Under Afghan Skies (3)

Here is the third installment of my essay on an airstrike on three vehicles in Uruzgan, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010 that has become one of the central examples in critical discussions of remote warfare.  The first installment is here and the second is here.  The background to the essay is here.  And to be clear: many of the images I’ve used in this and the previous posts are taken from my conference presentation; some relate directly to this incident but others (as I hope will be obvious) are intended to be illustrative and do not portray the engagement under analysis.



At 0531 the commander of the AC-130 warned that ‘we are right at the outer limit of our fuel’ and could only remain on station for another five minutes at most without a fire mission – and, like the JTAC, he plainly wanted one [101] – but the GFC decided that the distance was still too great so they would have to wait and ‘let things unfold.’  ‘We really need PID,’ the JTAC emphasised, ‘to start dropping.’

At  0534 the AC-130 reluctantly signed off.  ‘We knew that as soon as we left they would be in greater danger,’ the commander told McHale (p. 1420).  ‘Stay safe,’ he radioed the JTAC, and ‘we will try to send one of ours back out here for you tomorrow night.’   It was now down to the Predator.  ‘All right,’ the pilot told his crew, ‘so it’s us.’

By then, alarm bells were also ringing at the Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field in Florida where the screeners had been following the vehicles.  The Mission Operations Commander there ‘started beefing up the crew’ and ‘doubled up every position’ (p. 588). To increase the number of screeners was unusual, his commanding officer explained, but tracking two and eventually three vehicles and dozens of people needed ‘more eyes on the mission’ (p. 1412).  It was a wise move, but it could do nothing to increase their chronically narrow field of view.

As the situation developed, it gained interpretive momentum, shaded by increasingly ominous exchanges between the Predator crew and the JTAC.  These were reinforced by comments from the Afghan forces who accompanied the US Special Forces in Khod.   ‘If the Afghans see something that I don’t see because some of them had [local] knowledge,’ the ODA’s second-in-command told McHale, ‘they’ll let me know’, and as soon as his interpreter translated it he would put it out over the inter-team net to keep everyone in the loop.  ‘They were like nobody comes down from there at night with lights on,’ he explained, ‘announcing their presence.  They told us that [the vehicles] were coming in to reinforce here because they had seen in the past stuff like that.’  The upshot was that ‘we just felt like they were coming for us’, and as the night wore on that impression ‘kept on building, and building, and building’ (p. 1569).

At Creech the sensor operator had zoomed in to focus the Predator’s infra-red camera on the passengers travelling in the back of the pick-up, and commented that it was ‘weird how they all have a cold spot on their chest.’  ‘It’s what they’ve been doing here lately,’ the pilot told him, ‘they wrap their [shit] up in their man dresses so you can’t PID it.’ The slur about traditional Afghan attire, the shalwar kameez, should not distract from the implication that the failure to identify weapons was suspicious in itself, not an indication of innocence at all but evidence of a deliberate strategy to conceal weapons from their surveillant eye. [102]  So far the Predator crew had identified the people in their field of view as ‘individuals’, ‘passengers’ and ‘guys’, but their vocabulary became overtly prejudicial as they routinely referred to them as  ‘MAMS’: ‘Military-Age Males’. [103] The term is redolent of what Jamie Allinson identified as a necropolitical logic which mandates that all those assigned to this category ‘pose a lethal threat to be met with equally lethal violence.’ [104]

The switch to ‘MAMs’ was triggered at 0534 when the pilot and the sensor operator both thought they saw one of the men carrying a rifle and the sensor operator read out a mIRC message from the screeners calling ‘a possible weapon on the MAM mounted in the back of the truck.’  The pilot lost no time in sharing the sighting with the commander of the AC-130, who was about to sign off, and with the JTAC: ‘From our DGS, the MAM that just mounted the back of the Hilux had a possible weapon, read back possible rifle.’

But almost immediately the search for weapons and the age of the people collided as the screeners sent a stream of mIRC messages that were less well received by the Predator crew.  At 0536 they called ‘at least one child near [the] SUV’, and at 0537 they reported that ‘the child was assisting the MAMs loading the SUV’  (p. 1154).  When the MC read out these calls there was immediate pushback.  ‘Bull[shit],’ the sensor operator exclaimed, ‘where?’ ‘I don’t think they have kids out at this hour’, he continued, ‘I know they’re shady, but come on…’ The pilot looked over at the mIRC window and reinforced their presumptive ‘shadiness’: ‘[Assisting] the MAM, uh, that means he’s guilty.’  This was an open invitation to revise the age of the child upwards.  ‘Maybe a teenager,’ the sensor operator grudgingly conceded, ‘but I haven’t seen anything that looked that short.’  The MC reported the screeners were reviewing.  ‘Yeah, review that [shit]’,’ the pilot replied. ‘Why didn’t he say possible child?’ he fumed.  ‘Why are they so quick to call [fucking] kids but not to call a [fucking] rifle?’  The next mIRC message did nothing to settle him; at 0538 the screeners reported not one but ‘two children are at the red SUV… Don’t see any children at the pick-up’ (p. 1154).  Reading out their message the MC added his own rider: ‘I haven’t seen two children.’  Still, the pilot passed the call to the JTAC at 0538: ‘Our DGS is calling possible rifle in the Hilux and two possible children in the SUV.’  He seemed to have granted his own wish and turned ‘children’ into ‘possible children’. [105] (He later told McHale that ‘if the screener calls something and we are not sure we would tell the JTAC we had a possible….’ (p. 908)).  The JTAC acknowledged the pilot’s relay and repeated that ‘[the] Ground Force Commander’s intent is to monitor the situation, to keep tracking them and bring them in as close as we can [to Khod] until we also have CCA [Close Combat Attack] up and we want to take out the whole lot of them.’  The sensor operator was still grumbling about the screeners – ‘I really doubt that children call,’ he muttered, ‘I really fucking hate that’ [106] – when at 0539 the MC said he had been told to remind him ‘in case they do get a clear hostile, and they’re children, to remove our metadata so they can get a snap of it.’ [107]  Then he added, ‘But I haven’t seen a kid yet, so…’ At 0540 the screeners came back to report ‘One man assisted child into the rear of the SUV’ (p. 1154), which prompted the MC to ask: ‘Is this the child entering the rear of the SUV?’  As they watched their screens the occupants were all getting back into the vehicles, when they detected what they took to be a scuffle in the back of the Hilux.  It is impossible to know whether this was a (re)interpretation of the previous message, but they evidently saw it as an altercation rather than ‘assistance’.  ‘They just threw somebody in the back of that truck,’ the pilot claimed, while to the sensor operator it looked as though ’those two dudes [were] wrestling,’ and without consulting the screeners the pilot radioed the JTAC at 0541 to say that they had witnessed the ‘potential use of human shields’. [108]

All of these calls were at best circumstantial, and the evidential basis for most of them was exceptionally thin, but it was enough for the GFC to take pre-emptive action and initiate the call for more air support: and he wanted Close Combat Attack (CCA).  The Predator had only one AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided missile left in its rack – the other had been fired earlier in its flight – and that would not be enough firepower to engage all three vehicles.  ‘I don’t think he’s gonna let us shoot,’ the pilot observed, ‘cause they wanna get all these guys – but still…’  The sensor operator wondered ‘who the next available CCA is gonna be’, because they might be able co-ordinate with them: ‘We’re gonna take this vehicle…’   While they were talking the GFC contacted SOTF-South’s Operations Center at Kandahar Air Field by satellite phone and asked for an ‘AirTIC’ to be declared. TIC stood for ‘Troops in Contact’ and immediately triggered aircraft to come to the aid of ground forces who were exchanging fire with the Taliban; the average response time in Afghanistan then was around 8-10 minutes.  But an AirTIC was a purely precautionary measure intended to bring aircraft on station in anticipation of an engagement; it had no official status and was not part of established military doctrine but had become standard operating procedure for Special Forces. [109]

At 0545 the JTAC told the Predator pilot ‘we’ve opened an [AirTIC] and we’re going to get additional air assets on scene’.  As expected, the GFC requested Close Combat Attack – helicopters – and not Close Air Support, and the Fires Officer at SOTF-South immediately contacted the Air Support Operations Center (ASOC) at Kabul, an Air Force unit attached to the Army to coordinate tactical air support (both CAS and CCA), which informed him that ‘the only thing they could get off the ground in a timely manner was a Scout Weapons Team’ (SWT) (p. 721).  This consisted of two OH-58 Kiowa helicopters tasked for armed reconnaissance. [110]   When the GFC called back to chase progress on his request, the Fires Officer told him the SWT would be coming, but added that it might be possible to bring in A-10 ‘Warthogs’ too, heavily armed gunships built around a high-speed 30mm rotary cannon that were often called on to support troops in contact because they had a long loiter time (compared to helicopters) and enhanced visibility of the ground (compared to other strike aircraft). The ASOC had already referred SOTF-South’s request for CCA back to Regional Command–South at Kandahar Air Field, and at 0541 its Duty Officer contacted the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade (also at Kandahar Air Field) and authorised its Task Force Wolfpack – Alpha Troop from the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment – at FOB Ripley outside Tarin Kowt to launch two of its OH-58 helicopters to provide CCA in support of ‘a TIC’ 35 miles northwest of their base (p. 394);  ‘AirTIC’ does not appear in the duty officer’s log.

Despite the live streaming of the FMV feed from the Predator onto a giant screen in SOTF-South’s Operations Center, the departure of the AC-130 leaving coalition forces exposed to Taliban attack, and the GFC’s declaration of an AirTIC to obtain additional air cover, the mission log at SOTF-South had fallen silent at 0536 with the transcription of a SALT report: ‘2-3 vehicles… [GFC] reports ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance: the Predator’s FMV feed] PID of 43-55 pax [people] in two groups carrying weapons’ (p. 1991).  No further entries would be made for another two hours.

The responsibility for maintaining the log fell upon the officer designated as Night Battle Captain. [111] He usually monitored eight to ten operations at any one time, but Operation Noble Justice was the main mission that night.  Ordinarily the role would have been filled by a major, but he had been seconded to assist with planning Operation Moshtarak in Helmand (p. 999). The captain who took his place had only been in post for three weeks, had received little training and was described by his own commanding officer as ‘barely adequate’ (p. 1103). [112]  Yet all three remaining field-grade officers at SOTF-South were asleep, even though the night was the time of highest risk (pp. 1006-7), and apart from the Fires Officer – who arranged the additional air cover requested by the GFC – McHale noted that all the posts on the night shift ‘were filled by personnel who were significantly less experienced than the day shift counterparts’ (p. 51). While it was true that Operation Noble Justice could not be executed until dawn, the coalition forces were exposed to attack during the three hours they had to wait for first light.  The GFC had made it clear that he thought the danger to them was increasing, but the green young battle captain merely monitored the stream of SALT reports through the small hours, acknowledging each one with a terse ‘Roger, Copy’ (p. 938), occasionally watching the Predator feed and periodically logging on to the mIRC chat:  what McHale called ‘a pretty passive kind of watching’ (p. 1014).  ‘I just monitored and saw what happened,’ the Night Battle Captain told him (p. 1549). [113]  Although the major who was Director of the Operations Center conceded that the most active period was between 0200 and 0600 – the period with the ‘highest density of risk and threat’ – he insisted there were ‘wake-up criteria’ in place that were met in this instance and should have had him called into the Operations Center (p. 993).  But he wasn’t.  The Night Battle Captain said he ‘didn’t feel at that point it was necessary to wake anyone’ (p. 1549), and even as the situation deteriorated he still saw no reason to wake his senior officers or to reach down to the GFC. [114] A series of immensely consequential decisions would have to be taken by the GFC alone. [115]

The vehicles were now trying to ford a river, making several attempts to find a safe crossing.  Their every move was being watched back in the United States and at 0551, when the water rose to the doors, the Predator pilot exclaimed: ‘I hope they fucking drown them out, man.  Drown your [shit] out and wait to get shot.’  ‘I hope they get out and dry off,’ the MC added, ‘and show us all their weapons.’ The Predator crew was now anticipating an airstrike with relish, and they had a brief discussion about the legal envelope within which it would take place.  The pilot wondered how the presence of ‘potential children and potential [human] shields’ would affect the application of the Rules of Engagement, and the sensor operator told him the GFC was assessing (or would have to assess: the basis for his comment is unclear) ‘proportionality and distinction’. That is confusing too – or perhaps just confused – since those are considerations required by International Humanitarian Law rather than the ROE.  They forbid military force to be used against civilian targets or to cause ‘excessive civilian harm’. ‘Is that part of CDE [Collateral Damage Estimation]?’ the pilot asked, adding that he was ‘not worried from our standpoint so much’ – since that was not their responsibility – but that it was asking a lot of the GFC to make such a determination.  The sensor operator thought he would have to wait ‘until they start firing, cause then it essentially puts any possible civilian casualties on the enemy.’  ‘If we’ve got friendlies taking effective fire,’ he said, ‘then we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do.’  Should that happen before the SWT arrived, the pilot decided, ‘we can take a shoot … get as many as we can that are hostile, hopefully track them still in the open’ – and then, presumably, talk the helicopters onto the target once they arrived.

The Predator crew clearly had no pre-strike guidance from a military lawyer from the Judge Advocate-General’s Corps (known as a JAG).  By 2005 JAGs were part of the US Air Force’s ‘kill-chain’, stationed on the operations floor of CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to advise on targeting. [116]  They were also forward deployed in Afghanistan, but the Safety Observer at Creech Air Force Base, who was called in shortly before the engagement and whose responsibilities included ‘making sure the ROE had been met’, confirmed that there was no JAG ‘on site to consult during these engagements’ (p. 1459). [117]  In any case, the leading strike aircraft in this instance would be the OH-58 helicopters. As the Predator crew had realised, the onus was on the GFC, who had to decide whether the vehicles constituted a legitimate military target whose execution fell within the ROE and the Tactical Directive, and then order the JTAC to issue a ‘nine-line’ brief and clear the aircraft to engage. [118]

The Safety Observer explained that ‘the only other way’ a strike could be authorised would involve the identification of a High-Value Individual (HVI) whose execution would require an additional level of clearance through ‘a joint targeting message from the CAOC’ (p. 1457). [119]   The GFC knew that – ‘an HVI was above my authority’ (p. 953) – and so did the JTAC, who said he would have had to refusd any order from the GFC to clear the helicopters to engage an HVI without higher approval (p. 1495).  The JTAC told McHale that the GFC was still convinced that the convoy was carrying at least one HVI (p. 1491) – the ‘high-level Taliban commander’ and his security detail inferred at the start of the pursuit – but that he had also decided it posed an ‘imminent threat’ to coalition forces at Khod, which the JTAC was satisfied constituted sufficient grounds to engage (p. 1495).

It is impossible to adjudicate the issue: the GFC claimed that he had discounted the presence of an HVI (above, p. 00), and since the CAOC was not involved in cases of self-defence and imminent threat – the presumptive triggers in this instance – the only sources of legal advice available to the GFC were JAGs at the two Special Forces Operations Centers at Kandahar and Bagram Air Fields.  Throughout the night neither was contacted by the battle captains.


At 0601 Task Force Wolfpack’s Duty Officer at FOB Ripley logged the request sent via Regional Command–South ‘for aircraft coverage for [a] TIC’ (p. 402).  McHale characterised this as a ‘911 call’ (p. 1438) which – whether he intended to or not – was a tacit acknowledgement that the narrative had been transformed and a precautionary measure had become an emergency response. This was exactly how the message was received by the helicopter crews, and in fact throughout the stream of communications that resulted in the Scout Weapons Team being scrambled the situation was consistently described not as an AirTIC but as a TIC: a live incident. Those charged with providing air support, as Air Force Lt Gen Stephen Hoog explained, ‘are not in the business of determining whether a TIC is “real” or not.’ [120]

Within ten minutes of the call being received at FOB Ripley the Predator crew knew that two OH-58 helicopters would be scrambled.  All they could do for the moment was watch the vehicles on their screens and wait as their drivers made heavy weather of it (Figure 4). The dirt roads and uneven ground meant they rarely exceeded 10 m.p.h., and there were several stops for people to get off to help the vehicles make it up a steep incline. There were other stops, sometimes to let an overheated engine cool down and at others for punctures or repairs to the wheels (fortunately for them – though not for him – they had a mechanic with them).  ‘When something breaks in Afghanistan it probably breaks pretty good,’ the MC observed, ‘with all the rough terrain and everything.’

From here on virtually everything the Predator crew described, in conjunction with the pilot’s exchanges with the JTAC, contributed to the continued collaborative construction of an imaginative geography of an impending Taliban attack. The fact that there were vehicles out there at all attracted suspicion.  In such a poor area, the JTAC told McHale, ‘from my experience those with vehicles are well-off and supported by the Taliban or Taliban themselves’ (p. 1487). Soon the vehicles had become ‘technical trucks’ – a standard term for pick-up trucks with improvised mounts for crew-served weapons [121] – and when they were joined by a third at 0602 (dubbed ’guilt by association’) this was seen as a ‘grouping of forces’ and now they constituted a ‘convoy’. At 0617, after they had finally crossed the river and stopped for people to get out and pray – the Fajr that was a normal start to the day for any devout Muslim – this was seized upon as a Taliban signifier: ‘They’re praying, they’re praying,’ the sensor operator declared, ‘I mean, seriously, that’s what they [the Taliban] do.’  The MC agreed: ‘They’re gonna do something nefarious.’  [122]  This was the moment when the passengers in the vehicles first became aware of an aircraft:

 ‘There is a rest area on the way where we stopped to pray,’ explained one of the women. ‘We got out of our cars, men and women. After our prayer, we left.  That’s when we heard the sound of a plane.  But we couldn’t see it.’ [123]

But it could see them, and a couple of minutes later the MC directed the crew’s attention to ‘that [infra-red] spot in the back of that truck.’  ‘It’s all their guns,’ the sensor operator told him.  This too was a leap of (bad) faith, followed by yet another.  When the MC passed the screeners’ identification of an adolescent near the rear of the SUV, the sensor operator responded with ‘teenagers can fight’, which the MC amplified: ‘Pick up a weapon and you’re a combatant, that’s how it works’ (it isn’t).  Once the screeners identified an additional weapon, the pilot was evidently satisfied that they were now on the same page as him and his crew: ‘I’ll make a radio call,’ he said on the intercom, ‘and I’ll look over [at mIRC] and they will have said the same thing…’  This was not the screeners’ view – to the contrary –but it served to enrol them in the crew’s elaboration of their narrative.  It also reversed the inferential order, since the role of the screeners was to pass expert calls to the Predator crew for transmission to the GFC rather than act as secondary confirmation.

In the midst of this cascade of mutually reinforcing interpretations, the GFC continued to exhibit what – following McChrystal’s guidance – McHale praised as ’tactical patience’.  When the vehicles stopped for the dawn prayer they were six or seven km (four miles) from the nearest coalition forces, and at 0627 the JTAC explained that the GFC still planned ‘to let the situation develop, permit the enemy to close [on coalition forces at Khod], and we’ll engage them closer, once they’ve all consolidated.’

