The First Casualty Is The Truth

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Our Pentagon corresondent Mark Thompson calls our attention to this interesting bit of footwork from the Pentagon:

The fog of war can clearly be seen anew in Afghanistan. Wednesday’s good
news out of Kabul: “Precision Strike Kills Warlord, Associates in
Afghanistan,” the Pentagon’s press desk there declared in a statement. But
by Thursday, some editing was needed: “Warlord Targeted in Afghan Strike May
Have Survived, Officials Say.”

That wasn’t the only revision needed. The original press release stated:
“After determining no civilians would be endangered, forces used precision
aerial munitions to strike the group, killing (Taliban commander Mullah)
Mustafa and as many as 16 other militants.” Thursday’s press release
elaborated on that, as well: “Today, unsubstantiated reports of civilian
casualties emerged, officials said, adding that they are working with Afghan
partners to examine those reports.”

Civilian casualties are a persistent problem in Afghanistan, where
Taliban insurgents routinely hide among the civilian population,
complicating any U.S. strikes against them. The Pentagon does go to
extraordinary lengths to minimize innocent casualties, yet they keep
happening. Defense officials in Washington expressed exasperation following
this latest flipflop and the possibility that innocent civilians perished.

The Pentagon’s Wednesday statement said that “intelligence sources”
confirmed Mustafa’s presence “in a remote, mountainous area” of western
Afghanistan, suggesting civilians wouldn’t be nearby. “Coalition forces
observed armed sentries outside his compound, indicating the militant was
concerned for his own safety,” it added.

Mustafa left the compound on Tuesday in a vehicle, apparently being
watched by a video-camming spy drone. “When he stopped in a remote area, he
was joined by multiple militants,” the Pentagon’s original statement
continued. “After determining no civilians would be endangered, forces used
precision aerial munitions to strike the group, killing Mustafa and as many
as 16 other militants.”

A casual reader might think that flat declaration that Mustafa was dead
meant that U.S. forces — which, after all, had issued the press release —
had confirmed his demise. Apparently not. “Mustafa is alive,” Keramuddin
Rezazada, a senior Afghan official in the region, told the Reuters news
agency. He quoted villagers as saying 12 militants had been killed in the
strike — and 10 civilians. The Pentagon — after rushing out its first
press release based on potentially flawed information — issued a second one
that simply said that “initial Afghan and coalition reports said Mullah
Mustafa died in the strike, but credible reports surfaced today that Mustafa

It’s a tired cliché of war that truth is its first casualty. It’s just
that it’s rarely revised so quickly. The New York Times reports today that
the incoming U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army General Stanley McChrystal,
will be able to tap whomever he needs for his military staff to get the
Afghan campaign back on track. He might want to start by replacing those so
eager to boast of killing warlords that they jump the gun and are willing to
risk embarrassment — and possibly civilians — in their quest.