By Tom Squitieri
Red Snow News
WASHINGTON —The fog of war wins again, but at least the U.S. military is better than the Russians.
Those themes were driven home repeatedly Tuesday as the Pentagon released the results on the completion of a review into civilian casualties that occurred from a U.S. airstrike on March 18, 2019, in the vicinity of Baghuz, Syria.
The investigation said U.S troops did not violate the law of war or deliberately cause civilian casualties in the 2019 strike that killed dozens of people, including women and children. It did find that the military committed procedural mistakes in the aftermath of the attack.
No one, including the ground force commander or those who sidelined the after-attack reporting, was disciplined as a result of the strike.
“I know you don’t think we do (a fair investigation) because nobody got fired,” John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, said. He said the commander on the ground “made the best decisions he could in the fog of war, in the midst of combat, against a very determined enemy, in a concentrated part of territory in Syria, who were fighting very, very aggressively against our SDF counterparts.”
Kirby repeatedly said how the report shows that the Pentagon takes the issue of civilian causalities seriously and is “trying to do better.
“I mean, we’re standing up here talking about civilian casualties,” Kirby said. “You don’t see that coming out of Ukraine. You don’t see that coming out of the Russian Ministry of Defense.”
He later added that, “we have to have a high bar for accountability on something like this, given that it was in the midst of combat in the fog of war. And if you can prove that an individual deliberately, caused causalities and violated the laws of war, which we actually take seriously, and the Russians don’t.”
Kirby insisted that “I’m not trying to deflect this. We’re up here talking about it” but again returned to the theme of Russian behavior.
“I don’t think it’s inappropriate for us in this day and moment at this particular time, to not consider what’s going on in Ukraine by the Russians at their hand. I do think that that’s a fair thing to put into some context here.,” he said. “That’s the difference between a responsible modern military and an irresponsible modern military.”
He pushed back on suggestions that the review was not tough or thorough because it was conducted by a member of the military — Army Gen. Michael Garrett, currently the head of U.S. Army Forces Command — who was, as it was put to him, “cut from the same cloth” compared to an outsider.
Kirby said an outsider would be confused by the military culture and structure and “also has to be informed, and educated, and experienced in military operations as well.
“I understand the questions about accountability, I get it,” Kirby told Pentagon reporters. “In this case, Gen. Garrett found that the ground force commander made the best decisions that he could, given the information he had at the time, given a very lethal, very aggressive (Islamic State) threat, in a very confined space.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who ordered a new review of the airstrike last November, said he was “disappointed” with deficiencies in the handling of the initial review of the operation, which missed deadlines and led to delays in reporting to Congress and the public about civilian casualties.
“The process contributed to a perception that the Department was not committed to transparency and was not taking the incident seriously – a perception that could have been prevented by a timely review and a clear explication of the circumstances surrounding the strike,” Austin said in a memo released Tuesday.
The incident occurred before Austin became defense secretary. He has ordered the department to create a new “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan” to better prevent civilian deaths in military operations.
The initial investigation into the attack concluded that the strike constituted legitimate self-defense in support of Syrian partner forces under fire from the Islamic State group. Garrett, in his investigation, agreed with that conclusion.
Garrett also said that while he found problems with policy compliance, “I found no evidence to support the allegation that these deficiencies were malicious or made to conceal decisions or actions” — a conclusion widely discounted by outside analysts.
“Now, did anybody get fired because of Baghuz? No, but it’s not because we’re trying to protect careers,” Kirby said.
Austin ordered the investigation on November 29, 2021. That order came after a story in the New York Times on Nov. 15, 2021, detailing how the Pentagon hid the airstrike that killed dozens of civilians.
The Times reporting also showed how the targeting policy that requires the routine participation of operational lawyers to ensure compliance with international law, and to minimize the risk of civilian harm is routinely circumvented.
A study by RAND, a private entity considered accurate and often pro-military, concluded the Pentagon has failed to accurately capture civilian casualty data, is not sufficiently well organized to mitigate and respond to civilian harm, and is not prepared to address the issue in future combat operations.
Late last year, another independent military review concluded that a U.S. drone strike on August 29 that killed innocent Kabul civilians and children in the final days of the Afghanistan war was not caused by misconduct or negligence. It found breakdowns in communication and in the process of identifying and confirming the target of the bombing.
That review was also ordered after news reports blew apart initial Pentagon claims that it was a “righteous strike.” That attack killed 10 civilians, at least 7 of them children.
No one was disciplined in that wrong attack.