By then the helicopters were on their way.  The two aircrews that made up Scout Weapons Team 1 (SWT1) had reported for duty at FOB Ripley at 0600 and anticipated carrying out routine armed reconnaissance along what coalition forces called Route Bear, the dirt highway that wound 160 miles south from Tarin Kowt to Kandahar. Ordinarily they would have been airborne between 0700 and 0800, but the lieutenant in command of the team explained that as soon as they arrived for their overnight intelligence (ONI) briefing they were ‘notified that the ground force operating north of Cobra [FB Tinsley] had declared a TIC’ (p. 776), and the pilot flying trail said that they ‘got freaked’ and scrambled more or less immediately at 0615 (p. 1438). The OH-58s did not have to be readied, and one journalist who visited Ripley saw them sitting ‘in their concrete blast bunkers on the dispersal ramp, fully fuelled and armed and ready to go 24 hours a day.’[124]

The two pilots flying that day rushed to complete the paperwork and ran up the engines, while their co-pilots (the ‘left-seaters’) stayed to receive detailed information. As he waited for the lieutenant to join him, the pilot flying lead contacted the JTAC who ‘painted a very broad picture for me’  (pp. 513-4). Shortly after take-off at 0630 the lieutenant (call sign BAMBAM41) radioed that they were en route

‘responding to a TIC [redacted] reporting 2-3 technical trucks with heavy weapons, 35-50 Taliban maneuvering on their positions.  [ICOM] suggests the Taliban think they can overrun friendly forces…’ (p. 336). [125]

The helicopters at Ripley frequently responded to TICs but the familiarity did nothing to diminish the sense of urgency. The lieutenant testified that it was ‘the norm rather than the exception’ for the Special Forces at FB Tinsley ‘to get into TICs when they go outside the wire’ (p. 777). The aircrews had worked with ODA 3124 before and knew them ‘very well’,  and the pilot flying lead believed that they were ‘about to get rolled, and I wanted to go and help them out…  There was a 12-man team out here plus whatever [unintelligible] they had that were about to get a whole lot [of] guys in their faces’ (p. 516). Yet again there was no indication that their mission was a precautionary measure; to the contrary. [126]

As they approached their holding position south of FB Tinsley – they would subsequently land at Tinsley to conserve fuel, fly back to Tarin Kowt to refuel and then return to Tinsley and flat pitch (pp. 408-9) – the crews attempted to familiarise themselves with the situation.  Like ODA 3124 they had an unambiguous sense of the area as a threat landscape. The map from their ONI briefing was peppered with ‘IED hotspots’ and ‘IED cells’, ‘insurgent spotter locations’ and ‘insurgent spotter networks’, ‘insurgent fighting positions’ and ‘insurgent activity’ which, according to the summary, had increased markedly over the past month (p. 372) (Figure 5). [127]

This was another, intensely visual modality of areal essentialism (above, p. 00), which must have been reinforced by the crews’ experience of providing support to ground forces (‘we respond to a lot of TICs’: p. 777).  As they flew towards the firebase they picked up radio communications between the JTAC and other aircraft, including the Predator, which helped to animate their map, and while they had no access to the Predator’s FMV feed they were able to plot the progress of the vehicles and put the operational picture together.

The JTAC warned the helicopter crews not to ‘burn the target’ – alert the occupants of the vehicles – but to hold south of their position ‘out of earshot’ to give them time to ‘consolidate on our location’ before moving in to strike, at which point he said the GFC’s intent was ‘to destroy those vehicles and all the personnel with them’ (p. 336).  At 0641 the Predator pilot relayed a message to the JTAC from SOTF-South advising him that, as promised, other aircraft were ‘being pushed to this as well’ (call sign DUDE).  When the Fires Officer had told the GFC that A-10s might be coming too, he had been asked to have them hold south of the grid – like the helicopters – so that the occupants of the vehicles would have no warning of an attack, and the Predator pilot now relayed that DUDE was currently holding south of FB Tinsley and could be on station in four minutes. At 0645 the MC noted that the information about the TIC had finally appeared in the ASOC chat room (‘TIC A01’), and at 0649 the pilot was asked to bring the Predator down to 13,000 feet to de-conflict the airspace: ‘Have DUDE above you in support of TIC A01.’

But this was not the keenly anticipated A-10s.  Instead two F-15Es roared overhead.  The F-15 was originally designed for aerial combat, not CAS and still less CCA. Although the F-15E had been modified to conduct bombing missions, it flew at speeds that could exceed Mach 2.5 (around 3,000 km/hr) and so its pilots were wholly dependent on its sensors for target identification and laser designation.  This was noisy, split-second stuff, and the GFC was furious.  He immediately made another satellite phone call to the Night Battle Captain at SOTF-South:  ‘I was very adamant. I have fast-movers over my station, my desire is to have rotary wing aircraft’  because ‘they can PID any type of individual much better than some[one] flying at 15,000 feet dropping a bomb’ (p. 940). [128]  The advantage of the helicopter  – the capacity to come in low and slow – was supposed to be compounded by the persistent presence of the Predator.  The commander of the 432ndAir Expeditionary Wing boasted that his Predators ‘don’t show up on the battlespace and have 15 minutes of hold time to build our situational awareness.  We have a high capacity to make sure that we have the exact, right target in our crosshairs…. Time is not our enemy. We own time.’ [129]

In this case, even though the Predator was on station for more than three hours before the engagement, they didn’t. And it was a matter of space as well as time.  The GFC believed that the roar of the jets overhead had burned the target, because as soon as the F-15s made their pass the three vehicles changed direction; instead of heading south they were now driving along a ridge to the west (Figure 6). [130] At 0655 the JTAC told the Predator pilot that when the F-15s appeared ‘everyone started talking [on ICOM] about stopping movement.’ The occupants of the vehicles were now caught in a trap: all the time they were heading towards Khod they were seen as posing a direct threat, but as soon as they turned away many of those following their progress assumed they were executing a flanking manoeuvre.

That possibility was raised by the JTAC at 0708 – ‘it appears that they’re either trying to flank us or they’re continuing to the west to avoid contact,’ he told the Predator pilot, and asked to be warned ‘if those vehicles turn south’ (his emphasis) – and the Predator pilot replied that his crew ‘can’t tell yet if they’re flanking or just trying to get out of the area.’  The sensor operator thought ‘they’d go back home if they were trying to get out’, and during his interview with McHale’s team the JTAC said much the same. Asked ‘Is there anything this convoy could have done that would have prevented this engagement?’ he shot back: ‘travelled north’ (pp. 1496-7).

‘Flanking’ was a loaded term – one of the key lessons learned from this incident and incorporated into the Army’s guidance was that language like ‘”flanking” can lead to assumptions regarding hostile intent that may be unfounded’ [131] – but the die was soon cast.  For the next hour or more the Predator crew considered every possible route the vehicles could take to bring them down to Khod.  At 0708 the MC thought they were ‘trying to go around this ridge’, and the sensor operator pointed to ‘some low ground here, like a valley that goes straight to the village, it looks like…’  He added that he ‘wouldn’t be surprised if they started heading south-east at some point’ (towards Khod).

Watching from Hurlburt Field, the screeners doubted the flanking call and did their best to close it down.  The primary screener had been following the FMV feed and, with her geospatial analyst, tracking the vehicles on Falcon View, a digital mapping system. At 0710 she discussed their movement with one of her FMV analysts: their assessment was that ‘rather than moving south [they] appeared to be moving west out of the area’ (p. 1407).  She had no direct communication with the JTAC but she immediately sent a message to the Predator crew via mIRC saying it ‘looks like they are evading the area’.  In reply, the MC told her they ‘may be flanking, too soon to tell right now.’ She was still convinced the vehicles had ‘continued past all of the roads that they could have turned and been about to flank blue [coalition] forces’, so she sent a second, urgent mIRC message: ‘too far away from blue forces to be flanking.’  The response from the MC was dismissive – ‘They were spooked earlier from [the F-15s]’ (p. 1392) – and the same FMV analyst complained to McHale that the Predator crew ‘were very quick to disregard our assessments….  The MC comes up and tries to convince us that this is hostile forces.  Their desire to engage targets gets in the way on their assessments’ (p. 1408).

The Predator pilot had a different interpretation of what took place.   In his eyes pursuing the possibility that the vehicles were flanking was ‘the most conservative call’.  One of McHale’s team raised his eyebrows at that; as a former brigade commander he took ‘conservative’ to mean ‘I don’t fire’.  But the pilot stuck to his guns.  To him a conservative call was about ‘keeping our guys on the ground safe’, and he was unwilling to make ‘any hasty calls’ about the vehicles evading the area.  He elected to make what he believed were ‘the safest calls for our guys on the ground’ (p. 915).

Perhaps for that reason, the primary screener’s interpretation was never passed to the JTAC (p. 22). [132]   Her immediate superior, the Mission Operation Commander at Hurlburt Field, told McHale that ‘the biggest wild card is what these guys [the Predator crew] are telling the dudes on the ground’ (p. 594) – and what they were not [133]– and the screeners had no access to that information.  Their only points of contact were via mIRC with the MC at Creech and with the Operations Center at SOTF–South.

The Predator crew remained alert for every possible route that would take the vehicles down to Khod.  At 0716 the JTAC asked for an update on their position and direction of travel, and – following the sensor operator’s suggestion – the pilot told him ‘we’re coming up on a valley here, so we’ll be able to tell if they’re turning south towards you…’  A few minutes later he told the crew: ‘Does kinda look like he’s turning south here, huh, maybe?  No? (Expletive) I can’t tell!’  Throughout these and subsequent exchanges the will of the Predator crew to have the vehicles turn south was almost palpable, which would (in their eyes) have validated the strike to which they were now committed: ‘Still a sweet fucking target,’ exclaimed the sensor operator.

At 0719 the MC raised the possibility that the vehicles were leaving the area, though only on the crew intercom and without mentioning that this was the screeners’ assessment – ‘They could[‘ve] got spooked earlier and called it off’ – only to discard it as soon as the pilot again asked: ‘They are turning south, huh?’  The MC immediately agreed, pointing to a road, and the pilot radioed the JTAC: ‘It looks like the road we are following currently trending to the south, so back to the south at this time…’   He estimated the vehicles were now around six nautical miles (11 km) from the nearest coalition forces at Khod.  And yet doubts continued to surface; this was a difficult landscape to read from 14,000 feet. ‘I really don’t know, man,’ the pilot confessed at 0722.  Would they ‘take this valley to the south and run?  Or if they’re going to go back towards our guys, or what?’   A few minutes later the sensor reassured him. In a mile or so ‘they might have a chance to turn east.  I think there’s a road that cuts through these ridges…’

They had to wait for confirmation because all three vehicles juddered to a halt for more repairs.  At first it appeared to be just another puncture, but as the delay dragged on it seemed to be more serious. One of the men appeared to have crawled under the Hilux to work on its suspension, so the Predator crew concluded they had hit something when they forded the river.  ‘You gotta pretty much know how to fix a vehicle if you live in Afghanistan,’ the MC would observe later on.  ‘When something breaks in Afghanistan, it probably breaks pretty good.’


While the vehicles were at a standstill – they would not be able to resume their journey for another half hour or more – the screeners were asked about the demographic composition of the occupants, and this time the pilot did pass their assessment to the JTAC: ’21 MAMs, no females, two possible children.’  ‘When we say children,’ the JTAC asked, ‘are we talking teenagers or toddlers?’ Without consulting the screeners the sensor operator advised the pilot they looked to be about 12, ‘more adolescents or teens’, and he agreed: ‘We’re thinking early teens,’ he told the JTAC.  The screeners confirmed but then updated their call.  ‘Only one adolescent,’ the pilot radioed the JTAC, who replied that ‘12-13 years old with a weapon is just as dangerous.’  McHale was repeatedly told that age had a different meaning in Afghanistan.  The GFC explained that the Afghan forces with whom they worked included fighters as young as 12 – ‘if they can carry a gun, they will fight’ –  and that the definitions of adolescent ‘for Americans versus Afghans are completely different’  (p. 943).  To the JTAC an adolescent was ‘someone that is 15 years old, a young adult.  We have [Afghan National Army], [Afghan National Police] and [Afghan Security Guards] that work with us, and they are teenagers. They are not 15 years old by American standards.  I’ve seen them be fairly cold-blooded on the battlefield and I know that the insurgent forces have a lot of young men working for them, supporting the Taliban’ (p. 1484). In his view a ‘military-age male’ could even be ‘as young as 13 years old’ (p. 1485).   These are instructive glosses because they accentuate the differences between Afghan and American culture – one of the mistakes of the cultural turn described by US counterinsurgency doctrine was its failure to acknowledge co-incident similarities between American and other cultures, which I suspect made empathy all the more difficult to achieve – and because the key differences are those that can be read as prejudicial and ultimately hostile.

By now the Predator crew had become so convinced by the subtitles they had been adding to the silent movie playing on their screens that they were turning negatives into positives.  The absence of rifles when the passengers got out was explained away – ‘They probably mostly left their weapons in the vehicles’ – and when the JTAC told them he was looking for more than AK-47s,  ‘something like a mortar, or something large and fairly obvious’, the pilot promised ‘we’ll keep our eyes open but we haven’t seen it yet.’  That dangling ‘yet’ was pregnant with meaning, and a few minutes later the Predator crew speculated that there could be a dismantled mortar in the back of one of the SUVs and that the passengers might be sitting on the mortar tubes or they could be concealed ‘anywhere in [the] base plate.’  It is a truism that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – but it is certainly not evidence of presence.

As they attempted to obtain a clearer view, with the sensor operator adjusting the focus of the cameras and then switching from infra-red to full colour imagery as the sun came up, they looked forward to the airstrike they were convinced was coming. They knew the helicopters would be responsible for attacking the vehicles so the pilot explained they would have to ‘play squirter patrol’ and go after those who escaped from the wreckage. ‘I imagine they’ll run like hell all over the place,’ the sensor operator reflected, and if that happened the pilot told him to ‘follow whoever gives you the best shot and ends with us shooting.’

Meanwhile, in addition to evaluating ICOM and the reports from the Predator crew via the JTAC, the GFC continued to direct ground operations at Khod. As soon as dawn broke his teams had been good to go, and they had been busy carrying out searches, busting locks with bolt-cutters – an electronics store was of particular interest because it was the suspected source of components used for making radio-controlled IEDs – interrogating suspects and taking biometrics (p. 948). In two hours they had detained 70 men for questioning (p. 1356).

As these operations in the air and on the ground continued, Creech and Khod both alive with activity, SOTF-South’s Operation Center at Kandahar Air Field came to life too. It was arranged in tiers of half-moon seats, the lights dimmed, all eyes focused on the displays at their individual workstations, those on duty glancing from time to time at three 10 X 12 screens above their heads showing the FMV feed from the Predator and the route of the convoy on Google Earth and Falcon View.  At the very top and centre – ‘the centre of gravity’, as Petit described it to me – sat the battle captain who had been monitoring events throughout the night. At 0735 the shift changed, and when the Day Battle Captain arrived he found the Night Battle Captain, his operations NCO and the Fires Officer all ‘fixated on … the big screen, watching our Predator feed’ (p. 1224). He was quickly briefed on the developing situation by the Night Battle Captain, who gave him transcripts of the SALT reports, reviewed the route of the three vehicles and explained that they were ‘potentially responding to [an] enemy commander’s call to muster forces and maneuvering to attack’ (p. 2107).  He also told him about the reported sightings of children (‘one or two kids’) and weapons (p. 1226).

It took the Day Battle Captain 15-20 minutes to get up to speed.  He was a former ODA commander, and although he had only deployed with SOTF-South the previous month he had been trained for his role since September and was both more experienced and more assured than his predecessor.  He knew ODA 3124 and the area in which they were operating – ‘They have a very good idea of situational awareness… they know the terrain and they know the enemy’ (p. 1225) – and he had no hesitation in accepting that the occupants of the vehicles were probably hostile and that the GFC had good reason to think the Taliban were gathering for an attack on his position.  He also knew that the Scout Weapons Team had been scrambled in response to the AirTIC, but – in his eyes and those of his colleagues at SOTF-South – this remained a precautionary measure and, unlike a TIC, did not trigger any battle drill in the Operations Center.[134]  He knew too that the OH-58s were currently off station refuelling, and he also understood that the GFC wanted to wait in order ‘to allow the enemy to come in’ close to Khod (p. 1233).  All told, he had no reason to suppose an airstrike was going to happen any time soon.  But neither did he think a ground attack was imminent. Like the screeners he could see from the Predator feed and from the digital map displays that the vehicles had changed direction and were now moving away from Khod.  He opened his folder containing the Tactical Directive to work out ‘at what point, if those forces needed to, they could … potentially call fire from any of those assets [aircraft] that were on station.’ He was unsure – he had never seen an airstrike called in such a situation before (p. 1241) – and so he went to get SOTF-South’s JAG (‘someone who was extremely smart with the Tactical Directive’) to ‘help us to review what we are seeing and to put it into his own eyes’ (p. 1228) so they could advise the GFC ‘the next time we were in contact’ (p. 1254). This in itself was unusual: the military lawyer was ordinarily called only once a battle drill had been initiated – following the declaration of a TIC, for example – and where ‘there [were] civilian casualties as a result from [a] kinetic strike’ (p. 1227).  But in this case only an AirTIC had been declared and no battle drill had been initiated.

The JAG, Capt Brad Cowan, was new to Afghanistan – he had deployed in January fresh from the 1st Special Forces home base at Fort Lewis near Tacoma – and also new to his role at SOTF-South.  His previous front-line tour of duty had been with the US Army Trial Defense Service in Iraq in 2006-7, where his primary responsibility had been to represent soldiers at courts martial, boards and criminal investigations. The application of International Humanitarian Law, the ROE and the Tactical Directive required different skill sets.  At Kandahar Cowan conducted legal scrutiny of all CONOPS, and  although his targeting experience was limited – and he had been involved in only one incident involving civilian casualties, just two weeks earlier, the result not of an airstrike but of a combat patrol returning fire from a residential compound – he was commonly called to the Operations Center to advise on the use of air support and so he knew that there was little lead time for dynamic targeting. [135]  One of the NCOs ran over to give him the mIRC printouts, which he read as he hurried to the Operations Center, and when he arrived shortly after 0800 he scanned the SALT reports, watched the Predator feed on one of the giant screens and jotted down notes on the Rules of Engagement and the Tactical Directive (p. 608).

Meanwhile Colonel Gus Benton, the commander of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) at Bagram Air Field, the link above Kandahar in the Special Forces chain of command, was heading over to his Operations Center. This was his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, and like all field-grade officers he had wake-up criteria but his staff had never had occasion to disturb him before (or perhaps never dared to).  But early on that Sunday morning his Night Operations Chief had phoned to alert him to the developing situation with ODA 3124.  ‘I was told we had [a] TIC’ (p. 527), he recalled, though he couldn’t remember ‘specifically what he told me, I just said “Roger, okay, got it”’ (p. 542). He got up and monitored radio traffic on his desktop receiver until he decided to dress and go over to the Operations Center.  He did not wait for a briefing, he told McHale: ‘I just walked in and said “Have we dropped?”’ (p. 543). It was a characteristically blunt question but it did not elicit the answer he expected. CJSOTF-A’s JAG had not been called (he never was), but Benton’s deputy did his best to justify the GFC’s tactical patience.  He was a former ODB commander who had served in Tarin Kowt in 2005-6 and had experience of similar situations, and he told Benton he thought the GFC was right to wait until the vehicles were within sight of Khod.  ‘I said that is what we did, we let them come to us so we can get eyes on them,’ he told McHale. ‘During my time I never let my guys [in the ODAs] engage with [Close Air Support] if they couldn’t see [the target]. I said that is great and Colonel [Benton] said “that is not fucking great” and left the room’ (p. 758).

