By Matt Zapotosky, Courtney Kube and Eric Gorski
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration admitted for the first time Monday that it had mistakenly killed up to hundreds of U.S. citizens fighting for the Taliban or other militant groups in Afghanistan. The Pentagon said it lost track of them — and of certain Taliban fighters living there — during last year’s chaotic withdrawal from the country.
The admission highlights the potential problems the administration had in notifying those families about their loved ones’ deaths.
In the coming days, President Barack Obama plans to begin a multibillion-dollar drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan that will be implemented in three waves over the next year. After the first turn-over phase in September, when most troops will be gone, the White House is proposing to leave a smaller contingent of at least 9,800 soldiers there through at least the end of 2017.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s admission marked the first time the administration had acknowledged the error.
“We’ve made mistakes,” Carter said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
The administration had repeatedly touted the lack of American civilian casualties after taking the decision to largely end American counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan last year. But in late 2015, lawmakers warned of “extraordinary alarm” that Taliban leaders had ordered suicide bombings against American personnel and warned that the government of President Ashraf Ghani was not preparing enough to manage the end of America’s longest war.
The administration also announced that it would not provide any more detailed information about “known U.S. troops” in Afghanistan.
Last month, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. military may have mistakenly killed up to 300 people in a battle in Farah province, northwestern Afghanistan, in February, putting the overall number of civilian casualties since the U.S. war started at at least 1,600. U.S. officials said at the time that they had lost track of about 70 of those Americans, including as many as 170 children and nearly two dozen women.
One day later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani acknowledged that U.S. officials had lost track of the Americans after their squadron of special forces aircraft crashed after being hit by a rocket propelled grenade and taking fire from the ground.
For years, American civilian, military and military officials have refused to identify troops or discuss in detail details of their deaths because of the military’s decentralized command structure, which assigns responsibility for individual deaths and injuries to the area where they occur.
“The United States military does not have a mechanism to log, record or catalog the records of casualty events,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesman Col. Brian Tribus said in January. “The process … does not comply with Department of Defense operations doctrine, policies and procedures and prevents a full and accurate identification of U.S. casualties.”
But in October 2015, officials said they had established a new, automated tracking system to better identify U.S. forces killed, injured and missing, under pressure from Congress. And by the end of last year, officials said the system should be able to provide up-to-date reports on all such casualties.
But that failed to solve the problem of who Americans were killed with, and who they were killing or injuring.
Former President George W. Bush had used Afghanistan as a testing ground for his novel strategy of going to war in countries where al-Qaida was forming, rather than waiting for an act of terrorism to take place in the United States. But President Obama vowed that Afghanistan would not become a “forever war.”