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'Honest mistakes': How US and Israel justify targeting and killing civilians

The states that cry that they kill innocents 'by accident' or 'unintentionally', or because 'the terrorists shield behind them' are also the ones that keep killing innocents
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in Brussels on 21 October 2021 (AFP)

An “honest mistake” is buying your partner the wrong perfume or copying someone into an email chain by accident. It is not firing a drone missile at a car, killing 10 civilians - and doing so when a small child was clearly visible moments earlier.

And yet, a supposedly “independent” Pentagon inquiry this month claimed just such a good-faith mistake after US commanders authorised a drone strike in late August that killed an Afghan family, including seven children. A US air force general concluded that there was no negligence or misconduct, and that no disciplinary action should be taken. 

The 'honest mistake' is a continuing colonial narrative western nations tell themselves, and the rest of us, when they kill civilians

At the weekend, the Pentagon exonerated itself again. It called a 2019 air strike on Baghuz in Syria that killed dozens of women and children “justified”. It did so even after an investigation by the New York Times showed that the group of civilians who were bombed had already been identified as fleeing fighting between US-backed militias and the Islamic State (IS) group.

A US military lawyer, Dean Korsak, flagged the incident at the time as a potential war crime but the Pentagon never carried out an investigation. It came to public attention only because Korsak sent details to a Senate oversight committee. 

In announcing the conclusions of its Afghanistan inquiry, the Pentagon made clear what its true priorities are in the wake of its hurried, Saigon-style exit from Afghanistan following two decades of failed occupation. It cares about image management, not accountability.

Contrast its refusal to take action against the drone operators and commanders who fired on a civilian vehicle with the Pentagon’s immediate crackdown on one of its soldiers who criticised the handling of the withdrawal. Veteran marine Stuart Scheller was court-martialled last month after he used social media to publicly berate his bosses.

Which of the two - Scheller’s comment or the impunity of those who killed an innocent family - is likely to do more to discredit the role of the US military, in Afghanistan or other theatres around the globe in which it operates? 

Colonial narrative

The Pentagon is far from alone in expecting to be exempted from scrutiny for its war crimes. 

The “honest mistake” is a continuing colonial narrative western nations tell themselves, and the rest of us, when they kill civilians. When western troops invade and occupy other people’s lands - and maybe help themselves to some of the resources they find along the way - it is done in the name of bringing security or spreading democracy. We are always the Good Guys, they are the Evil Ones. We make mistakes, they commit crimes.

This self-righteousness is the source of western indignation at any suggestion that the International Criminal Court at The Hague should investigate, let alone prosecute, US, European and Israeli commanders or politicians for carrying out or overseeing war crimes. 

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It is only African leaders or enemies of Nato who need to be dragged before tribunals and made to pay a price. But nothing in the latest Pentagon inquiry confirms the narrative of an “honest mistake”, despite indulgent coverage in western media referring to the drone strike as “botched”

Even the establishment of the inquiry was not honest. How is it “independent” for a Pentagon general to investigate an incident involving US troops? 

The drone operators who killed the family of Zemerai Ahmadi, an employee of a US aid organisation, were authorised to do so because his white Toyota Corolla was mistaken for a similar vehicle reported as belonging to the local franchise of IS. But that make is one of the most common vehicles in Afghanistan. 

The head of the aid organisation where he worked told reporters pointedly: “I do not understand how the most powerful military in the world could follow [Mr Ahmadi], an aid worker, in a commonly used car for eight hours, and not figure out who he was, and why he was at a US aid organisation’s headquarters.”

A neighbour of Ezmarai Ahmadi, stands amid the debris of Ahmadi's house that was damaged in a US drone strike in the Kwaja Burga neighbourhood of Kabul on September 18, 2021. AFP
A man stands amid the debris of Zemerai Ahmadi's vehicle that was damaged in a US drone strike in the Kwaja Burga neighbourhood of Kabul on 18 September 2021 (AFP)

The decision was, at best, recklessly indifferent as to whether Ahmadi was a genuine target and whether children would die as a result. But more likely, when it attacked Ahmadi’s vehicle, the entire US military system was in the grip of a blinding thirst for revenge. Three days earlier, 13 American soldiers and 169 Afghan civilians had been killed when a bomb exploded close to Kabul airport, as Afghans massed there in the hope of gaining a place on one of the last evacuation flights. 

That airport explosion was the final military humiliation - this one inflicted by IS - after the Taliban effectively chased American troops out of Afghanistan. Revenge - even when it is dressed up as restoring “deterrence” or “military honour” - is not an “honest mistake”. 

Pattern of behaviour

But there is an even deeper reason to be sceptical of the Pentagon inquiry. There is no “honest mistake” defence when the same mistakes keep happening. “Honest mistakes” can’t be a pattern of behaviour. 

And yet the long years of US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and meddling in Syria, have been pockmarked with air strikes that obliterated families or slammed into wedding parties. That information rarely makes headlines, eclipsed by the Pentagon’s earlier, faulty claims of the successful “neutralisation of terrorists”. 

But just such “mistakes” were the reason why the US occupation of Afghanistan ultimately imploded. The Pentagon’s scatter-gun killing of Afghans created so many enemies among the local population that US-backed local rulers lost all legitimacy.