The two men had a fractious relationship, and his deputy was worried that Benton was going to call down to Kandahar and order a strike. True to form, at 0820 Benton contacted SOTF-South and demanded that its commanding officer be brought to the phone. The Day Battle Captain immediately went to fetch Petit.  When he was woken up – he too had wake-up criteria but nobody had alerted him to what was happening – Petit was taken aback at the peremptory summons and frankly ‘ticked off’ that he had been brought in ‘so late in the game’ (p. 1085). The Day Battle Captain did his best to explain the bare bones of the situation as they hurried back to the Operations Center, but it took less than a minute and Petit was hardly well prepared when he picked up the phone.  During their short and no doubt terse conversation Benton did not issue a direct order to strike the vehicles but to Petit his meaning and intent were unmistakeable: ‘his guidance was to put lethal fires on them’ (p. 1094) because he was convinced ‘this was a target that was right for an engagement’ (p. 1112).

In his own evidence, Benton said that he told Petit he wanted ‘to make sure we minimise collateral damage’:

‘Let’s not wait until those forces get on top of our guys to take it out.  What I saw on the screen was vehicles, empty roads as the element [vehicles] moved, no villages or compounds in the direct vicinity. I thought as if I were pulling the trigger; a pattern like this maneuver, this JPEL moving along this road, no significant collateral damage.  The conditions were right based on what I understood for an effective target’ (p. 530). [136]

The first part made sense.  The Tactical Directive limited attacks against residential compounds in order to minimise civilian casualties, and by then the vehicles were in open country (‘empty roads, no villages or compounds’) heading through a wadi that the GFC described as a ‘rat-line’, a supply route used by the Taliban (p. 1360).

But the second part was more problematic.  Benton endorsed the GFC’s early belief that a ‘High Value Individual’ (HVI) on the JPEL target list was among the passengers, though he later admitted he had no direct knowledge of one at all. In any case, he had other, more urgent reasons to want a strike.  He was convinced that the vehicles and their occupants displayed a suspicious ‘pattern of life’ (a phrase he repeated several times) – that the vehicles were maneuvering tactically (’that pattern of maneuver’) – and that there was no time to waste.

Benton said he thought time was running out because coalition forces were ‘still prosecuting objective Khod’ and ‘the Pred feed [showed] vehicles moving to reinforce… getting closer….’   There was nothing complicated about it; unlike the Predator crew, and eventually the JTAC and the GFC, he did not debate whether the vehicles were evading or flanking because he was convinced they were still heading directly to Khod. When his Night Operations Chief woke him up he may have been told the distance from the convoy to coalition forces, he wasn’t sure, but given the time between that wake-up call and his arrival in the Operations Center Benton concluded that ‘obviously they have gotten closer, in my head they have gotten closer’ (p. 552). He made the same assertion multiple times (‘vehicles moving towards objective Khod’) until an exasperated colonel on McHale’s team pressed him on how he knew. Benton admitted he never consulted a map, but looking up at the Predator feed on the wall and ‘seeing the vehicles move towards the objective’ he decided he ‘needed to make the call to Lt Col [Petit].’  When he was asked to confirm the vehicles were still heading south, Benton blustered: ‘There [was] no way for me, Pred feed, vehicle moving on the road, to make that discernment, whether we are talking south or north…’  The colonel pointed out an icon in the lower left corner of the FMV feed that showed the direction of tracked movement. The vehicles were moving southwest not south.  ‘Okay,’ Benton responded, ‘well I missed that’ (pp. 546-7).

But the colonel had not finished with him:

‘Now here’s why we are asking.  If you go back over here [indicating the map], objective Khod, vehicles first identified and then throughout the morning, as you can see, initially moving in that direction.  But then they are tracked all the way over here – there’s the objective.  And then they continue off to the southwest, so we were a little surprised when you mentioned vehicles moving towards objective Khod…  If that helps paint the picture’ (pp. 547-8).

‘I will take a hit on that,’ Benton responded – a remarkably insensitive choice of words in the circumstances – before rallying and defiantly asserting that distance did not matter to him: ‘I would have pulled the trigger on a dynamic target thousands of kilometres away…’ (p. 551).  A Predator pilot might well do that – Creech was more than 11,000 km away – but not a commander on the ground.  For one of McHale’s legal advisers reminded Benton that the Tactical Directive madedistance matter because it had a direct bearing on whether a target posed an immediate or imminent threat (p. 550).

Benton was not alone in his casual attitude towards geo-location. His Night Operations Chief told McHale that from the time they woke Benton until he walked into the Operations Center ‘nothing changed’ and they briefed him accordingly. And he too insisted that when the vehicles were hit they were closer to Khod than when they were first spotted.  ‘It’s hard for me to stay in my seat,’ exclaimed one exasperated member of McHale’s team (maybe the same one).  ‘It’s about 5½ kilometers when they start in the north and 15 kilometers [nine miles] when they got struck.’  ‘What’, he wanted to know, is ‘the responsibility of the Ops Director with situational awareness and understanding?’ (p. 1472).

It was a good question, because the calibration of distance involved more than reading the Predator feed correctly.  As soon as Cowan arrived in the Operations Center at SOTF-South he had asked for ‘a straight-line distance between the team and the convoy’ precisely because he wanted to know whether the vehicles posed an imminent threat to coalition forces (p. 611).  One of the NCOs measured it on a Google map overlay as 12.8 km (eight miles) (p. 604), but observers at different locations had different ideas about how that translated into time.  The lieutenant commanding SWT1 thought it would have taken the vehicles ‘at least a couple of hours’ to reach Khod – which prompted one of McHale’s team to ask him ‘so what is “imminent threat” again?’ (p. 783) – while the pilot flying trail reckoned it would have taken them ‘three hours, give or take’ (p. 1441).  But they had latterly picked up speed – at 0708 the Predator pilot reported they were ‘hauling pretty good’ and by 0717 they were travelling ‘faster than the past hour, fastest yet’ – and perhaps for this reason the Fires Officer at SOTF-South thought ‘it would have taken 35-45 minutes [for them] to get back to where the team was’ (p. 723), while the GFC believed they ‘would be on me in fifteen to twenty minutes’ (p. 980).  Cowan provided no estimate of his own but given the distance he did not believe the vehicles constituted an immediate threat – though in the course of a protracted discussion with the senior legal adviser on McHale’s team he tied himself in knots, arguing that they did pose an ‘imminent threat’ before adding ‘imminent to me means immediate’ (p. 614) – and testified that in his view ‘at all times’ the vehicles met ‘the definition of imminent threat’ (p. 653).

Distance was also a key factor for others in the Operations Center at SOTF-South because – unlike Benton – they realised that the vehicles were now much further from Khod than when they had first been spotted.  At the very least – again, in contrast to Benton’s harried urgency – they believed this bought them time. When Petit finished his call with Benton (he had simply listened to his superior and promised to call back after he had been briefed) he admitted he was in a state of ‘near panic’ (p. 1112).  But he relaxed when he heard the vehicles were still so far from Khod: he told McHale ‘we felt like we had time’ to decide a course of action (p. 1113).  The JAG stepped forward and gave Petit his legal opinion: there were insufficient grounds for an airstrike. Not only were the vehicles increasing their distance from coalition forces – moving away rather than closing – but also, and more importantly, they did not constitute a legitimate military target:  ‘I didn’t see anything in that video feed that would indicate a hostile act or hostile intent’ (p. 610). [137]  The likely presence of children also gave him pause.  The resolution of the Predator feed was ‘fairly poor’, he said, so that ‘if someone was being identified [by the screeners] as a child through that view, then he must be fairly young… It must have been obvious that they weren’t a fighting-age male(p. 607).  he absence of heavy weapons was another concern.  He required evidence of ‘something more than just AK-47s,’ he explained, ‘which are not an indication of hostile intent.  Everybody has a weapon in this country.  Something bigger, something crew-served, some mortar system, a larger number of weapons, more than just a few ‘ (p. 613). [138] In sum, Cowan believed that in the circumstances ‘some sort of show of force or potential escalation of force’ (p. 604) would achieve the ‘same effect as engaging the target’ (p. 615) and unlike an airstrike would be consistent with the Tactical Directive. [139]

Almost immediately after Petit hung up, another secure phone rang.  It was a major that Petit knew from Task Force–South, a Ranger-led Special Operations unit also based at Kandahar Air Field, whose unit carried out HVI targeting and relied heavily on remote platforms for ISR. [140] They had also been watching the Predator feed, and he told Petit this situation was ‘along the lines of their mission set.’  He offered to send an Attack Weapons Team – AH-64 Apache helicopters – to conduct an Aerial Vehicle Interdiction (AVI) in which the vehicles would be forced to halt, ideally without opening fire, so they could be searched and the occupants questioned (p. 725).  This was in accordance with standard US military doctrine – which stipulates that ‘missions attacking targets not in close proximity to friendly forces … should be conducted using air interdiction (AI) procedures’(my emphasis) [141] – so that if the occupants proved to be hostile they could be engaged in full knowledge of their intent.  This chimed with Cowan’s recommendation, and the Day Battle Captain agreed that an escalation of force was the right response in the circumstances (‘the best bet’: p. 1230).  The Fires Officer was also cautious, but preferred a different course of action. In his view, the vehicles had changed ‘from tactical maneuvering to just travelling,’ as one of McHale’s team put it (p. 724), and he suggested that ‘we continue to follow with the Predator and watch to see where they go.’ This had been the GFC’s original intention too.  ‘I thought we could get better intelligence by watching to see where they go and who they link up with,’ the Fires Officer told Petit, ‘rather than interdicting them.’ But Petit had evidently absorbed enough of Benton’s argument – and the requirements of the Tactical Directive – to make him reluctant to wait and see what developed.  If they failed to act, the vehicles might end up ‘somewhere we couldn’t stop them at that point, like a compound’ (pp. 725-6).   And so it was agreed to arrange an AVI.

The GFC was wholly unaware of these developments at SOTF-South and while all the discussions were taking place at Kandahar he had decided that his situation at Khod had become much more precarious.  At 0744 the JTAC had told the Predator pilot that:

‘We just had [ICOM] traffic saying that all mujahedeen needs to start moving and come together. We currently have two groups that are talking to each other.  I suspect that one of them is the group in the vehicle[s], and another [is the] group to the south of us.’ [142]

The GFC and the JTAC had no way to confirm their suspicions – presumably they had nothing from the NSA cell – but the GFC was also receiving radio reports from the outer checkpoints of his cordon to the north and the south that women and children were leaving their villages and ‘pushing to open ground’ – ‘which is normal when an attack is about to happen’ (p. 1356): ‘a direct reflection of an impending attack’ (p. 947) – and he could also hear a checkpoint manned by Afghan Security Guards much further to the south, outside his immediate area of operation, exchanging fire with insurgents who were using heavy machine guns abandoned by the Red Army when they withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988-9 (p. 947). [143]

By now the possibility that the three vehicles could be anything other than a threat had been abandoned by the GFC and the JTAC.  At 0806 the JTAC radioed the Predator pilot: ‘Need to know as soon as they turn eastbound and come back to the green zone towards the direction of Khod.’ The pilot replied: ‘As soon as they break off to the east we will let you know’  (my emphases).  No longer ‘if’ but ‘when’: the conditional had become the imminent because the JTAC had told the pilot that they had received ‘special intelligence that the [northern] group is trying to link up with another fighting force out of [Pay Kotal: a village to the south] that is moving up to Khod to engage our positions.’ [144] Calling those moving up from the south another fighting force sealed the fate of the occupants of the three vehicles travelling from the north. The possibility of encirclement had been preying on the GFC’s mind since the first reports of Taliban fighters converging on Khod from the south and the north at 0450 (above, p. 00), and at 0607 he had received another report that ‘insurgents state they have enough bodies to fight’ and ‘we won’t be able to leave the area’ (p. 937).  The ICOM chatter at 0744 had made this seem all the more likely, and the ‘special intelligence’ delivered final confirmation. Putting all this together, the GFC was now convinced that the three vehicles were a Taliban convoy executing a flanking manoeuvre to complete the encirclement of his forces: ‘to close off the envelopment’ (pp. 946). The JTAC had concerns of his own.  He was worried that bad weather forecast for that night and the next 48 hours would prevent the Chinooks returning to ferry them back to FB Tinsley. The contingency plan was to head south and link up with ‘a Commando mission’ that was supposed to come out the next day, but if they were encircled their escape route would be blocked and they would be trapped (p. 1357).

The GFC duly told SOTF-South that his forces were being ‘enveloped’ (p. 1358), but there was no requirement for him to inform them that in consequence he was about to clear the helicopters to engage the target.  There had been circumstances in the past when ODAs taking fire from a compound had requested permission from the SOTF-South commander for an airstrike; sometimes he had agreed and at other times he had not (p. 1261).  But the Tactical Directive specifically advised caution in striking residential compounds – hence the need to seek permission – whereas in this case the GFC deliberately chose to have the helicopters attack once the vehicles were in open country so the circumstances were different. [145] The GFC was prepared to bring the Predator in too, and at 0818 the JTAC issued the promissory note its crew had been hoping for.  ‘At Ground Force Commander’s discretion,’ he radioed, ‘we may have [the OH-58s] come up, action those targets and let you use your Hellfire for clean-up shot.’

All of this was within the authority of the GFC.  The Fires Officer at SOTF-South was primarily responsible for arranging air cover, both ISR and strike capability, but he explained they routinely established a decentralized ROZ (Restricted Operating Zone) so that once the aircraft were on station they were under the control of the JTAC acting for the GFC (p. 728). [146] This maximised the GFC’s freedom of manoeuvre, but it also recognised that the JTAC was in direct communication with the supporting aircraft so he and the GFC could have additional intelligence that was not immediately available to SOTF-South. An ROZ typically had a radius of 10 km or less – which would have placed the three vehicles outside its perimeter – but the Fires Officer was unconcerned because he believed the OH-58s were ‘not for the vehicles’ but for ‘what we thought was going to be a large TIC on the objective.’  He was emphatic about that, echoing the GFC’s original plan to allow the vehicles to close on Khod: ‘The [Scout] Weapons Team that was pushed forward to his location was not for the vehicles, it was for the possibility of a large TIC on the objective [Khod] based on the ICOM chatter that we had’ (pp. 734-5).[147]

But in the GFC’s eyes the situation was now very different, and even though he had no obligation to inform the Operations Center of his revised plan he was insistent that at ‘some time between 0820 and 0830’ he sent a SALT report to SOTF-South telling them he was going to clear the OH-58s to engage (p. 955) in response to an ‘imminent threat’ to coalition forces (p. 1495). [148] Astonishingly, McHale’s team were unable to verify his testimony because the pre-strike transcripts of SALT reports available to them ended at 0650 (p. 948). [149]  No explanation for their absence was forthcoming, but the Day Battle Captain was equally insistent that once SOTF-South had agreed on an AVI, had the GFC contacted the Operations Center ‘and said that the OH-58s are on station and this is their tasking and purpose, I am going to give authorization to engage this convoy, we would have stopped that’ (p. 1258).  It would almost certainly have had to be that way round, because it was so simple matter for SOTF-South to reach down to the GFC.  The Fires Officer explained that the batteries that power the ODA’s satellite communications ‘don’t last long, and it was a “remain over day” mission so I am sure they had it turned off.’ ‘If we had pertinent information that we need to push,’ he continued, ‘we tell them to contact us on iridium [satellite phone]’  (p. 724).  This required SOTF-South to send a mIRC message to the Predator crew, the pilot to relay the message to the JTAC via radio, and the GFC then to power up the iridium phone. [150]


[101]The testimony offered by the major in command of the AC-130 claimed a reluctance to strike that is not evident from the communications transcript.

‘Without the [Redacted: ICOM?] I would not have considered [the vehicles] a threat because they were so far from the friendly forces…  They were not an obvious direct threat but enough [of a] threat that I wanted to keep the sensors there… I don’t remember us telling them [the JTAC and GFC] specifically that they were hostile and a target.  I do remember the JTAC would say a lot of things that would lead up to a fire mission and then he would stop.  Of course my crew was ready to go but we need[ed] a fire mission’ (p. 1419).

But he also claimed that the JTAC ‘had the same understanding that we did’ and that, had he been given a fire mission, he would have been comfortable executing it (p. 1420). The Predator pilot thought there was more to it than that. ‘Talk of tactical maneuver [see above, p. 00] started with the [AC-130],’ he insisted, and ‘before they departed they were actually looking to engage these targets before running out of [fuel]’ (p. 909).

[102] The sensor operator offered anecdotal evidence to support the pilot’s inference. ‘There was a shot a couple of weeks ago, they were on those guys for hours and never saw them, like, sling a rifle, but pictures we got of them blown up on the ground had all sorts of [shit]’.  Even this was barbed: evidently there had been no sign of any weapons, yet they were still ‘blown up on the ground’.

[103] Over the objections of the senior officers from Special Forces who read his draft report, McHale recommended the term be banned: ‘I believe eliminating the term MAM better serves the counterinsurgency strategy as the term has come to presume hostility’ (p. 69), and McChrystal concurred.  The report retained its central objection: the term ‘implies that all adult males are combatants and leads to a lack of discernment in target identification’ (p. 49).  Yet Nick Turse found that the mindset and even the term remained active: ‘America’s lethal profiling of Afghan men’, The Nation, 18 September 2013; see also Sarah Shoker, ‘Military-Age Males in US counterinsurgency and drone warfare’, unpublished PhD thesis, McMaster University, April 2018.

[104] Allinson, ‘Necropolitics’ p. 123.

[105] At McHale’s invitation all the previous mIRC messages were read into the record from the mIRC printout by the senior NCO in charge of Intelligence at CJSOTF-A’s Operations Center at Bagram during the night shift.  It is impossible to know whether these were verbatim, but if they were then all of these messages referred to children without qualification. The NCO in question subsequently maintained that ‘it was all possible before the engagement’: but none of his readings included that qualifier.

[106] He was not alone.  At 0546 the MC read from mIRC that SOTF-South ‘called the little small guys midgets.’

[107] This was presumably an evidentiary precaution; the metadata would have included co-ordinates and other information not visible on the image itself.  No action was recorded until 0616, when the occupants left their vehicles to pray, and the sensor operator announced: ‘Stand by on that zoom out and drop metadata.  I just wanted to scan everybody, I’ll get them a picture.  I’m going to freeze it here for about 10 seconds then I’m going back.’  But nothing seems to have been made of any of this by McHale’s team, unless it is buried in the redactions.

[108] The unsupported claim cut both ways.  The commanding officer of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron e-mailed McHale to suggest that the presence of ‘human shields’ would ‘make everyone (including the JTAC) be more cautious about shooting’ (p. 897), and the Predator crew subsequently wondered how that would affect the Rules of Engagement (below, p. 00). But the use of the term was freighted with the implication that the occupants of the vehicles were mostly Taliban.

[109] In the Kunduz incident (above, p. 00), the hijacked tankers had first been located by a B-1 bomber which had to withdraw in the early hours of the morning because it was running low on fuel; in order to ensure continued air support the ISAF commander relied on what Wilke, ‘Seeing’, p. 1035 calls the ‘enabling fiction’ of a ‘TIC’ even though the tankers were 8-10 km from his own position and he had no forces in the immediate area of the target.  Noah Shachtman described ‘TIC’ as ‘the most abused phrase in the Afghanistan campaign. What started as a cry for help has now come to mean almost anything…’: ‘The phrase that’s screwing up the Afghan air war’, Wired, 12 September 2009.  What is being described here, however, is a different enabling device; McHale described an AirTIC as an ‘improper declaration’ that put other troops at risk by ‘allocating air assets to a situation which does not require air support’ (p. 48). The appropriate term for a potential engagement was ‘priority immediate’, and the Director of the CJSOTF–A Operations Center at Bagram explained that a TIC number was assigned to those calls (too), which served to ‘alert us all that a unit may be getting involved in a TIC soon’ (p. 807). The practice was not confined to Special Forces; the ‘Afghan War Diaries’ include multiple instances of AirTICS being declared by regular forces: https://wardiaries.wikileaks.org.

