U.S. military officials tell NBC News they had “high-level” Taliban fighters in their gunsights during a July reconnaissance flight but decided not to fire. The decision to pass on the target angered some in the military, but commanders say they have “no regrets.”
Army intelligence officers say the grainy black-and-white aerial photo taken by a Predator drone and obtained by NBC News on Tuesday shows some 190 suspected Taliban militants standing in several rows outside near a vehicle in Afghanistan.
The military said Wednesday that the group seen in the Predator image was apparently gathered for a funeral at a cemetery.
Intelligence officers monitoring the footage captured by the armed, unmanned aircraft tell NBC News they were prepared to fire at the group but were prevented from doing so by military rules of engagement that prohibit targeting a cemetery.
Such rules are in place in an effort to minimize collateral damage, the killing of innocent civilians or destruction of sensitive targets, such as religious sites.
“During the observation of the group over a significant period of time, it was determined that the group was located on the grounds of a cemetery and were likely conducting a funeral for Taliban insurgents killed in a coalition operation nearby earlier in the day,” a coalition spokesperson said. “A decision was made not to strike this group of insurgents at that specific location and time.”
Even though U.S. military officials in Afghanistan had positively identified those gathered as Taliban fighters, including some “high-level Taliban leaders,” they told NBC News they have “no regrets” in refusing to give the order to attack the gathering.
“Coalition Forces do not discuss rules of engagement; however, they hold themselves to a higher moral and ethical standard than their enemies,” the military said in a statement.
The decision not to fire angered some military officials who said the U.S. passed up an opportunity to strike a valuable target.
“That was frustrating, those individuals lived to fight another day,” Lt. Col. David Morrison of U.S. Army Intelligence told NBC News. They “potentially could cause harm to our soldiers, civilians, the population and the government of Afghanistan.”
Chain of command
Every airstrike, whether from a manned aircraft or a Predator, must be at least approved by commanders at the regional Combined Air Operations Center, or CAOC. If an intended target is particularly sensitive, the decision could go all the way up to a general officer serving as top combat commander.
The rules of engagement are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the U.S. military. Once revealed, they may allow the enemy to modify its tactics, techniques and procedures to make itself less of a target.
The current rules of engagement, likely developed by senior Pentagon officials, do not rule out an attack on religious gathering but do generally prohibit an attack on a religious site such as a cemetery or mosque, military analyst and retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs told MSNBC TV.
“The reason for these rules of engagement is that we’re not engaged in a full-out war, where we have unconditional surrender as the objective. In that case we would bomb everyone and sort it out later on,” Jacobs said. “You have a very heavy political component here, and that’s why (the rules of engagement) are difficult to change.”
Not all ceremonies are off-limits
The military can waive its rules of engagement if a target is considered of such value that its destruction outweighs concerns about collateral damage or cultural sensitivities. Officials tell NBC News that was the case when a U.S. airstrike killed Al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a June 7 airstrike. Military commanders had no idea who else may have been in the house where Zarqawi was believed to be located when they ordered the strike. Zarqawi and several al-Qaida operatives were killed along with three women.
Defense Department officials have said repeatedly that while they try to be mindful of religious and cultural sensitivities, they make no promises that such sites can always be avoided in battle because militants often seek cover in those and other civilian sites.
Mosques and similar locations have become frequent sites of violence in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Suicide bombers have attacked at a number of mosques in the conflicts. And in one of the most infamous such incidents in Iraq, one of the largest cemeteries in the Muslim world — at Najaf — become a battleground two years ago as U.S. troops fought Shiite guerrillas hiding among graves and tunnels they had filled with weapons.
Taliban militants this year have been waging their bloodiest campaign of violence since their 2001 ouster from power in the U.S.-led invasion launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.
On Tuesday, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked the funeral of provincial Governor Abdul Hakim Taniwal in the eastern Khost province, killing six and wounding 25. Most of the victims were civilians, according to the U.S. military.
The U.S. military has previously used Predator drones with deadly effect, firing one missile into a Pakistani tribal area near the Afghan border in January in a failed bid to kill al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. The strike killed at least 13 civilians.
NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, NBC correspondent Kerry Sanders and The Associated Press contributed to this report.