While the deaths of civilians is certainly a tragedy, the US military's public relations people have been a little more quick to mitigate the PR effects than they were with last week's Apache video. The more credible military reporters, namely Spencer Ackerman and Nathan Hodge, have reported on to the "fog of war" surrounding the shooting.
Before dawn this morning, an unknown, large vehicle approached a slow-moving ISAF route-clearance patrol from the rear at a high rate of speed. The convoy could not move to the side of the road to allow the vehicle to pass due to the steep embankment.
The ISAF patrol warned off the approaching vehicle once with a flashlight and three times with flares, which were not heeded. Perceiving a threat when the vehicle approached once more at an increased rate of speed, the patrol attempted to warn off the vehicle with hand signals prior to firing upon it. Once engaged, the vehicle then stopped.
Upon inspection, ISAF forces discovered the vehicle to be a passenger bus.
I should also mention that the times around sunrise and sunset are usually the worst in terms of visibility--it's too bright for night-vision goggles, yet too dark for normal eyesight. This would have certainly contributed to US forces misidentifying the vehicle. (So would a propensity for insurgents to use car bombs against military vehicles) It might also explain why the vehicle did not stop right away.
Ackerman notes that the American troops rendered medical aid to the injured civilians, with over a dozen being rushed to hospitals. Nevertheless, the scene bears a chilling resemblance to a side note directly out of General McChrystal's counterinsurgency guidance.
An ISAF patrol was traveling through a city at a high rate of speed, driving down the center to force traffic off the road. Several pedestrians and other vehicles were pushed out of the way. A vehicle approached from the side into the traffic circle. The gunner fired a pen flare at it, which entered the vehicle and caught the interior on fire. As the ISAF patrol sped away, Afghans crowded around the car. How many insurgents did the patrol make that day?
Of course, it's easy for us to sit back and call this a textbook counterinsurgency failure. However, the troops involved would have perceived this as a life-or-death matter. Nevertheless, the incident still sparked protests throughout Kandahar, just as ISAF is preparing its upcoming offensive into the area.
How can we do better?