[110] Hence ‘Scout’ Weapons Team flying OHs (‘Observation Helicopters’); an Attack Weapons Team would typically consist of two AH-64 Apache helicopters (where AH  designates ‘Attack Helicopters’).

[111] A battle captain assists the battalion’s executive officer in orchestrating (supervising, synchronizing  and coordinating) the running of a Tactical Operations Center; s/he is responsible for overseeing the flow of information – including the SALT reports sent up from units in the field – tracking ongoing operations, and arranging appropriate support.  A battle captain follows standard operating procedures, including initiating ‘battle drills’ (a rapid sequence of pre-set actions) in specified circumstances.  For a detailed discussion see pp. 1100-1.  The battle captain is a central actor in the bureaucratic management of later modern war, but the situations with which s/he is confronted often require a more fluid responses than these programmatic systems imply: see Elizabeth Owen Bratt, Eric Domeshek, and Paula J. Durlach,  ‘The first report is always wrong, and other ill-defined aspects of the Army Battle Captain domain’, Intelligent Tutoring Technologies for Ill-Defined Problems and Ill-Defined Domains (2010).

[112] The OPCENT director similarly described his skills as ‘rudimentary at best’ (p. 999).

[113] The GFC was only too well aware of the lack of support and what he characterized as a ‘huge communication breakdown’.  ‘I never had these issues before,’ he explained: ‘If for some reason I was in this situation last rotation … [the battle captain] was smart enough to … say call me on the phone and we would walk through certain things. “This is what I am tracking, why don’t you concentrate on this, and if this develops I will push it to you’” (p. 983). He felt uneasy, he confessed, because ‘we are operating by ourselves, and not with direct support like we are supposed to have’ (p. 984).  Part of the problem – perhaps – was that they were strangers to SOTF-South (see note 63) and, as the GFC admitted himself, ‘we never integrated our systems with them’ (p. 985).

[114] This was a serious failure, but McHale’s team faulted a battle rhythm in which all three field-grade officers were asleep at the same time. ‘I would have had an easier time if you said you had a field grade up at 0600 because we know the mission is kicking off at 0605,’ one of the investigating officers said.  ‘But you don’t…’ (p. 1015).

[115] This was a central finding of McHale’s investigation, which concluded that the GFC was ‘overly tasked’ (pp. 34-5), as a direct result of the lack of input or support from the Special Forces command posts at Kandahar and Bagram Air Fields.

[116] See Craig Jones, The war lawyers(Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[117] He was responding to a question about the presence of an ‘operational law attorney’, a JAG incorporated into the kill-chain and conversant with air targeting; there was a JAG present during McHale’s initial telephone interview with the Predator crew, but she was introduced as ‘the Creech AFB JAG’ who was representing ‘the Air Force interests’ and her expertise presumably lay outside ‘operational law’ (p. 902). The Safety Observer explained his own role as ‘basically a safety mechanism to ensure they are performing safely and to provide a sanity check [sic] before employing the missile’ (p. 1448).

[118] The 9-liner in this case is a standard Air Force targeting brief that specifies (1) the ‘initial point ‘, (2) heading (to target), (3) distance, (4) elevation, (5) target description, (6) target location, (7) target mark (laser designator &c), (8) friendly force location and (9) aircraft exit route.

[119] The commanding officer of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron explained that ‘If it is an HVI [High-Value Individual] where there is no imminent hostile act or hostile intent, not only do we need the JTAC’s clearance on that, the GFC will go through the CAOC and get what is called the joint targeting method, so it is a kind of dual clearance’ (p. 887).

[120] Hoog, ‘Air power over Afghanistan’, p. 249. He explained that there was a distinction between a TIC, which he too described as ‘a 911 call for kinetic support’ and a ‘Priority’, which was ‘a 411 call’ for ISR (i.e. information and, by extension, overwatch).

[121] Jack Mulcaire, ‘The pickup truck era of warfare’, War on the Rocks, 11 February 2014 at https://warontherocks.com/2014/02/the-pickup-truck-era-of-warfare.  The Toyota Hilux is a classic version of a technical truck – and the lead vehicle was identified as a Hilux.

[122] Only two witnesses offered any informed gloss on the hostile interpretation of the prayer.  The Day Battle Captain suggested that it ‘possibly’ indicated ‘these are mujahedeentaking their last prayer prior to engaging forces’ (p. 1254), and the primary screener agreed: ‘To us that is very suspicious because we are taught that they do this before an attack’ (p. 1389).

[123] National Bird.

[124] Alan Norris, ‘Flying with the Wolfpack’, Heliops International 65 (2010) 40-49.  Each helicopter was armed with two Hellfire missiles and four folding-fin aerial rockets.

[125] The transcript of the Kiowas’ radio traffic (pp. 336-341) contains no times; wherever possible I have interpolated these transmissions with those between the JTAC and the Predator pilot, which was conducted on a different frequency.

The reference to ‘heavy weapons’ in this message is puzzling; the Predator crew had not succeeded in identifying any, and the only SALT report mentioning ‘heavy weapons’ was at 0330 and referred to Taliban forces moving up from the south before the vehicles moving down from the north had even been detected (p. 1889). The source of the transmission is unclear; most of the messages to the JTAC were from the lieutenant, but the pilot flying lead said that he ‘called to tell him [the JTAC] that we were on our way and that it would be about 30 minutes until we were in the area.  He told me that it was roughly 30-50 MAMs to his north that we would be looking to engage’ (p. 514).  But this exchange does not appear in the transcript in this form, though it obviously overlaps with the message I have cited here and attributed to the lieutenant in command of SWT1.  The intended recipient is also unclear; the JTAC would have known (in fact, supplied) all this information, so it is possible that this was a confirmatory message either to TF Wolfpack’s Operations Center at Tarin Kowt or to the JTAC at FB Ripley who had been tasked with communicating with the helicopters until they were in range of the JTAC at Khod.

[126] The only qualification came from one of the crew in the trail helicopter: ‘Initially I thought we had a kinetic TIC, but it turned out not to be…. [We] got information it was more of elements maneuvering on [the ODA’s] position’ (p. 1438).

[127] McHale’s report included a map of SIGACTS (‘significant activities’) in Uruzgan  which was redacted (p. 376), but raw data for Shahidi Hassas in the 12 months preceding the strike reported 73 SIGACTS, 25 of them involving direct fire, 8 indirect fire, and 7 small arms fire.  I have taken these figures from the Afghanistan SIGACTS files kindly made available by Vincent Bauer at https://stanford.edu/~vbauer/data.html

[128] Many at SOTF-South were also taken aback: ‘We did not push fast movers to them,’ the Night Ops NCO at Kandahar told McHale: ‘The fast movers just came over the area without our knowledge’ (p. 1505).  The Night Battle Captain asked how this could have happened and was told ‘when an AirTIC is opened everyone wants to get on it.  When they hear AirTIC they think worst case scenario’ (p. 1545).  But none of the available communications authorizing air cover referred to an AirTIC – this was, as far as the responding aircrews were concerned, a TIC – and at 0702 the MC referred to it as ‘an actual TIC.’  The Fires Officer at SOTF-South evidently realized that the F-15s had been sent instead of the A-10s that had been half-promised and told them to hold well to the south of the vehicles’ position and to contact the JTAC at FB Tinsley who would control them ‘until the actual TIC happens near the village of Khod’ at which point he would pass them off to the JTAC there (p. 721). After the GFC’s angry phone call they were sent off station.

[129] Col. Peter E. Gersten, quoted in Donna Miles,  ‘Unmanned Aircraft crews strive to support warfighters. American Forces Press Service, 13 November 2009.

[130] One of the helicopter pilots heard the F-15s being ordered off, but in conjunction with the Predator pilot reporting his aircraft was descending to 13,000 feet (above) thought the F-15s had been cleared to engage ‘but due to low ceilings and conflicting altitudes with the Predator UAV they were pulled off target’ (p. 420).  He was wrong, but the belief that the F-15s had been cleared to engage conceivably reinforced his own sense of the legitimacy of the target.

[131] Afghanistan Civilian Casualty Prevention: observations, insights and lessons (Fort Leavenworth KS: US Army Combined Arms Center/Center for Army Lessons Learned [CALL], June 2012) p. 30.

[132] Since her calls were not radio messages they do not appear in the communications transcript but in the body of the consolidated files.  They were not shared with the JTAC; the screeners had no means of contacting him directly, though they did have mIRC contact with SOTF-South. The Air Force investigation into the actions of the Predator crew concluded that the pilot ‘acted responsibly by not identifying flanking or evading’ and that ‘the assessment of flanking was made by the GFC’. All the pilot did, Otto insisted, was to pass ‘convoy position reports’ – position and direction – as requested so that the JTAC could plot them and obtain ‘an accurate picture of the convoy’s movement.’  This in turn allowed the GFC to ‘determine the nature of the movement (flanking, enveloping, evading) based upon his experience, knowledge of the local area, and other inputs he alone receives’ (Commander-Directed operational assessment, p. 36).  But the GFC made his assessment without being told of the contrary interpretation from the primary screener, and she was equally unaware that her message was not forwarded  – which is why she and her team were astonished when the first vehicle was struck (p. 1407.

[133] This was another of the lessons learned.  ‘Vehicles that were perceived as a possible threat to ground forces were moving away from the area, but the surveillance platform did not communicate this to the ground commander’: Afghanistan Civilian Casualty Prevention, p. 31.  The situation was not as straightforward as the vignette implies, but the Predator crew certainly did everything possible to discount the possibility that the vehicles were moving away from Khod.

[134] A battle drill is a set of standard, pre-planned and prescribed procedures that require minimal orders to execute.  When a TIC is declared, Petit explained, it takes priority over everything else.  The battle captain co-ordinates the management of information and assets, which includes bringing up the original CONOP and the relevant maps on the screens, clearing the primary satellite channel for communications with the GFC, and preparing all those in the Operations Center to deliver ‘aviation support, ISR support, MEDEVAC [medical evacuation] support or fire support’ as necessary.  But this was only an AirTIC and when he arrived at the Operations Center the TIC light ‘was not on and … the team was not under fire (pp. 1083-4).

[135] ‘Dynamic targeting’ is directed against so-called ‘targets of opportunity’ and takes place outside the ambit of pre-planned or ‘deliberative targeting’ which is lodged within the regular air tasking cycle.  See Joint Targeting (Joint Publication 3-60, 31 January 2013) II.2.

[136] The JPEL refers to the Pentagon’s Joint Effects List, a list of High Value Individuals (HVIs) preauthorised for targeted killing: see note 98.

[137] He had been told about the dawn prayer and that it was ‘Enemy TTP [tactics, techniques and procedures] to pray before battle’ (p. 611); he offered no comment but clearly regarded that as circumstantial evidence.

[138] This was crucial, yet the brief to the Scout Weapons Team specifically mentioned the presence of ‘heavy weapons’ which had categorically not been identified (above, p. 00).

[139] McHale concluded that the decision to engage the vehicles was within the ROE but violated the intent of the Tactical Directive (p. 22).

[140] Sean Naylor, Relentless strike: the secret history of Joint Special Operations Command (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2015) pp. 359-65.  Maj Gen Nick Carter described Task Force-South as executing ‘a specific clinical function’ – JPEL targeting – whereas SOTF-South was ‘running a different sort of battle, so it’s less precise in its outcome and its effects’ (p. 582).

[141] ‘Types of Terminal Attack Control’, at https://www.doctrine.af.mil/Portals/61/documents/Annex_3-03/3-03-D19-LAND-Type-Terminal-CTRL.pdf.

[142] This passage is redacted from the LA Times transcript but appears in this version in the communications transcript contained in the consolidated file (p. 1954).

[143] The redactions make it difficult to garner more details.  The Afghan Security Guards were a shadowy formation, ostensibly contracted to provide base security but in practice often raised by US Special Forces and used to participate in offensive counterinsurgency operations.  There were also persistent press reports that Taliban were fleeing north from Operation Moshtarak in Helmand.

[144] The source was not given.  If the ‘special intelligence’ came from the NSA it would ordinarily have been put into the mission chat room via mIRC; but the JTAC had no direct access to mIRC.  He obviously did not receive the information via the Predator crew because he passed it to them, and there is no trace of any corresponding message from SOTF-South to the JTAC or GFC.  The JTAC shared the same information with the helicopter pilots immediately after the strike: ‘those vehicles were moving south to link up with some Taliban fighters out of [Pey-e-Kotel]’ (p. 341).

[145] There was of course another difference: coalition forces at Khod were not under fire from the occupants of the vehicles.  This was still supposed to be an AirTIC not a TIC.

[146] An ROZ is a delimited airspace reserved for specific actions in response to a specific operational situation in which the operations of (other) airspace users is restricted.

[147] The Fires Officer also believed that the GFC was now paying more attention to the search at Khod than to the progress of the three vehicles: ‘It was daylight and they had begun clearing that area.  They had been calling up the findings from the objective so I figured he was more intent on that’ (p. 729). He may have been mistaken or misremembered, because the only SALT report available that listed what was seized during the search of the village came in to SOTF-South at 0932 – afterthe strike (p. 1992).

[148] The only person at SOTF-South to mention any sort of advance warning was the Day Battle Captain: ‘They came up on mIRC and said clear to engage vehicles … it was only a matter of seconds [later] that the strike happened’ (p. 723). But he had to have been referring to a message from the Predator crew – since neither the GFC nor the JTAC had access to mIRC – and in any case it must have been later than the SALT report referred to by the GFC, because the helicopters were not cleared to engage until 0843 (see below, p. 00).

[149] During the GFC’s second interview on 5 March he was accompanied by a military lawyer, a Lt Col from the US Army Trial Defense Service (p. 988), who told McHale: ‘The records of the SALT reports end at 0630, the SALT reports continue’ – the GFC testified that ‘we were continuing to send reports throughout this time’: p. 1356 – but ‘they were the only records we were able to obtain, and this would be records that SOTF create when they receive it’ (p. 948).   There were no follow-up questions from the panel; if they investigated the matter, their findings are hidden in the redactions.

[150] Even then there were no guarantees.  At 0658 the Predator pilot relayed a message from the Fires Officer at SOTF-South to the JTAC: ‘He wants you to know that he cannot talk on SAT 102. SERPENT12 [the Fires Officer] can hear FOX24 [GFC] on SATCOM, and is trying to reply.’  The advantage of the Iridium phone over a standard satellite phone is that it relies on a network of polar orbiting cross-linked satellites that provide connectivity in areas wheregeostationary satellites or line-of-sight communications systems cannot (often because they are blocked by mountainous terrain): Brig Gen (ret)  Bernard Skoch, ‘Extra-terrestrial system sharpens tactical eyes on the ground’, Signal Magazine, March 2010.

To be continued

Under Afghan Skies (2)

Here is the second installment of my essay on an airstrike on three vehicles in Uruzgan, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010 that has become one of the central examples in critical discussions of remote warfare.  The first installment is here



At 0245 on 21 February 2010 three giant black MH-47 Chinook helicopters sent the dust whirling into the darkness as they lifted off from Firebase Tinsley, a remote US military outpost surrounded by thick mud walls, HESCO barriers and barbed wire on a bluff above the Helmand River in north western Uruzgan. [47]

The MH-47s were regularly used to insert and extract US Special Forces; equipped with terrain-following radar, they could fly fast and low, usually at night.  On this occasion they were escorted by an AC-130H Spectre gunship (call sign SLASHER03) from the Combined Joint Special Operations Air Detachment at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul.  The helicopters carried a 12-member team from the 3rd Special Forces Group – Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 3124 [48] – the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) assigned to liaise with the supporting aircraft, their four Afghan interpreters and their light six-wheeled all-terrain vehicles.  Also on board were 30 Afghan National Police officers and 20 Afghan National Army soldiers (including Afghan Special Forces).

It was a short flight, 10 minutes and 20 km north to a landing zone above the village of Khod in Shahidi Hassas district (Figure 2).  This is an arid, mountainous region, but Khod straggles along a sinuous river valley where over many generations the construction of an extensive irrigation system, an intricate maze of clay-lined ditches and channels, has created a fertile green zone. It is none the less a desperately poor area, with high levels of unemployment, devoted largely to herding and subsistence agriculture.

There were some cash crops, however, and Shahidi Hassas was one of three districts in Uruzgan where opium poppy cultivation was concentrated. Between 1997 and 2001, when the Taliban were in power, the cultivation of opium poppies had been forbidden, but production had since increased and was now an important source of revenue for the insurgency. [49]

Even so, the purpose of this joint US-Afghan mission – codenamed Operation Noble Justice – was not poppy eradication. [50] It was a cordon-and-search operation designed to go through the village bazaar, a network of alleys lined with small shops and markets, and the surrounding q’alats or compounds – high-walled residential complexes containing separate homes for close family members – to find a suspected ‘factory’ making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

Often described as the Taliban’s weapon of choice, IEDs were – and remain – an overwhelming cause of military and civilian casualties in Afghanistan.  Most are roadside devices triggered by command wire, radio signal, mobile phone or pressure plate.  As its name suggests, an IED is not any one thing – it is improvised from diverse, cheap components and emerges within extended networks of supply, manufacture and emplacement [51] – and its assembly is not tied to any particular buildings either. The IEDs used by the Taliban typically relied on Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) fertilizer, made in two commercial plants in Pakistan and smuggled across the highly porous border. [52]


To the unsuspecting eye sacks of fertilizer in an agricultural community might seem innocuous, and in many cases they surely were, but the coalition forces knew the special significance of CAN (which was illegal) and they were accompanied by a trained military dog to seek it out.  During their search of the village they eventually seized 100 sacks of CAN together with 1,000 machine-gun rounds, containers of home-made explosives, radios and batteries (p. 1992). [53]

Although Operation Noble Justice was nothing out of the ordinary – it was classified as a level 1 mission, which meant that it posed a ‘medium risk’ to the troops with some ‘potential for political repercussions’ [54] – its importance transcended the local. Effective IED incidents in Afghanistan, excluding explosions that resulted in no casualties and devices that were cleared before they could detonate, had virtually doubled every year since the US-led invasion in 2001: in 2006 there were 127 of them, followed by 206 in 2007, 387 in 2008 and 820 in 2009. [55]

The situation by early 2010 was grim in the extreme, but it was particularly serious in the south.  In the previous twelve months 67 per cent of all IED detonations and discoveries took place in the provinces of southern Afghanistan, including Uruzgan whose central regions were desperately insecure (Figure 3).

These considerations underlined the tactical importance of the operation at Khod, but ferreting out an IED factory must have had a more direct significance for the Special Forces. Their base had been called Firebase Cobra until it was renamed in honour of Capt John Tinsley, commander of an ODA from the 7thSpecial Forces Group based there, who had died six months earlier from wounds sustained when an IED exploded next to his patrol vehicle. When that ODA went up to Khod on a ten-day mission ‘Captain Tinsley got killed,’ the assistant detachment commander of ODA 3124 said, ‘so we knew it was a bad area’ (p. 1567).

