems that allowed civilian casualties in Syria and Afghanistan. He did not mention whether senior officers would be held responsible.
“Every civilian casualty is tragic,” Mr. Austin told reporters at the Pentagon. “Where we see we’re not doing things as well as we could, we should adjust.”
After his remarks, House Armed Services Committee announced that it would investigate.
“Both the incident and the efforts to cover it up are deeply disturbing,” Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the panel, said in an email to The Times.
Mr. Austin, who became defense secretary this year, received a classified briefing on Tuesday about the strike and the military’s handling of it from Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria.
Aides said on Wednesday that Mr. Austin was still digesting General McKenzie’s briefing, as well as newly submitted plans from top commanders on how to mitigate civilian casualties. These steps were recommended in an investigation into a drone attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 29, which killed 10 civilians, seven children, and injured dozens more.
On Monday, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, declined to comment on details of the Syria strike, which took place near the town of Baghuz on March 18, 2019, as part of the final battle against Islamic State fighters in a remnant of a once-sprawling religious state across Iraq and Syria. It was one the most serious civilian-casualty events in the decades-long war against ISIS. However, the U.S. military never publicly acknowledged it.
A task force examined the incident and found that four civilians had been killed. However, it concluded that there was no wrongdoing within the unit. The task force sent its findings to Baghdad’s military headquarters and to Tampa’s Central Command headquarters in Fla. in October 2019.
The command in Baghdad did not review the inquiry and Central Command didn’t follow up with the Baghdad command to close it. Capt. Bill Urban, the Central Command spokesman, said on Wednesday before Mr. Austin’s briefing.
Accordingly, senior military officials in Florida and Iraq never reviewed the strike and the investigation remained open up to the Times investigation.
“Should we have followed up? Yes,” Captain Urban said in a telephone interview, blaming “an administrative oversight.”
Mr. Austin has many options. He could order a new investigation into the strike, which was carried out by a shadowy, classified special operations unit called Task Force 9, as well as the handling of the task force’s investigation by higher military headquarters and the Defense Department’s inspector general. He could also endorse the task force’s findings and General McKenzie’s review of the strike.
The Times investigation showed that the death toll from the strike — 80 people — was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A legal officer flagged bombing as a possible war crime and required an investigation. The military concealed the devastating strike at almost every stage. The Defense Department’s independent inspector general began an inquiry, but the report containing its findings was stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike.
In an email to the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring, the legal officer who witnessed the strike warned that “senior ranking U.S. military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process,” and that there was a good chance that “the highest levels of government remained unaware of what was happening on the ground.”
The Times investigation found that the bombing by Air Force F-15 attack jets had been called in by Task Force 9, made up largely of the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force. The task force was responsible of the ground operations in Syria. According to military personnel who spoke to The Times, the secretive taskforce claimed that most of its strikes required immediate action to safeguard allied troops from imminent danger. Military officers often stated that no such threat was ever present.
The attack was first acknowledged by the U.S. Central Command last week, after The Times submitted its findings to the command. The task force had launched a self defense strike against a group fighters that posed an imminent threat to the ground allied forces. It claimed that the 80 deaths were justified.
The Times was informed by Central Command that the strike contained three guided bombs. The first bomb, a 500-pound bomb, hit the initial group. The second bomb, a 2,000-pound bomb, targeted people fleeing from the initial blast. The command said that all three bombs had been 500-pound munitions.
According to the command, 16 fighters were killed and four civilians were injured in the three strikes. The statement did not mention the 60 other people who were killed. This was partly because children and women in the Islamic State often took up arms.
Military experts said the command’s explanation deserved closer scrutiny.
“It seems like we’re still missing some pretty big details on this strike,” said Luke Hartig, who worked on drone strike policy for the Obama administration as a senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.
“Either there is a very compelling explanation for why this strike was legitimate,” he said, “or we’re looking at one of the biggest mistakes in the past 20 years of war.”
Helene CooperContributed reporting
Source: NY Times