Something similar happened during the US and UK’s occupation of Iraq. Anyone who believes the Pentagon commits “honest mistakes” when it kills civilians needs to watch the video, Collateral Murder, issued by WikiLeaks in 2012.  

It shows the aerial view of helicopter pilots in 2007 as they discuss with a mix of technical indifference and gruesome glee their missile strikes on a crowd of Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists, moving about on the streets of Baghdad below.

As the pilots were told of the casualties, one commented: 'Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.' The other responded: 'That’s right.'

When a passing van tries to come to the aid of one of wounded, the pilots fire again, even though a child is visible in the front seat. In fact, two children were found inside the van. US soldiers arriving at the scene made the decision to deny both treatment from US physicians. 

As the pilots were told of the casualties, one commented: “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” The other responded: “That’s right.”

Before the video was leaked, the military claimed that the civilians killed that day had been caught in the crossfire of a gun battle. “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” a statement read. 

The video, however, shows that there was nothing honest or mistaken about the way those Iraqis died, even if there was no specific intention to kill civilians. They were killed because US commanders were uninterested in the safety of those it occupied, because they were indifferent to whether Iraqis, even Iraqi children, lived or died. 

Killing innocents

The states that cry loudest that they kill innocents “by accident” or “unintentionally” or because “the terrorists shield behind them” are also the ones that keep killing innocents.

An Israeli mortar hits a mosque during Israeli air strikes on Gaza City, 19 July 2014
It is estimated that 500 Palestinian children and more than 850 adult civilians died during the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza (AFP)

Israel’s version of this is the “tragic mistake” - the excuse it used in 2014 when its navy fired two precision missiles at a beach in Gaza at exactly the spot where four boys were playing football. They were killed instantly. In seven weeks of pummelling Gaza in 2014, Israel killed more than 500 Palestinian children and more than 850 adult civilians. And yet all were apparently “honest mistakes” because no soldiers, commanders or politicians were ever held to account for those deaths. 

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Palestinian civilians keep dying year after year, decade after decade, and yet they are always killed by an “honest mistake”. Israel’s excuses are entirely unconvincing for the same reason the Pentagon’s carry no weight. 

Both have committed their crimes in another people’s territory to which they have not been invited. Both militaries rule over those people without good cause, treating the local population as “hostiles”. And both act in the knowledge that their soldiers enjoy absolute impunity. 

In reaching its decision on the killing of the Afghan family this month, the Pentagon stated that it had not “broken the law”. That verdict too is not honest. What the US military means is that it did not break its own self-serving rules of engagement, rules that permit anything the US military decides it wants to do. It behaves as if no laws apply to it when it invades others’ lands, not even the laws of the territories it occupies. 

That argument is dishonest too. There are the laws of war and the laws of occupation. There is international law. The US has broken those laws over and over again in Afghanistan and Iraq, as has Israel in ruling over the Palestinians for more than five decades and blockading parts of their territory. 

The problem is that there is no appetite to enforce international law against the planet’s sole military superpower and its allies. Instead it is allowed to claim the role of benevolent global policeman. 

No scrutiny

Both the US and Israel declined to ratify the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) that judges war crimes. That refusal was no “honest mistake” either. Each expected to avoid the court’s scrutiny.

US and Israeli leaders know their soldiers commit war crimes, and that they themselves commit war crimes by approving either the wars of aggression these soldiers are expected to wage or the messy, long-term belligerent occupations they are supposed to enforce.  But whatever they hope, the failure to ratify the statute does not serve as a stay-out-of-jail card. US and Israeli leaders still risk falling under the ICC’s jurisdiction if the countries they invade or occupy have ratified the statute, as is the case with Afghanistan and Palestine.

US and Israeli leaders know their soldiers commit war crimes, and that they themselves commit war crimes by approving the wars of aggression these soldiers are expected to wage

The catch is that the Hague court can be used only as a last resort - in other words, it has to be shown first that any country accused of war crimes failed to seriously investigate those crimes itself.  

The chorus from the US and Israel of “honest mistake” every time they kill civilians is just such proof. It demonstrates that the US and Israeli legal systems are entirely incapable of upholding the laws of war, or holding their own political and military officials to account. That must be the job of the ICC instead.

But the court is fearful. The Trump administration launched a war against it last year to stop its officials investigating US war crimes in Afghanistan. The assets of the court’s officials were blocked and they were denied the right to enter the US. 

That is the reason why the court keeps failing to stand up for the victims of western war crimes like Zemerai Ahmadi and his children. The ICC had spent 15 years dragging its feet before it finally announced last year that it would investigate allegations of US war crimes in Afghanistan. That resolve quickly dissolved under the subsequent campaign of pressure. 

In September, shortly after Ahmadi’s family was killed by US drone operators, the court’s chief prosecutor declared that investigations into US actions in Afghanistan, including widespread claims of torture of Afghans, would be “deprioritised”. The investigation would focus instead on the Taliban and IS.

Once again, enemies of the US, but not the US itself, will be called to account. That too is no “honest mistake”.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Jonathan Cook
Jonathan Cook is the the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at: www.jonathan-cook.net