The dangers showed no sign of diminishing, and Lt Col Brian Petit, ODA 3124’s battalion commander at Special Operations Task Force–South at Kandahar Air Field, was under no illusions. [56]  He admitted that all his forces could do in their forays from their firebases was ‘prevent the Taliban running the flag up the pole’, and he could not ‘see us winning those places outright’ (p. 1079).   Some of the Special Forces missions outside the wire were humanitarian – using their team medics to provide medical and dental care to the civilian population, for example [57] – but their primary purpose was to ‘disrupt, deny and interdict’ the Taliban, and prevent them from launching attacks on the ‘priority areas’ established by ISAF’s Regional Command–South (RC-S) (p. 1079). Yet in doing so SOTF-South was not part of ISAF; it was part of US Forces–Afghanistan and its Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). [58]  In a report that was completed 18 months before the Uruzgan attack Human Rights Watch gave two reasons why their missions were more likely to lead to civilian casualties.

First, Special Forces typically operated in small groups and were relatively lightly armed – as here – and so they ‘often required rapid support in the form of airstrikes when confronted with superior numbers of insurgent fighters’ (the same situation the Ground Force Commander (GFC) thought his forces faced in Khod).

Second, Operation Enduring Freedom was governed by Rules of Engagement that permitted a much lower threshold for employing lethal force than ISAF and, crucially, permitted ‘anticipatory self-defense’ (which was why the GFC called in the airstrike). [59]

Although they shared the same commander – Gen Stanley McChrystal – OEF’s chain of command was independent from ISAF’s, and their mandates were different: OEF was a counter-terrorism operation with combat as its leading edge, whereas ISAF was charged with pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy that, since 2008, had been directed at ‘winning hearts and minds’ as much as conducting fire missions. [60] To be sure, they were not wholly separate.  The lines between counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency were inevitably blurred; US forces served in both ISAF and OEF; and there was necessarily co-operation between the two.  For Operation Noble Justice ISAF’s Regional Command–South (RC-S) provided resources from its Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ripley 20 km south of the provincial capital at Tarin Kowt: the combat helicopters called in by the Special Forces to strike the three vehicles came from there, and Regional Command–South also supplied helicopters for medical evacuation from there and provided medical treatment for the casualties at military hospitals there too.

But these were all emergency responses, and Regional Command–South had neither been involved in the planning of Operation Noble Justice nor kept in the loop as it unfolded.  Its British commander, Maj Gen Nick Carter, made his views crystal clear: ‘It’s unacceptable that someone can shit on my doorstep and sit back and watch me mop the shit up’ (p. 579). [61]  In short, the operation at Khod was superimposed over but, until something went wrong, conducted largely outside the matrix of other military operations. The need to avoid one mission confounding another was supposed to be addressed through weekly joint briefings, but although Regional Command–South’s Operations Center at Kandahar Air Field was just 600 meters from SOTF-South’s Operations Center, Carter complained that there was no functional connection between the two (p. 580). [62]

This disjuncture set the parameters within which Operation Noble Justice took place, but it must have affected the mental landscape within which ODA 3124 operated too.  Since 2006 ISAF’s lead force in Uruzgan had been the Dutch, whose headquarters at Kamp Holland – a vast compound adjacent to FOB Ripley – included a Provincial Reconstruction Team whose activities centred on small-scale aid programs in two or three districts (‘ink-spots’) 25 km or more south and east of FB Tinsley.  The Provincial Reconstruction Team had achieved a precarious success, but there was little sign of the ink-spots coalescing, and the Special Forces cannot have been alone in thinking that the Dutch were only able to control their fractured and limited ‘white space’ because the Special Forces kept the Taliban outside them. [63]

ODA 3124’s last combat rotation had been from January to August the previous year, when they had been deployed in the same part of Uruzgan (p. 985).  ‘We were the only ODA out here last time,’ their captain explained, and they had been involved in 22 separate exchanges of fire with the Taliban (p. 1359).  Since their return from the United States on 15 January, just over a month earlier, they had already survived two more bruising encounters with the Taliban.  Petit described them as ‘the single most active ODA we have’, and he told McHale ‘they have conducted more operations and have a more full-spectrum understanding than any other ODA on the battlefield’ (p. 1095). [64] They knew the area around Khod and they knew too that when another ODA conducted an operation there in November it had been involved in a two-day fire fight with the Taliban and uncovered home-made explosives, weapons caches and IEDs.

This was a seasoned team, and their captain – who acted as Ground Force Commander (GFC) in overall charge of the joint US-Afghan operation in Khod – was a veteran of three Afghanistan tours. Yet even he was apprehensive; on a previous mission his team had been ambushed as soon as they left the helicopters and five of his soldiers had been wounded (p. 930). The JTAC, an Air Force technical sergeant who was assigned as relay between the GFC and the pilots of the supporting aircraft, was jumpy too.  He also had three tours under his belt, and had been back in Afghanistan since the middle of September. Since this was his last mission before heading home his ‘level of anxiety was high’ (pp. 1388, 1499), he told McHale, and he had survived enough remote-controlled IED attacks at FB Ripley that he fully expected to be hit by another one ‘after coming off the birds’ (p. 1485).


Their fears were not immediately realised, but the signs were ominous. The priority on touchdown was to establish radio communications with the ODA’s battalion headquarters, SOTF-South, and at 0305 the GFC initiated a stream of summary observations of insurgent activity (called SALT reports: ‘Size, Activity, Location, Time’) – to SOTF-South’s Operations Center at Kandahar Air Field. [65]

As soon as his forces started to establish a cordon and to secure supporting fire positions on the bluffs overlooking Khod they could see through their night-vision goggles shadowy figures perching on roofs, jumping over walls and into compounds or ducking into the cover of the irrigation ditches.  There was little the GFC could do about it, apart from setting Afghan army and police patrols moving through the alleys, because he was not authorised to initiate the search until 0615: this was a daylight operation not a ‘night raid’. [66]   The restriction followed from its classification as a level 1 mission.  ‘We didn’t have the intelligence to get a level 2 rating’, the Fires Officer at SOTF-South explained, but that added a layer of difficulty – and danger – because the MH-47s only flew between dusk and dawn so that ‘the team had to do an INFIL [infiltration] at night’ and then ‘sit there and wait for first light’ (p. 720). [67]

It must have been a nerve-wracking wait.  The Special Forces were using multi-band inter-team radios to communicate with one another, and while they waited they set them to scan for other transmissions in the immediate area.  The GFC had a local interpreter to help co-ordinate the Afghan forces who were with his own men and to interpret any intercepted communications (ICOM).  Almost immediately messages were picked up urging the mujahedeento gather for an attack, and the  volume of ICOM rapidly increased.

Spotters had ensured that the Taliban had advance warning that the helicopters were on their way, and much of the chatter involved calls for reinforcements from the villages.  At 0325 the GFC reported that the Taliban were ‘moving up from the south with heavy weapons and reinforcements’ (pp. 1889, 1987), though the source of the information was not given.  The JTAC (call sign JAG25) was communicating with the aircraft on station via his line-of-sight VHF radio – from time to time he switched to the inter-team band to provide operational updates – and he passed the ICOM frequencies to the commander of the AC-130 gunship that was now circling over the bazaar in support of the ground operation. Its Battle Management Center had more sophisticated electronic equipment to eavesdrop on the Taliban, and its Electronic Warfare Officer had a Pashto linguist on board as a Direct Support Officerto help monitor what was happening. [68]

There were almost certainly other sources of electronic intelligence too, because the Predator that was also circling overhead in support of the mission was equipped with an Air Handler which controlled an on-board device that intercepted and geo-located wireless communications, including cell phones (p. 907). [69]  This raw signals intelligence was processed by an exploitation cell, probably from a National Security Agency (NSA) unit forward deployed at Kandahar Air Field, which would have entered its findings into one of the mission chat rooms (p. 589): but any evidence of its (classified) role, if any, is concealed by the report’s redactions. [70]

Although the Taliban knew that the mission had air support, they were more exercised by the aircraft’s firepower than their capacity to intercept communications.  Several hours later the Predator’s Mission Intelligence Coordinator (MC) reported that somebody – the source is redacted but it may have been the NSA cell; the information had been posted in their mission room – had picked up that the insurgents were ‘aware of coalition forces eavesdropping on VHF’, and shortly afterwards he expressed his surprise that there was still so much ICOM. ‘These guys are Chatty Cathy’s,’ he told the rest of the crew, and for people who knew their frequencies were being monitored ‘they’re sure talking a lot on them’. [71] Less than an hour after touchdown – long before dawn – a radio message instructed the insurgents to wait until the aircraft had left before attacking, and the GFC attempted to draw the Taliban out from their hiding places by having the AC-130 feint going off station. As soon as it did so further orders were intercepted imposing radio silence ‘in preparation for possible attack’ (p. 1990).  But nothing came of it, and at 0440 another message instructed the Taliban to ‘hide weapons and wait until morning when the aircraft will be gone’ and they would be able to see the coalition forces more clearly (p. 1990).

The respite was short-lived.  The GFC’s second-in-command, who was overseeing the party establishing a supporting fire position on high ground to the south of Khod, reported seeing headlights flashing from the north.  They seemed to mirror lights flashing from the south – ‘a mark and a reciprocate’ (p. 1344) – and the JTAC moved the AC-130 away from its orbit over the village to investigate.


The GFC clearly regarded this sighting as a threat because at 0445 the transcript of his SALT report noted that ICOM chatter indicated ‘AAF elements [Anti-Afghan Forces, i.e. the Taliban] are moving in two groups, one to the north and one to the south, in an attempt to surround CF [coalition forces].  Stating that this is “our” area and we cannot afford to allow CF to operate in this area or we will lose local support’ (p. 1891; my emphasis). [72]

The possibility that the Taliban planned to surround coalition forces – to trap them in Khod – marked what turned out to be an ever-present horizon of concern.

At 0454 the commander of the AC-130 said they had found the northern headlights: he told McHale that ‘looking through the [infra-red] sensors it appeared to be trucks full of hot spots’ (p. 1418).  There were three vehicles, roughly five to six kilometres (three to four miles) from the nearest coalition forces at Khod, and the AC-130 started to track them as they moved south.

The JTAC immediately responded ‘those vehicles are bad’ but added that they would have to work on ‘trying to get enough to engage’ – a reference to positive identification of a legitimate military target (PID) [73] – and that ICOM chatter suggested that a Taliban ‘Quick Reaction Force’ was coming in.  The flight commander told him there appeared to be ’unlawful personnel’ in the back of the vehicles (his emphasis); he gave no reason for regarding them as ‘unlawful’.  A few minutes later he reported that the third vehicle had gone and was no longer a factor, but the JTAC was already thinking ahead to an airstrike.  At 0503 he announced he was ‘pretty sure we are covered under [ROE] 421 and 422’ – that the Rules of Engagement would allow an airstrike  – on the grounds of ‘hostile intent [and] tactical maneuvering.’ [74]  The basis for inferring ‘hostile intent’ was the ICOM chatter, which prompted the JTAC to declare the occupants of the vehicles were ‘setting themselves up for an attack’, but the evidence of ‘tactical maneuvering’ was unelaborated. The JTAC knew this was a key term, one of the requirements laid down by the ROE for a pre-emptive strike (p. 1492). It is defined as movement to gain tactical advantage, but the only visual information the JTAC had was that the vehicles were heading in the general direction of Khod.  He chose to interpret this as ‘maneuvering on our location’, which must have been an extrapolation from the ICOM chatter, and at 0506 he relayed the GFC’s request for the gunship to ‘engage with [containment] fires forward of their line of movement.’

Even though containment fires would not necessarily involve a direct attack on the vehicles, the commander of the AC-130 was reluctant. The resolution of his aircraft’s infra-red sensors was sufficient to identify ‘hot spots’ but not the composition of the passengers – following standard military protocol, the key diagnostic was gender and age: the presence of women and children [75] – and so he asked if the MQ-1 Predator that was circling over a compound in Khod could ‘take a look at these people’.

The GFC agreed and the JTAC advised both aircraft that ‘we are going to hold on containment fires and try to attempt PID, we would really like to take out those trucks’ (my emphasis): a course of action that clearly implied a preference for the use of lethal force against the vehicles rather than merely impeding or curtailing their movement.  One vehicle had stopped at a compound on the west side of the river, while the other remained on the east, and the commander of the AC-130 reported that they were now flashing their lights and signalling to each other.  He sent the co-ordinates to the Predator crew via mIRC, and used his laser target designator (‘sparkle’) to mark the location, until at 0509 the Predator pilot (call sign KIRK97) reported they had ‘eyes on’ one of the vehicles, ‘personnel in the open, definite tactical movement.’ The commander of the AC-130 was in a hurry to talk the Predator on to the second vehicle because his aircraft only had about 20 minutes loiter time left. This increased the uneasiness of the GFC and the JTAC, and at 0512 the JTAC radioed (again the emphasis is mine): ‘Need to destroy all these vehicles and all the people associated with them, we believe they are bad.’

Before they could do that, however, he reminded both pilots that they had to ‘do the best we can to get PID.’ [76]  The JTAC was particularly exercised by the possibility of mortars in the back of the vehicles. He knew the local Taliban had used them in the past, and when he asked the Predator crew to search for them the sensor operator duly called ‘possible mortars’ on the intercom, though the pilot’s radio message to the JTAC at 0513 was more qualified: ‘personnel in the open, by the vehicles, moving tactically, definitely carrying objects, at this time we cannot PID what they are.’

In these early exchanges the Predator pilot followed the JTAC in describing what the people on his screen were doing as ‘tactical movement’ – not once but repeatedly – and his unprompted gloss on what was a vital phrase in the identification of a legitimate military target is instructive. ‘Tactical movement’ meant they were ‘moving tactically,’ he told McHale, ‘as opposed to moving in a random manner that you would expect normal civilians to move or drive’ (p. 908; my emphasis).  This is a revealing observation for two reasons.

First, it begs the question of what counted as ‘normal’ to American eyes. The interpretation of cultural difference is not a constant but varies over time and space.  Interviews with coalition troops in Afghanistan have suggested that those ‘new to an area and unfamiliar with what “normal” was, were more likely to read hostile intent into otherwise innocuous actions.’  But familiarity did not breed content, and towards the end of a tour ‘soldiers became less willing to assume risks and more likely to err on the side of using force to protect themselves in ambiguous situations.’  Their responses were also affected by a sort of areal essentialism, in which the actions of individual Afghans were read off from and reduced to the pre-existing characterisation of the area in which they took place.  That gesture took several different forms, the product of a varied combination of experience, prejudice and mission intelligence; specifically in this instance troops who had recently incurred losses, especially in ‘combat-heavy areas’, were found to be ‘more likely to respond aggressively’ in such situations. [77]  The relevance of these findings to the Uruzgan attack is necessarily conjectural; McHale was repeatedly told that ODA 3124 ‘knew’ the area, but they had experienced several violent encounters with the Taliban there in the recent past and, like other military personnel, they knew it as what the Fires Officer at SOTF-South called a ‘pretty bad place’ (p. 721).   ‘We had plenty of knowledge that this was a bad area,’ he told McHale, ‘from people being there before’ (p. 724).  The operation at Khod was the last mission of the JTAC’s tour, but it is impossible to say whether this influenced his reading of the situation – which was in any case heavily dependent on the interpretations provided by the Predator crew and the screeners whose familiarity with the area was at best indirect and limited to a largely visual field.

Second, and following directly from that last limitation, the Predator pilot’s appeal to an (unspecified) ‘normal’ effectively passed the burden of being identified as a civilian to those caught in the Predator’s field of view.  The issue of civilian status is contentious, to be sure, and the reference to ‘normal civilians’ serves as a reminder that many in the military (and beyond) insist that the Taliban are civilians too. [78]  But here – and elsewhere – the indeterminacy of civilian status is compounded by the priority given to the visual register. Those framed by the Multi-Spectral Targeting System did not know they were under surveillance, still less that they were suspected of being Taliban – they only became dimly aware of the Predator when they stopped at dawn to pray – and even had they known, what would possibly have constituted an adequate performance of ‘civilian-ness’ by those in front of the lens to those hidden behind it?  In short, since the occupants of the vehicles were all ‘normal civilians’, what could they possibly have done differently that would have spared them from being attacked? [79]

These considerations had a heightened significance because the JTAC and the GFC were wholly dependent on their ‘eyes in the sky’ for information about the progress of the vehicles and the activities of their occupants. The aircraft greatly extended the direct field of vision of the Special Forces on the ground, even of the fire parties on the bluffs, but this prosthetic effect was circumscribed in two important ways.  First, while the commander of the AC-130 told the JTAC that the resolution of its infra-red sensors was not enough to make out the composition of the occupants, the full-motion video (FMV) feed from the Predator was limited too, even when the sensor operator switched from infra-red to colour once the sun came up.  Its clarity depended in part on the ability of the sensor operator to focus the cameras – which could be confounded by cloud or dust (p. 1405) – and as the image stream was compressed to accommodate bandwidth constraints and then distributed across multiple networks so its quality was degraded and, significantly, varied from place to place. It was never crystal clear. [80]  The best imagery was available at the Ground Control Station at Creech;  even the screeners complained about what they had to work with.  The primary screener testified that ‘with our FMV quality [which ‘isn’t that great’: p. 1392] there is only so much analytical [work] we can do’ (p. 1390).  Other observers at other posts in the United States and in Afghanistan had similar difficulties, compounded by the video feed sporadically freezing and even breaking.

Equally important, for most of the time the image was restricted to a chronically narrow field of view.  ‘We don’t pass any information [about the composition of the passengers],’ the Safety Observer told McHale, not altogether accurately, ‘because we don’t know ourselves.  We are looking through a soda-straw at it’ (p. 1453). [81]  Early in the mission the sensor operator had decided to ‘go with the pickup [the lead vehicle] as a primary unless we get directed otherwise’, and the primary screener explained that ‘because of our [field of view] and having three vehicles we only had the front pick-up and part of the second vehicle in frame most of the time’.  Whenever the vehicles stopped the sensor operator would ‘zoom out and see all three vehicles,’ she added, ‘but we could not see the passengers unless they got out’ (p. 1394).  Even then It was difficult to say much about them from the black and white infra-red imagery that streamed from the Predator throughout the night (and the sensor operator frequently reverted to IR after dawn too). ‘It is not like you are staring from me to you across the room,’ the Safety Observer told McHale, when ‘I can give you a detail[ed] description. They had been following them all night, and IR … is black and white, and hot and cold’ (p. 1456). As Lisa Parks notes, ‘aerial infra-red imagery turns all bodies into indistinct human morphologies that cannot be differentiated according to conventional visible light indicators,’ a process of indistinction that is in fact doubled because forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) images are by their very nature ‘distorted beforea satellite link digitally processes them’ – and degrades them further – so that even at its highest magnification the video feed would have neared 20/200 visual acuity: ‘the legal definition of blindness for drivers in the United States’. [82]

In fact when the sensor operator zoomed in the most extended discussions amongst the Predator crew focused on the make of the vehicles not the make-up of their occupants.  They started before the sun came up.  ‘What kind of truck is that?’ the MC wondered.  ‘Definitely not a Hummer, right?’ the Predator pilot responded. ‘No,’ the sensor operator told them, ‘just a regular SUV, it’s got a roof rack, kind of boxy and bulky, maybe a Toyota…’  Ten minutes later he resumed the discussion: ‘OK, that’s a Chevy Suburban… well, maybe it’s not quite as long, it’s got barn doors in the back, I want to say it’s a Suburban, well it almost doesn’t look long enough, could be a barn-door [Chevrolet] Tahoe, it’s definitely full size, and I don’t see many full-size out here other than Chevys…’  Two hours later they were still debating.  ‘See that white top on that thing?’ asked the sensor operator, ‘It’s removable … squarish front end… that’s a Suzuki, isn’t it?’   The MC disagreed – it was too big – but 40 minutes later they returned to the subject again.  The pilot thought it ‘kinda looks like a jeep,’ but the sensor operator reckoned that if so it was ‘an odd variant… a lot older one…’  The pilot then changed his mind – it was more ‘like a Tahoe’ – only for the sensor operator to change his mind too: ‘the bumper hanging out in front like, you know, screams jeep,’ he said, and when he got ‘a good shot of the door closing’ he was convinced ‘it looked like a jeep.’  They both noted the ‘seven-slot grill’, and the conversation switched to the Toyota – now they could make out the model name – and the sensor operator pointed out that one of the SUVs had ‘the same type of lug pattern’ (p. 1956). The discussion was inconclusive and they returned to it in short order.  ‘The more I look at it,’ the sensor operator said, the SUV ‘resembles a Ford  Explorer, like the mid-90s type, more square-boxed type, probably early 90s…’  ‘The hood doesn’t quite match up with the lines,’ he continued, ‘but the windows certainly do.  The windows and doors look just like a Ford Explorer’ (p. 1961). It seems clear that the Predator crew debated the makes of the vehicles at length not only because they could see them more clearly than the occupants but also because they could recognise them more readily: these were familiar objects to American eyes in a way that Afghan people were not.  The trade-off between field of view and resolution then mattered all the more because once the sensor operator zoomed in on the lead vehicle, which was a Toyota Hilux – they all agreed on that – its occupants, mainly jammed in the back of the pickup and exposed to the aerial gaze, were all male. The passengers in the other two vehicles included women and children. [83]

Second, the ability of the JTAC and GFC to visualise the situation was limited by their lack of a ruggedized laptop that would have provided direct access to the FMV feed from the Predator. The GFC said they had elected not to bring a ROVER (Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver) with them ‘because we have [a] Predator with two analysts that can look with colour on a ten-foot screen’ whereas – the redactions now cut in but they evidently revolved around the limitations of the ROVER – it’s ‘just not feasible’ for a mission that had ‘to move tactically in a mounted manner’ on all-terrain vehicles (p. 936). [84]  Matters were more complicated, however, because although a ROVER would have been the closest ground receiver to the Predator, its reception would have been far from perfect.  Even when a ROVER is mounted on an ATV, another JTAC explained, it relies on a direct line-of-sight link with the aircraft, and so ‘it’s in and out, intermittent, and it’s really scratchy.’  With the small, portable ROVER 5 ‘you have to have it nice and flat, any buildings, trees obstruct the signal’ and during the day with the sun glaring on the screen ‘you are basically looking at your face, it’s a huge mirror.’  He claimed that in the Operations Center at Kandahar Air Field SOTF-South had ‘huge TVs, [and] they can see a crystal clear picture because they get it directly from the satellite’ (p. 1532).  This was an exaggeration; reception at Kandahar may have been better, and their screens were certainly bigger, but the imagery was far from clear there too.  ‘It was not true that we had a significantly clearer picture,’ Petit told me, and ‘in fact both the SOTF and the GFC tended to rely on the interpretive text chat [mIRC]’ from the Predator crew and the screeners ‘more than our scratchy picture’. And, as I’ve explained, the screeners had far from clear imagery too.  Vision is clearly more than a bio-technical capability – it is always culturally mediated – but that does not mean that its technical frames are unimportant. Whether the FMV feed would have given the JTAC and the GFC a better visual sense of the situation is perhaps moot; but a ROVER would also have given them access to multiple mIRC chatrooms used by the Predator crew and other observers; so too would a data-enabled satellite phone, but the JTAC confirmed that ‘we [did] not see the mIRC chat on the ground’ (p. 1488).  These were all serious limitations, but whatever difference the presence of a ROVER might have made the Predator crew remained wholly unaware of its absence, and this mattered because it made the JTAC unusually reliant on the pilot’s verbal ability to paint the developing picture as accurately as possible. [85]  This in turn made their choice of words vital. Nasser Hussain was right to remind us:

‘There is no microphone equivalent to the microscopic gaze of the drone’s camera. This mute world of dumb figures moving about on a screen has particular consequences for how we experience the image…. In the case of the drone strike footage, the lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem un-alive, even before they are killed.  The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.’ [86]

That rings true, in so far as those watching the FMV feed were watching a silent movie, and apart from the JTAC’s radio and its ambient noise the only sound from the ground reached them indirectly and textually via ICOM and its mIRC translation.  But any ‘detachment’ was repeatedly overcome by the exchanges with the JTAC – the pilot, who had more than 1500 hours flying Predators, told McHale that ‘I do experience stuff along with the guys on the ground… I am in that situation along with them, just trying to support them the best I can’ (p. 916) [87] – and, as a direct result of that intrinsically asymmetric intimacy, by the subtitles added by the Predator crew that turned the objects of their gaze into marionettes and mannequins. [88]  Sometimes they even issued imaginary instructions to those they were watching. There was of course no way for them to know how accurate their ventriloquism was, and yet it materially shaped the decision field of the GFC.  As one senior officer explained, ‘the guy on the ground … has to trust what he is being told because he cannot see the convoy’ (p. 872).  [89]

These verbal communications were affected by technical issues too. Radio messages between the AC-130 and the Predator were disrupted from time to time by static, but mIRC between the two was ‘intermittent most of the time’ as the gunship repeatedly lost connectivity (p. 1420).  The JTAC’s communications with the Predator pilot depended on his line-of-sight VHF radio, and the link became weak or even broke altogether depending on the path of the aircraft and the intervening terrain (p. 1487). [90]  Even so, the JTAC saw himself as a faithful relay giving the GFC ‘an exact play of what the aircraft [were] seeing’ (p. 1487); in turn, the Predator pilot praised the JTAC for ‘doing a good job telling us what the [GFC] is thinking’ (p. 1954).  Their co-construction of the developing situation depended on the correlations they established between the reports on the vehicles from the aircraft and ICOM chatter – although the location of the messages could not be established unless the NSA cell came through – and the GFC testified that ‘for every [insurgent] radio transmission there was an equal ground reaction during the entire movement’ (p. 1363). [91] This interpretive work, the performative statements shared with the commander of the gunship and the crew of the Predator in particular, was also profoundly culturally mediated – hence the informed discussion of the vehicles rather than their occupants – and differed from person to person.  Even had the Predator’s FMV feed been uninterrupted, the JTAC had a ROVER laptop with perfect reception, and the image stream that appeared on multiple screens across the network been high-definition and crystal-clear, this could not have rendered the battlespace transparent. As the Director of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF–A)’s Operations Center at Bagram Air Field – the level above SOTF-South – acknowledged, ‘What I see may be different from what someone else might interpret on the ISR’ (p. 822).

There were differences in interpretation that became ever more important as the night wore on, but at this time the commanders of both aircraft agreed the situation was becoming extremely serious, and yet both were on the brink of having to withdraw – for real this time: the very situation ICOM chatter revealed the Taliban were waiting for.  The Predator had been re-tasked to Marjah in Helmand province 150 miles to the south, where Operation Moshtarak, a large-scale counterinsurgency offensive involving 15,000 coalition troops, had been under way for a week or more, but the pilot had held off as long as possible and he asked his MC to explain that ‘we are part of a tactical engagement right now and we can’t move.’ [92] While they waited for permission to remain on station the crew continued to watch their screens, and the pilot told the JTAC they could see ‘personnel in the open, by the vehicles, moving tactically’ – again – ‘definitely carrying objects: at this time we cannot PID what they are.’ [93]

The AC-130 had flown down from Bagram Air Field to escort the Chinooks to Khod, and although its commander had received a waiver ‘to take us all the way to low fuel’ (p. 1419) he knew the time was fast approaching when he would have to go off station too. [94] He clearly believed they had sufficient information for a strike, and at 0513 he prompted the JTAC: ‘How’s your imagery looking?’  He received no reply – presumably because the JTAC had no imagery – and one minute later he increased the pressure.   ‘We’re all set up, up here,’ he told the JTAC, ‘standby your intentions for fire mission.’  The JTAC told McHale he knew exactly what the flight commander meant: ‘They have confirmed and they think they had enough to fire and are ready for my call’ (p. 1354). He responded with a promissory note: ‘Ground Force Commander’s intent is to destroy the vehicles and the personnel.’ The JTAC also relayed the Predator crew’s identification of individuals ‘moving tactically’ and holding ‘cylindrical objects in their hands.’  A redacted passage may explain how they had become ‘cylindrical’ in the interval, but the crew was still not certain what they were and this did not constitute the positive identification of weapons they were looking (and hoping) for.  ‘Is that a [fucking] rifle?’ demanded the Predator pilot, and when the sensor operator was unable to confirm it  –largely because of the limitations of infra-red (‘Maybe just a warm spot from where he was sitting,’ the sensor operator explained: ‘The only way I’ve ever been able to see a rifle is if they move them around [or] … with muzzle flashes…’) – the pilot muttered ‘I was hoping we could make out a rifle…’

The commander of the AC-130 was undeterred and announced that ‘our intention is to engage first on the east side’ – because the people there were closer to the compounds and could escape more easily [95] – so he was happy to maintain ‘the chain of custody’ (a leading phrase) while the Predator continued to track those on the west side.  By this time he reckoned the vehicles were 7.8 km (almost five miles) from the nearest coalition forces in Khod.  But this was a straight-line distance and, as the GFC later conceded, ‘you cannot do a straight-line distance’ in terrain like this (p. 1350).  It would have taken them some considerable time to reach the village on the poor, unmade tracks that criss-crossed the mountainous region, and this evidently gave the JTAC pause too: ‘… but with the distance they are away from our objective…’ he radioed at 0522.  The rest of his message was drowned by simultaneous transmissions between the aircrew, but the JTAC was clearly convinced that the occupants of the vehicles were planning to attack.  ‘Getting ICOM traffic,’ he continued, ‘and [combined with] the maneuvering of these personnel, we believe their ultimate intent is to come down in this area and engage friendlies’.

But now the JTAC’s previous confidence deserted him. ‘At this point,’ he conceded, accepting and relaying the doubts of the GFC, ‘the current rules of engagement don’t fit’.  The reluctance to engage was prompted by both the failure to identify weapons and the distance of the vehicles from Khod (which had a direct bearing on the imminence of any threat they posed).  As the aircraft continued to track the vehicles the quest for weapons did not let up.  The Predator pilot later told McHale there were ‘probably 200 instances where we saw basically long cylindrical objects’, which he said they always looked for because they could be rifles or rocket-propelled grenade launchers. He then radically revised the numbers, estimating that they saw ‘about 30’ weapons in total, before conceding that there had been only one (perhaps two) definite calls of weapons from the screeners watching the FMV feed at Hurlburt Field (p. 910).  In fact McHale’s report noted that ‘throughout the over three and a half hours the vehicles were observed, only three weapons were positively identified’ (p. 23) – whether these were different weapons or the same weapon identified three times is unclear; the primary screener thought the most they saw at any one time was two weapons (p. 1389) – and that the screeners made only one call that was not prompted by the Predator crew (p. 33). Just as important, the crew’s inference could perfectly properly be reversed: AK-47s are commonplace in Afghan culture, and to have detected so few weapons among so many men was hardly evidence that the Taliban were massing at the gates. [96]

It did not take the Predator crew long to adduce further grounds for suspicion. The sensor operator reported a group of people whom the pilot said ‘look to be lookouts’.  They probably were lookouts, since the adults knew they were in Taliban country; their understandable unease would explain why the men ‘appeared to provide security during stops’ (p. 36). [97]  But the same flawed logic that interpreted the presence of any weapons as an indication of impending attack transformed a prudent precaution by wary travellers into a sign of a ‘threat force’ (p. 36).  The faulty inference was encouraged by ICOM chatter in which a Taliban commander instructed his men to move towards the bazaar in Khod.  This was immediately linked to the vehicles: ‘What we’re looking at,’ the JTAC relayed at 0524, elaborating his earlier claim, ‘is a QRF [Quick Reaction Force]; we believe we may have a high-level Taliban commander…’ The GFC later explained that half a dozen HVIs or ‘High-Value Individuals’ – targets on the Joint Prioritised Effects List [98]– were active in the area around Khod, moving between safe houses (or ‘bed downs’), and at first he suspected that the men jammed into the lead vehicle were the HVI’s ‘personal security detail’ (pp. 1356-7).  The Predator crew had already noticed one person standing apart from the others, and prompted by the JTAC’s inference the pilot speculated that this was ‘one of their important guys, just watching from a distance’and the sensor operator chimed in with ‘he’s got his security detail.’  When the commander of the AC-130 asked them to turn their sensors towards a group of people on the other side of the river the Predator pilot reinforced that interpretation: they still had eyes on a group of men on the west bank, he radioed, with ‘two lookouts, could be definite tactical movement with a commander overwatching, definitely suspicious.’

The GFC said he came to discount the presence of an HVI, and his primary and eventually sole concern was the threat of an enveloping attack on his forces at Khod. [99]  The JTAC was still on the same page as the two flight commanders.  ‘Due to distance from friendless we are trying to work on justification’ for a pre-emptive strike, he told them at 0526: it was essential to establish the presence of weapons.  By now people could be seen leaving the compound and squeezing back into the pickup and the SUV, and the JTAC radioed: ‘ICOM traffic [suggests] they are getting on the vehicles and moving to our location, sounded like it was in conjunction with what you are looking at.’  The commander of the AC-130 thought so too.  ‘What we all took note of in the aircraft,’ he told McHale, ‘was the [ICOM] chatter rallying forces to head towards the objective [Khod], at that moment they all stopped what they were doing and started piling in to the trucks’ (p. 1418). The JTAC believed they now had sufficient evidence to engage (p. 1491), but the GFC remained concerned that the vehicles were too far from Khod to justify a strike and that they had yet to establish PID (which most them consistently misinterpreted as a sufficient number of weapons to constitute the vehicles as a legitimate target). [100]


[47] For additional insight into operations in and around FB Tinsley (formerly FB Cobra), see Steve Haggard’s Inside the Green Berets (Brave Planet Films/National Geographic, 2007).

[48] An ODA (‘the A Team’) is the basic operational unit of US Special Forces.  It is commanded by a captain, assisted by a (chief) warrant officer, and includes pairs of specialists in (for example) weapons, engineering, explosive ordnance disposal, communications, and medical support – pairs so that an ODA can operate in two teams of six (as here).   In the US military ‘Special Forces’ refers to groups under US Army Special Forces Command (‘Green Berets’); the generic ‘Special Operations Forces’ includes any special operations group (including the Green Berets and also groups from the US Air Force, Navy and Marines and groups that operate under the still more secretive Joint Special Operations Command), all of which fall under the wider umbrella of US Special Operations Command.

[49] There were more than 4,000 ha devoted to poppy cultivation in Shahidi Hassas in 2008. The Taliban’s attitude to its cultivation was complex and increasingly pragmatic.  By 2009 there was ‘a consensus that growing poppy is religiously proscribed, yet taxing cultivation and trafficking is justified by war imperatives.’ By then the Taliban had ‘a tolerance of opium [production] that for some commanders border[ed] on dependence’: Addiction, crime and insurgency: the transnational threat of Afghan Opium (UN Office on Drugs and Crime, October 2009) pp. 86-7, 102.

[50]Cf. Erik Donkersloot, Sebastiaan Rietjens, Christ Klep, ‘Going Dutch: counternarcotics activities in the Afghan province of Uruzgan’, Military Review91 (5) (2011) 43-51.

[51] Jairus Grove, ‘An insurgency of things: foray into the world of Improvised Explosive Devices’, International political sociology19 (2016) 332-51; idem, Savage ecology: war and geopolitics at the end of the world(Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2019) 113-137.

[52] The government of Pakistan prohibited the export of CAN, since its manufacture was subsidized by the state, and the government of Afghanistan outlawed its use because it was the core ingredient for 70-90 per cent of IEDs: Ben Gilbert, ‘Afghanistan’s Hurt Locker’, Agence France Presse, 10 February 2010; Chris Brummitt, ‘Pakistan fertilizer fuels Afghan bombs, US troop deaths’, Associated Press, 31 August 2011.

[53] For a vividly personal account of one man’s attempt to track down one manufacturer of IEDs in Afghanistan, see Brian CastnerAll the ways we kill and die: a portrait of modern war (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).

[54] All pre-planned missions required a Concept of Operations (CONOPS) to be submitted for approval by the ODA’s higher command(s); this was a deck of Powerpoint slides developed by the ODA outlining the time, location and type of operation, the level of risk and the resources required.  In Afghanistan level 0 was the lowest risk, usually reserved for a combat reconnaissance patrol outside the firebase; level 1 was medium risk, typically a daylight cordon-and-search operation (as here), that might require helicopter transport and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) support; and level 2 was high risk, usually a night raid that required helicopter transport and ISR.  The higher the risk, the higher the approval level required: Maj Edward Sanford, ‘Optimizing future operations for Special Forces battalions: reviewing the CONOP process’, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey CA, June 2013 (p. 12).

[55] Anthony H. Cordesman and Jason Lemieux, ‘IED metrics for Afghanistan, January 2004 – May 2010’,  Center for Strategic and International Studies, 21 July 2010; the original data were provided by the Department of Defense’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).

[56] The consolidated file refers to both SOTF-South and SOTF-12 but they are the same unit. SOTF-12 identified the 2ndBattalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne),but during this tour all SOTF numbers in Afghanistan were replaced by regional designations.

[57] Elsewhere Petit emphasised the role Special Forces played in ‘village stability operations’ but the weight of his argument was on establishing a ‘dominant’ coalition presence to supplant the coercive authority of the Taliban through the provision of an effective system of ‘security and justice’.  This was the essential foundation for development, he explained, but it depended on responding to Taliban incursions with ‘speed, violence of action, and effective but discretionary use of indirect fires’: ‘The fight for the village: Southern Afghanistan, 2010’, Military Review 91 (3) (2011) 25-32.

[58] Operation Enduring Freedom was the official name for the ‘global war on terror’ launched by the United States in response to 9/11, but it is commonly reserved for US combat operations in Afghanistan, 2001-2014.

[59] Human Rights Watch, “Troops in Contact”: Airstrikes and civilian deaths in Afghanistan(September, 2008) p. 37; on the Rules of Engagement see also note 74 below.

[60] Derek Gregory, ‘The rush to the intimate: the cultural turn and counterinsurgency’, Radical Philosophy150 (2008) 8-23.

[61] ‘NATO forces have complained that OEF operations in their region are not communicated to them, but civilian casualties from airstrikes called in by OEF forces are left for them to address’: Human Rights Watch, Troops in Contact, p. 31.  Brig Gen Reeder insisted that the operation had been ‘approved at the [Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force] level with the RC-S [Regional Command–South] consent’ (p. 1189). As Carter’s objections made clear, however, ‘consent’ need not imply ‘consultation’, and RC-S clearly had to work hard to keep up to speed with Special Forces operations; conversely, Petit’s deputy testified that his battle captain usually attended the morning briefing at RC-S though he added ‘that is not required’ (p. 1012).

[62] See also Col Robert Johnson, ‘Command and control of Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan’, US Naval War College, October 2009.

[63] There was in any case friction between the Dutch and US Special Forces over the local alliances each favoured and fostered: see Bette Dam, ‘The story of “M”: US-Dutch shouting matches in Uruzgan’, Afghan Analysts Network, 10 June 2010.  For discussions of Dutch counterinsurgency in Uruzgan, see Martine van Bijlert, ‘The battle for Afghanistan – militancy and conflict in Zabul and Uruzgan’, New America Foundation, 2010; George Dimitriou and Beatrice de Graaf, ‘The Dutch COIN approach: three years in Uruzgan’, 2006-2009’, Small wars and insurgencies21 (2010) 429-58; Paul Fishstein, ‘Winning hearts and minds in Uruzgan province’, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, 2012; Christ Klep, Uruzgan: Nederlandse militairen op missie 2005-2010 (Amsterdam: Boom, 2011).

[64] He added that they were ‘not habitually assigned’ to his battalion (which was from the 1st Special Forces Group based at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington): they were ‘a Fort Bragg company’ from the 3rd Special Forces Group.  Fort Bragg (North Carolina) is also the home of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), but ODA 3124 was part of the ‘white’ Special Forces rather than the ‘black’ Special Forces of JSOC (see note 48), and Petit’s reference to its ‘full-spectrum understanding’ presumably referred to its kinetic and non-kinetic, humanitarian operations.  Even so, trouble followed ODA 3124 when it was deployed to Wardak province in 2012, where it was accused of torturing and killing civilians.  The only person convicted was its Afghan interpreter, but the criminal investigation remains open: Mathieu Aikins, ‘The A-Team killings’, Rolling Stone, 6 November 2013; ‘Where the bodies are buried: mapping allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan’, at http://wardakinvestigation.com/report/30 (June 2016).

[65] As soon as the ODA was outside the wire primary support passed to its battalion headquarters (SOTF-South at Kandahar Air Field).  Its company headquarters (the ODB) at FOB Ripley in Tarin Kowt was ‘left out of the [communication] link once they leave the gate’ (p. 739); the ODB listened to radio communications and did their best to monitor mIRC, but access was selective at the best of times and the electricity supply was often intermittent (p. 742). That morning they also had computer problems so that ‘we weren’t seeing that whole picture’ (p. 746).

[66] Night raids, usually conducted by Special Forces, were the dual to targeted killings in the US kill/capture strategy in Afghanistan: Anand Gopal, ‘Terror comes at night to Afghanistan’, Asia Times, 30 January 2010; Erica Gaston, ‘Night raids: For Afghan civilians, the costs may outweigh the benefits’, Huffington Post, 19 September 2011.

[67] The MH-47s were variants of standard CH-47 Chinook helicopters modified for US Air Force Special Operations Command: hence ‘the birds that we fly only [operate] between the hours of EENT [end evening nautical twilight] and BMNT [begin morning nautical twilight].’  This applied only to the MH-47s; the CH-47s were typically used for other, non-covert missions.

[68] The AC-130 was commonly tasked to support Special Forces operations.  It had a formidable arsenal: a Gatling gun, capable of firing 1,800 25 mm rounds per minute; a 40 mm Bofors gun; and a 105 mm howitzer.  Its Battle Management Center included a sensor suite (with TV sensors, infra-red and radar) and a communications suite, but their inputs were limited. The resolution level of the sensors did not permit the identification of weapons, for example, and the linguist testified that s/he ‘didn’t really pass along anything much’ (p. 1145).  That said, the Fires Officer at SOTF-South claimed that ‘when you mix the movement’ reported from the aircraft’, the ICOM ‘and what the Direct Support Officer was monitoring and reporting, this was interesting’ (p. 720).

[69] Afghanistan had 12 million cellphone users (out of a total population of 29 million) and the Taliban frequently used cellphones to pass information and to direct the insurgency.

[70] The NSA had been operating in Afghanistan since at least July 2008, but by 2010 it was transitioning towards a much larger footprint with the construction of a new data centre for its Real Time Regional Gateway (RT-RG) at Bagram Air Field. NSA’s representative at CENTCOM claimed that the RT-RG ‘helped us to become experts in providing the “where” part of a conversation’: Henrik Moltke, ‘Mission creep’, The Intercept, 29 May 2019.  The RT-RG could be accessed from multiple locations, and a report in June 2011 required 15 pages to describe a single day’s monitoring at the NSA station at Kandahar Air Field: Scott Shane, ‘No morsel too miniscule for all-consuming NSA’, New York Times, 2 November 2013.

[71] These observations (at 0757 and 0833) are wholly redacted from the LA Times transcript but appear in the communications transcript contained in the consolidated file (pp. 1959, 1963).  Chatty Kathy was a pull-string ‘talking doll’ from the 1960s (sic).

[72] The SALT reports from the GFC were transmitted by radio to SOTF-South and transcribed (p. 948); the language is not the Taliban’s, of course, who would not refer to ‘coalition forces’.  The report was based on ICOM and inferences about the location of the transmissions, but it also reinforced the direct reports of headlights assumed to be flashing not simply from but betweenthe north and the south.

[73] ‘Positive identification’ (PID) turned out to be one of the most frequently used and least understood terms throughout that long night.  It is correctly defined as ‘the reasonable certainty that a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack is a legitimate military target in accordance with the law of war and the applicable ROE’: Close Air Support, p. III.38.

[74] The reference to the ROE was redacted from the communications transcript but appears in an e-mail from the commanding officer of 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base, dated 6 March 2010 (p. 890).  The ROE themselves remain classified, but 421 referred to ‘hostile intent’ and 422 to a ‘hostile act’; these were standing ROEs that required no prior authorization for US forces to exercise the right to self-defence.  The situation was different for other coalition forces; most European states do not consider hostile intent or hostile act sufficient to trigger self-defence, which is viewed as a response to an immediate, ongoing attack.  In contrast, the US treats self-defence as a response to an imminent (not immediate) hostile intent or hostile act.  See Erica [E.L.] Gaston, When looks could kill: emerging state practice on self-defence and hostile intent (Global Public Policy Institute, 2017) pp. 18-21; Camilla Guldahl Cooper, NATO Rules of Engagement: on ROE, self-defence and the use of force during armed conflict(Leiden: Brill, 2020).

[75] As I will show, this was highly problematic, part of what de Volo calls (with specific reference to the Uruzgan attack) a ‘high-tech patriarchal imperialism’ in which ‘brown women and children need protection and brown men need killing’: Lorraine Bayard de Volo, ‘Unmanned? Gender recalibrations and the rise of drone warfare’, Politics & Gender12 (2016) 50-77: 70.

[76] This message is redacted from the communications transcript but appears in an e-mail from the commanding officer of 15thReconnaissance Squadron dated 6 March 2010 (p. 896).

[77] Gaston, When looks could kill, p. 50-1.

[78] Hence Petit insisted the question revolved around distinguishing ‘what civilians are innocent versus bad’ (p. 1105). In response to a question about the presence of ‘possible civilians’ he rephrased it: ‘Everyone in that convoy, whether women, children or males with an AK [47], are they a threat to us or are they  innocent non-combatant civilians?’   He and his staff regularly discussed the meaning of ‘civilian’, he said, and it was confusing: ‘We kill civilians all the time, called Taliban, and they are armed and shooting at us.’   What mattered, in his view, was whether those in the vehicles were non-combatants (p. 1113).  More generally see Derek Gregory, ‘The death of the civilian?’  Society & Space24 (2006) 633-38 on Alan Dershowitz’s demand that civilian casualties be ‘recalibrated’ to show how many of them‘fall closer to the line of complicity and how many fall closer to the line of innocence.’

[79] I am indebted to Christiane Wilke for my phrasing and for helpful discussions on this issue. As she writes, ‘it is not clear what Afghans should do or avoid in order to be recognized as civilians’: Wilke, ‘Seeing and unmaking civilians’, p. 1056.   More generally, she told me: ‘I’m … really disturbed by the ways in which the burden of making oneself legible to the eyes in the sky is distributed: we don’t have to do any of that here, but the people to whom we’re bringing the war have to perform civilian-ness without fail’ (pers. comm., 23 January 2017).

[80] FMV image quality is measured on the Video-National Imagery Interpretability Rating Scale; the Predator’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System-A had a rating of 6 which, combined with a transmission speed of 1-3 Mbps, was sufficient to track the movement of cars and trucks and to detect the presence of an individual apart from a group; but it could not isolate and track an individual in a group nor identify their gender.  The MTS-B developed for the MQ-9 Reaper allowed for dramatically enhanced resolution and coverage.  See Pratap Chatterjee and Christian Stork, Drone Inc: marketing the illusion of precision killin(San Francisco: CorpWatch, 2017) pp. 11-12, 25-6.

[81] By the time the Safety Observer entered the Ground Control Station, shortly before the engagement, the Predator crew had made multiple assessments about the passengers; even if he meant to say that the crew deferred to the screeners in passing information this was also demonstrably inaccurate, as I show below.

[82] Lisa Parks, ‘Drones, infrared imagery and body heat’, International journal of communication8 (2014) 2518-21:2519; Col Andrew Milani, ‘Pitfalls of technology: a case study of the battle on Takhur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan’ (US Army War College, 2003) p. 25; Cockburn, Kill-Chain, pp. 125-6.

[83] The reconstruction of the strike in National Bird is misleading in this (I think crucial) respect: it consistently shows a remarkably clear image of all three vehicles.

[84] The ROVER system was originally developed in 2001 to provide a video link from Predators to AC-130 gunships, but the possibility – and importance – of enhancing the system to allow ground troops to receive the FMV feed was first proposed by a Special Forces Warrant Officer serving in Afghanistan: ’If only there were some way for me to see what the Predator is seeing…’  He took his idea to the Big Safari team at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and a prototype was delivered to the 3rdSpecial Forces Group in 2002. Ironically the original system was so bulky it hadto be carried in a Humvee – though by 2010 the system (by then, ROVER 5) had become much smaller and more portable.  See Rebecca Grant, ‘The ROVER’, Air Force Magazine 96 (8) (2013) 38-42; Bill Grimes, The history of BIG SAFARI (Bloomington, IND: Archway, 2014) pp. 336-7.

[85] At 0602 the JTAC asked the Predator crew for a ROVER frequency and band, and a few minutes later asked them to push the video feed ‘to Cobra [Tinsley] base, that’s probably [going to] serve us best’; 30 minutes later the link to the JTAC at FB Tinsley was established though the quality of the feed was poor.  The Predator crew raised no questions about the request, but at 0817 – half an hour before the attack on the vehicles –  the sensor operator was puzzled why the JTAC ‘asked us if they were moving at that one point when they were stopped forever’ and – given the repeated problems with their own radio communication with the JTAC – concluded that perhaps ‘he’s got an intermittent ROVER feed.’ The pilot was left ‘wondering if he’s not sitting with the guys actually watching.’ The answer to all these puzzles was, of course, that the JTAC had no ROVER.

[86] Nasser Hussain, ‘The sound of terror: phenomenology of a drone strike’, Boston Review, 16 October 2013.

[87] Those who operate remote platforms consistently claim that they are not thousands of miles from the battlespace but just 18 inches away: the distance from eye to screen. Here is Col Peter Gersten, the commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing: ‘There’s no detachment… Those employing the system are very involved at a personal level incombat. You hear the AK-47 going off, the intensity of the voice on the radio calling for help. You’re looking at him, 18 inches away from him, trying everything in your capability to get that person out of trouble’: Megan McCloskey, ‘The war room: Daily transition between battle, home takes a toll on drone operators’, Stars & Stripes, 27 October 2009.

[88] See Derek Gregory, ‘The territory of the screen’, Mediatropes 6 (2) (2016) 126-147: 146-7.

[89] He elaborated the burden of this trust relationship for the GFC: ‘If he [fails] to act, it’s his guys get killed, if he acts and the information is wrong then he has to suffer the consequences of [civilian casualties] as a result of receiving bad information.’

[90] The Predator pilot’s radio communications with the JTAC improved when the aircraft was in its southern orbit towards Khod but became weak again whenever it circled back, prompting the sensor operator to exclaim at 0456: ‘We need to get this JTAC in mIRC’: but without the ROVER laptop or a data-enabled satellite phone the JTAC would have had no access to that either.

[91] The USAF investigation made much of ‘the extensive Intercepted Communications (ICOM) chatter correlated with FMV and observed ground movement’ (Commander-directed operational assessment, p. 1).  ‘One of the most compelling elements of all the testimony is the recurring reference to ICOM chatter and how it seemed to correlate with observed movements,’ Otto wrote (artfully dropping the direct reference to the video feed), and he concluded that ‘the unusually strong correlation perceived by the GFC’ between the two was the ‘strongest element in his decision to engage’ the vehicles (p. 36). But Gaston, When looks could kill, p. 53 suggests that the very existence of ICOM (and signals intelligence more generally) could convert what would otherwise have remained indeterminate into a black-and-white calculus: ‘Troops with less access to intelligence and eavesdropping resources to verify threats may have been less willing to make a hostile intent determination in ambiguous situations.’

[92] The MC asked SOTF-South to arrange permission to stay, and the airman monitoring the FMV feed there – the Intelligence Tactical Coordinator – explained that ‘it looked very nefarious’ and ‘we assessed this to be a bad situation’ (p. 1374). Permission had to be obtained from the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Cell (ISARC) which co-ordinated all ISR assets; it is not clear whether this was based in Afghanistan or whether it was located at CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar. Permission finally came through at 0528.

[93] Again the basis for describing their actions as ‘tactical movement’ was never given; the screeners described the movement as ‘adult males, standing and sitting’ (pp. 21-2).

[94] Although the AC-130 has an extended range its loiter time over a target is around 4 ½ hours, whereas a Predator could remain in the air for 24 hours while the crew in the Ground Control Station rotated through two or three shifts.  From the pilot’s message at 0756 the Predator would have been able to remain on station (referred to as ‘playtime’) until 1600.

[95] Had the AC-130 done so, the proximity to the compounds would presumably have violated the Tactical Directive.

[96] The Mission Operations Commander of the screeners at Hurlburt Field said much the same: ‘It’s Afghanistan, there’s going to be weapons down there in any large group of men’ (p. 592).

[97] One of the sergeants with ODA 3142 offered another, wholly innocuous reading that said much about the quality of the video feed and the cultural distance that confounded its interpretation: ‘‘After looking at the video afterwards, someone was saying when the vehicles stopped … there might be people pulling security.  When I looked at [the] video they also could have been taking a piss.  Whoever was viewing the video real-time … needs to be someone that knows the culture of the people’ (p. 501).

[98] The Joint Prioritised Effects List (JPEL) is a list of named individuals implicated in Taliban and/or al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan pre-authorised for ‘kill or capture’ by coalition forces; Joint Special Operations Command was instrumental in its compilation, which also involved intelligence agencies from the US and NATO partners, and Special Operations forces took the lead in its execution.  See Nick Davies, ‘Afghanistan war logs: Task Force 373 – special forces hunting top Taliban’, Guardian, 25 July 2010; Britain’s Kill List (Reprieve, 2012); Jacob Appelbaum, Matthias Gebauer, Susanne Koelbl, Laura Poitras, Gordon Repinski, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark,‘A dubious history of targeted killing in Afghanistan’, Spiegel Online, 28 December 2014.

[99] McHale accepted ‘by a preponderance of the evidence’ that the GFC ‘engaged primarily based on a belief that the vehicles represented an imminent threat to the forces under his command’ (p. 28).  But the hare continued to run: when Col Gus Benton, the commander of CJSOTF-A, was alerted to the developing situation shortly before the strike he said he assumed that what he saw on the Predator feed was ‘this JPEL [target] moving along this road’ (p. 530) (see below, pp. 00-00).

[100] The search for weapons continued after the strike because their presence amongst the wreckage would have helped to validate the attack.  Even had it been successful – it wasn’t – it would not have been enough; McHale’s report emphasized that ‘positive identification of weapons is neither required nor sufficient for PID’ (p. 33).

The eyes have it…

The Disorder of Things has hosted a symposium on Antoine Bousquet‘s The eye of war: military perception from the telescope to the drone (Minnesota UP, 2018).  Antoine’s introduction is here.

There were four other participants, and below I’ve linked to their commentaries and snipped extracts to give you a sense of their arguments: but it really is worth reading them in full.

Kate Hall‘Linear Perspective, the Modern Subject, and the Martial Gaze’

For Bousquet this future of globalised targeting that the birth of linear perspective has brought us to throws the role of the human into question. With the move of perception into the realm of the technical, Bousquet sees that perception has become a process without a subject, and as human agency is increasingly reduced, so does the possibility for politics – leading, perhaps much like the concerns of the Frankfurt School, to passivity and a closing of the space of critique. For Bousquet the figure that captures this positioning or transformation of the human, and the image that ends the book, is the bomber instructor recording aircraft movement within a dark camera obscura tent. As Bousquet concludes, “…the camera obscura’s occupant is both a passive object of the targeting process and an active if compliant agent tasked with the iterative process and optimization of its performance. Perhaps this duality encapsulates the martial condition we inhabit today, caught between our mobilization within the circulatory networks of the logistics of perception and the roving crosshairs of a global imperium of targeting – and all watched over by machines of glacial indifference.” 

If this is the figure that encapsulates the condition of the present, Bousquet has shown in Eye of War how its foundations are found in the early modern period. And in tracing this history, it is clear the future does not look promising for humans (both as passive subjects and as objects of lethal surveillance). But Bousquet does not give us a sense of how we might change course. Eye of War does not ask, where is the space for politics in this analysis of the present?

Dan Öberg‘Requiem for the Battlefield’

While the culminating battle of the Napoleonic wars, Waterloo, was fought at a battlefield where 140,000 men and 400 guns were crammed into an area of roughly 3,5 miles, the latter half of the 19th century becomes characterised by the dispersal and implosion of the battlefield. As Bousquet has directed our attention to in his work, after the birth of modern warfare the battlefield dissolves due to the increased range of weapons systems. Its disappearance is also facilitated by how the military logistics of perception conditions the appearances of targets, particularly through how the “eye of war” manages to move from the commander occupying a high-point next to the field of battle, to being facilitated by balloons, binoculars, aerial reconnaissance, satellites, algorithms, and cloud computing. It is as part of this process we eventually reach the contemporary era where targeting is characterised by polar inertia, as targets arrive as digital images from anywhere on the globe in front of a stationary targeteer. However, I would like to argue that, parallel to this, there is a corresponding process taking place, which erases and remodels the battlefield as a result of the military disposition that is born with the operational dimension of warfare.

To grasp this disposition and its consequences we need to ponder the fact that it is no coincidence that the operational dimension emerges at precisely the time when the traditional battlefield is starting to disappear. As The Eye of War outlines, global targeting is enabled by a logistics of perception. However, the demand for maps and images as well as the attempts to make sense of the battlefield arguably receives its impetus and frame of reference from elsewhere. It finds its nexus in standard operating procedures, regulations, instructions and manuals, military working groups, administrative ideals, organisational routines, and bureaucratic rituals. And, as the battlefield is managed, coded, and homogenised, it simultaneously starts to become an external point of reference, enacted through operational analysis and planning far from the battlefield itself.

Matthew Ford‘Totalising the State through Vision and War’

The technologies of vision that Antoine describes emerge from and enable the political and military imaginaries that inspired them. The technological fix that this mentality produces is, however, one that locks military strategy into a paradox that privileges tactical engagement over identifying political solutions. For the modern battlefield is a battlefield of fleeting targets, where speed and concealment reduce the chance of being attacked and create momentary opportunities to produce strategic effects (Bolt, 2012). The assemblages of perspective, sensing, imaging and mapping, described in The Eye of War may make it possible to anticipate and engage adversaries before they can achieve these effects but by definition they achieve these outcomes at the tactical level.

The trap of the martial gaze is, then, twofold. On the one hand, by locking technologies of vision into orientalist ways of seeing, strategies that draw on these systems tend towards misrepresenting adversaries in a manner that finds itself being reproduced in military action. At the same time, in an effort to deliver decisive battle, the state has constructed increasingly exquisite military techniques. These hold out the prospect of military success but only serve to further atomise war down tactical lines as armed forces find more exquisite ways to identify adversaries and adversaries find more sophisticated ways to avoid detection. The result is that the military constructs enemies according to a preconceived calculus and fights them in ways that at best manage outcomes but at worst struggle to deliver political reconciliation.

Jairus Grove, ‘A Martial Gaze Conscious of Itself

If we take the assemblage and the more-than-human approach of Bousquet’s book seriously, which I do, then we ought not believe that the dream of sensing, imaging, mapping, and targeting ends with the intact human individual. As an early peak at what this could become, consider Bousquet’s review of the late 1970’s research on ‘cognitive cartography’ and the concern that human technology would need to be altered to truly take advantage of the mapping revolution. More than the development of GIS and other targeting technologies, the dream of cognitive mapping and conditioning was to manage the complex informatics of space and the human uses of it from the ground up. That is in the making of user-friendly human subjects. One can image targeting following similar pathways. The “martial gaze that roams our planet” will not be satisfied with the individual any more than it was satisfied with the factory, the silo, the unit, or the home.

The vast data revolutions in mapping individual and collective behavior utilized in the weaponization of fake and real news, marketing research, fMRI advances and brain mapping, as well nanodrones, directed energy weapons, and on and on, suggest to me that just as there has never been an end of history for politics, or for that matter war, there will be no end of history or limit to what the martial gaze dreams of targeting. I can imagine returns to punishment where pieces of the enemy’s body are taken. Jasbir Puar’s work on debility suggests (see our recent symposium) already suggests such a martial vision of the enemy at play in the new wars of the 21st century. Following the long tails of Bousquet’s machinic history, I can further imagine the targeting of ideas and behaviors for which ‘pattern-of-life’ targeting and gait analysis are use are only crude and abstract prototypes.

If we, like the machines we design, are merely technical assemblages, then the molecularization of war described by Bousquet is not likely to remain at the level of the intact human, as if individuals were the martial equivalent of Plank’s quanta of energy. The martial gaze will want more unless fundamentally interrupted by other forces of abstraction and concretization.

Antoine‘s response is here.

Lots to think about here for me – especially since one of my current projects on ‘woundscapes‘ (from the First World War through to the present) is located at the intersection of the military gaze (‘the target’) and the medical gaze (‘the wound’) but rapidly spirals beyond these acutely visual registers, as it surely must….  More soon!

‘Sweet target, sweet child’

My keynote (‘Sweet target, sweet child: Aerial violence and the imaginaries of remote warfare’) at the conference on Drone Imaginaries and Society at the University of Southern Denmark in June is now available online here.

In February 2010 a US air strike on three vehicles in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan in support of US and allied ground forces caused multiple civilian casualties. The attack was the direct result of surveillancecarried out by a Predator drone, and a US Army investigation into the incident criticised the flightcrew for persistently misinterpreting the full-motion video feeds from the remotely operated aircraft.This has become the signature strike for critics of remote warfare, yet they have all relied solely on a transcript of communications between US Special Forces in the vicinity, the drone crew at Creech AirForce Base in Nevada, and the helicopter pilots who executed the strike. But an examination of the interviews carried out by the investigation team reveals a more complicated – and in some respects even more disturbing – picture. This presentation uses those transcripts to brings other actors into the frame, pursues the narrative beyond the strike itself, and raises a series of questions about civilian casualties. During the post-strike examination of the site the casualties were rendered as (still) suspicious bodies and, as they were evacuated to military hospitals, as inventories of injuries. Drawing on Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary film ”National Bird” I also track the dead as they are returned to their villages and the survivors as they struggle with rehabilitation: both provide vivid illustrations of the embodied nature of nominally remote warfare and of the violent bioconvergence that lies on the otherside of the screen.

In my crosshairs

Two new books on the military gaze:

First, from the ever-interesting Roger StahlThrough the Crosshairs: War, Visual Culture, and the Weaponized Gaze (Rutgers).

Now that it has become so commonplace, we rarely blink an eye at camera footage framed by the crosshairs of a sniper’s gun or from the perspective of a descending smart bomb. But how did this weaponized gaze become the norm for depicting war, and how has it influenced public perceptions?

Through the Crosshairs traces the genealogy of this weapon’s-eye view across a wide range of genres, including news reports, military public relations images, action movies, video games, and social media posts. As he tracks how gun-camera footage has spilled from the battlefield onto the screens of everyday civilian life, Roger Stahl exposes how this raw video is carefully curated and edited to promote identification with military weaponry, rather than with the targeted victims. He reveals how the weaponized gaze is not only a powerful propagandistic frame, but also a prime site of struggle over the representation of state violence.


1 A Strike of the Eye
2 Smart Bomb Vision
3 Satellite Vision
4 Drone Vision
5 Sniper Vision
6 Resistant Vision
7 Afterword: Bodies Inhabited and Disavowed

And here’s Lisa Parks on the book:

“Immersing readers in the perilous visualities of smart bombs, snipers, and drones, Through the Crosshairs delivers a riveting analysis of the weaponized gaze and powerfully explicates the political stakes of screen culture’s militarization.  Packed with insights about the current conjuncture, the book positions Stahl as a leading critic of war and media.”

Incidentally, if you don’t know Roger’s collaborative project, The vision machine: media, war, peace – I first blogged about it five years ago – now is the time to visit: here.

And from Antoine Bousquet, The Eye of War: military perception from the telescope to the drone (Minnesota):

From ubiquitous surveillance to drone strikes that put “warheads onto foreheads,” we live in a world of globalized, individualized targeting. The perils are great. In The Eye of War, Antoine Bousquet provides both a sweeping historical overview of military perception technologies and a disquieting lens on a world that is, increasingly, one in which anything or anyone that can be perceived can be destroyed—in which to see is to destroy.

Arguing that modern-day global targeting is dissolving the conventionally bounded spaces of armed conflict, Bousquet shows that over several centuries, a logistical order of militarized perception has come into ascendancy, bringing perception and annihilation into ever-closer alignment. The efforts deployed to evade this deadly visibility have correspondingly intensified, yielding practices of radical concealment that presage a wholesale disappearance of the customary space of the battlefield. Beginning with the Renaissance’s fateful discovery of linear perspective, The Eye of War discloses the entanglement of the sciences and techniques of perception, representation, and localization in the modern era amid the perpetual quest for military superiority. In a survey that ranges from the telescope, aerial photograph, and gridded map to radar, digital imaging, and the geographic information system, Bousquet shows how successive technological systems have profoundly shaped the history of warfare and the experience of soldiering.

A work of grand historical sweep and remarkable analytical power, The Eye of War explores the implications of militarized perception for the character of war in the twenty-first century and the place of human subjects within its increasingly technical armature.


Introduction: Visibility Equals Death
1. Perspective
2. Sensing
3. Imaging
4. Mapping
5. Hiding
Conclusion: A Global Imperium of Targeting

And here is Daniel Monk on the book:

The Eye of War is a masterful contemporary history of the martial gaze that reviews the relation between seeing and targeting. The expansion of ocularcentrism—the ubiquitization of vision as power—Antoine Bousquet shows us, coincides with the inverse: the relegation of the eye to an instrument of a war order that relies on the sensorium as the means to its own ends. As he traces the development of a technocracy of military vision, Bousquet discloses the vision of a military technocracy that has transformed the given world into units of perception indistinct from ‘kill boxes.’

Coming from excellent US university presses that – unlike the commercial behemoths (you know who you are) favoured by too many authors in my own field (you know who you are too) – these books are both attractively designed and accessibly priced.


Following up my post on Google and Project Maven here, there’s an open letter (via the International Committee for Robot Arms Control) in support of Google employees opposed to the tech giant’s participation in Project Maven here: it’s open for for (many) more signatures…

An Open Letter To:

Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet;
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google;
Diane Greene, CEO of Google Cloud;
and Fei-Fei Li, Chief Scientist of AI/ML and Vice President, Google Cloud,

As scholars, academics, and researchers who study, teach about, and develop information technology, we write in solidarity with the 3100+ Google employees, joined by other technology workers, who oppose Google’s participation in Project Maven. We wholeheartedly support their demand that Google terminate its contract with the DoD, and that Google and its parent company Alphabet commit not to develop military technologies and not to use the personal data that they collect for military purposes. The extent to which military funding has been a driver of research and development in computing historically should not determine the field’s path going forward. We also urge Google and Alphabet’s executives to join other AI and robotics researchers and technology executives in calling for an international treaty to prohibit autonomous weapon systems.

Google has long sought to organize and enhance the usefulness of the world’s information. Beyond searching for relevant webpages on the internet, Google has become responsible for compiling our email, videos, calendars, and photographs, and guiding us to physical destinations. Like many other digital technology companies, Google has collected vast amounts of data on the behaviors, activities and interests of their users. The private data collected by Google comes with a responsibility not only to use that data to improve its own technologies and expand its business, but also to benefit society. The company’s motto “Don’t Be Evil” famously embraces this responsibility.

Project Maven is a United States military program aimed at using machine learning to analyze massive amounts of drone surveillance footage and to label objects of interest for human analysts. Google is supplying not only the open source ‘deep learning’ technology, but also engineering expertise and assistance to the Department of Defense.

According to Defense One, Joint Special Operations Forces “in the Middle East” have conducted initial trials using video footage from a small ScanEagle surveillance drone. The project is slated to expand “to larger, medium-altitude Predator and Reaper drones by next summer” and eventually to Gorgon Stare, “a sophisticated, high-tech series of cameras…that can view entire towns.” With Project Maven, Google becomes implicated in the questionable practice of targeted killings. These include so-called signature strikesand pattern-of-life strikes that target people based not on known activities but on probabilities drawn from long range surveillance footage. The legality of these operations has come into question under international[1] and U.S. law.[2] These operations also have raised significant questions of racial and gender bias (most notoriously, the blanket categorization of adult males as militants) in target identification and strike analysis.[3]These problems cannot be reduced to the accuracy of image analysis algorithms, but can only be addressed through greater accountability to international institutions and deeper understanding of geopolitical situations on the ground.

While the reports on Project Maven currently emphasize the role of human analysts, these technologies are poised to become a basis for automated target recognition and autonomous weapon systems. As military commanders come to see the object recognition algorithms as reliable, it will be tempting to attenuate or even remove human review and oversight for these systems. According to Defense One, the DoD already plans to install image analysis technologies on-board the drones themselves, including armed drones. We are then just a short step away from authorizing autonomous drones to kill automatically, without human supervision or meaningful human control. If ethical action on the part of tech companies requires consideration of who might benefit from a technology and who might be harmed, then we can say with certainty that no topic deserves more sober reflection – no technology has higher stakes – than algorithms meant to target and kill at a distance and without public accountability.

We are also deeply concerned about the possible integration of Google’s data on people’s everyday lives with military surveillance data, and its combined application to targeted killing. Google has moved into military work without subjecting itself to public debate or deliberation, either domestically or internationally. While Google regularly decides the future of technology without democratic public engagement, its entry into military technologies casts the problems of private control of information infrastructure into high relief.

Should Google decide to use global internet users’ personal data for military purposes, it would violate the public trust that is fundamental to its business by putting its users’ lives and human rights in jeopardy. The responsibilities of global companies like Google must be commensurate with the transnational makeup of their users. The DoD contracts under consideration by Google, and similar contracts already in place at Microsoft and Amazon, signal a dangerous alliance between the private tech industry, currently in possession of vast quantities of sensitive personal data collected from people across the globe, and one country’s military. They also signal a failure to engage with global civil society and diplomatic institutions that have already highlighted the ethical stakes of these technologies.

We are at a critical moment. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates growing public concern over allowing the tech industries to wield so much power. This has shone only one spotlight on the increasingly high stakes of information technology infrastructures, and the inadequacy of current national and international governance frameworks to safeguard public trust. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of systems engaged in adjudicating who lives and who dies.
We thus ask Google, and its parent company Alphabet, to:

  • Terminate its Project Maven contract with the DoD.

  • Commit not to develop military technologies, nor to allow the personal data it has collected to be used for military operations.

  • Pledge to neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade or use of autonomous weapons; and to support efforts to ban autonomous weapons.

Google eyes

The Oxford English Dictionary recognised ‘google’ as a verb in 2006, and its active form is about to gain another dimension.  One of the most persistent anxieties amongst those executing remote warfare, with its extraordinary dependence on (and capacity for) real-time full motion video surveillance as an integral moment of the targeting cycle, has been the ever-present risk of ‘swimming in sensors and drowning in data‘.

But now Kate Conger and Dell Cameron report for Gizmodo on a new collaboration between Google and the Pentagon as part of Project Maven:

Project Maven, a fast-moving Pentagon project also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (AWCFT), was established in April 2017. Maven’s stated mission is to “accelerate DoD’s integration of big data and machine learning.” In total, the Defense Department spent $7.4 billion on artificial intelligence-related areas in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The project’s first assignment was to help the Pentagon efficiently process the deluge of video footage collected daily by its aerial drones—an amount of footage so vast that human analysts can’t keep up, according to Greg Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who co-authored a lengthy July 2017 report on the military’s use of artificial intelligence. Although the Defense Department has poured resources into the development of advanced sensor technology to gather information during drone flights, it has lagged in creating analysis tools to comb through the data.

“Before Maven, nobody in the department had a clue how to properly buy, field, and implement AI,” Allen wrote.

Maven was tasked with using machine learning to identify vehicles and other objects in drone footage, taking that burden off analysts. Maven’s initial goal was to provide the military with advanced computer vision, enabling the automated detection and identification of objects in as many as 38 categories captured by a drone’s full-motion camera, according to the Pentagon. Maven provides the department with the ability to track individuals as they come and go from different locations.

Google has reportedly attempted to allay fears about its involvement:

A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement that it is providing the Defense Department with TensorFlow APIs, which are used in machine learning applications, to help military analysts detect objects in images. Acknowledging the controversial nature of using machine learning for military purposes, the spokesperson said the company is currently working “to develop polices and safeguards” around its use.

“We have long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions. This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defense, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data,” the spokesperson said. “The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only. Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”


As Mehreen Kasana notes, Google has indeed ‘long worked with government agencies’:

2017 report in Quartz shed light on the origins of Google and how a significant amount of funding for the company came from the CIA and NSA for mass surveillance purposes. Time and again, Google’s funding raises questions. In 2013, a Guardian report highlighted Google’s acquisition of the robotics company Boston Dynamics, and noted that most of the projects were funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Silent Witnesses

I’m still working on the mass murder in slow motion that is Ghouta; there’s so much to see, say and do that my promised post has been delayed.  Most readers will know of the stark declaration issued by UNICEF last month:

It was accompanied by this explanatory footnote:

We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.  Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?


One of Allan Pred‘s favourite quotations from Walter Benjamin was this: ‘I have nothing to say.  Only to show.’  And perhaps the broken, mangled shards of montage are the most appropriate way to convey the collision of medieval and later modern violence that is sowing Syria’s killing fields with so many injured, dying and dead bodies.

You might think it’s always been so: in 1924 Ernst Friedrich introduced his collection of war photographs by insisting that ‘in the present and in the future, all the treasure of words is not enough to paint correctly the infamous carnage.’

These are suggestive claims, but two riders are necessary.  First,  images have such an extraordinary, if often insidious, subliminal power – even in our own, image-saturated culture – that they demand careful, critical interrogation and deployment.  They don’t speak for themselves.  And second, Benjamin described his method as ‘literary montage’: as Allan knew very well, words do not beat a silent retreat in the face of the image, and it’s in concert that the two produce some of their most exacting effects.

 In the course of my work on war in Syria and elsewhere I’ve encountered (and drawn upon) the work of many outstanding photographers; in some cases their images seem out-of-time, almost transcendent testimony to the enduring realities of war, while others disclose new horrors erupting in the midst of the all-too-bloody-familiar.  I think, for example, of the work of Narciso Contreras (see above and below, and also here and his collection, Syria’s War: a journal of pain, War Photo, 2014) – and I do know about the controversy over editing/cropping – or Nish Nalbandian (see also here and here and his book, A whole world blind: war and life in northern Syria, Daylight Books, 2016).


In my research on other conflicts I’ve also learned a lot from war artists, and in the case of Syria from graphic journalism: see, for example, the discussion by Nathalie Rosa Bucher here and the example of Molly Crabapple here. (Her work was based on cell-phone videos sent to her by a source inside IS-controlled Raqqa: another digital breach of siege warfare in Syria).


The point of all of this is to emphasise my debt to multiple (in this case, visual) sources that enable me – sometimes force me –  to see things differently: to turn those broken shards around, to have them catch the light and illuminate the situation anew.  And to see things I’d often rather not see.


It’s not a new experience. When I was completing The colonial present I was given access to a major image library, and in the course of three exhilarating days I learned more about Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq than I had learned in three months of reading. The image bank included not only published but also unpublished images, which revealed aspects, dimensions, whole stories that had been left unremarked and unrecorded in the public record produced through editorial selection.

For my present work the Syrian Archive is invaluable:

The Syrian Archive is a Syrian-led and initiated collective of human rights activists dedicated to curating visual documentation relating to human rights violations and other crimes committed by all sides during the conflict in Syria with the goal of creating an evidence-based tool for reporting, advocacy and accountability purposes.


Its emphasis on visual documentation and analysis needs to be seen alongside the investigations of Forensic Architecture and bellingcat.


The Syrian Archive aims to support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.

We believe that visual documentation of human rights violations that is transparent, detailed, and reliable are critical towards providing accountability and can positively contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and stability. Such documentation can humanise victims, reduce the space for dispute over numbers killed, help societies understand the true human costs of war, and support truth and reconciliation efforts.

Visual documentation is also valuable during conflict as it can feed into:

  • Humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contribute to the protection of civilians;
  • Mechanisms that support increased legal compliance by conflict parties and reductions in civilian harm;
  • Strengthening advocacy campaigns and legal accountability through building verified sets of materials documenting human rights violations in the Syrian conflict.

User-generated content is valuable during times of conflict. Verified visual documentation can feed into humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contributing to the protection of civilians.

Furthermore, visual documentation allows the Syrian Archive to tell untold stories through amplifying the voices of witnesses, victims and others who risked their lives to capture and document human rights violations in Syria. Not every incident in the Syrian conflict has been reported by journalists. The very challenging conditions have made it extremely difficult for local and especially international media to work in Syria, meaning the many incidents have been missed or under-reported.

Visual documentation aims to strengthen political campaigns of human rights advocates by providing content that supports their campaign. This could include content on the violation of children’s rights; sexual and gender based violence; violations against specifically protected persons and objects, or the use of illegal weapons.

Additionally, visual documentation aims to help human rights activists and Syrian citizens in setting up a memorialisation process and to create dialogues around issues related to peace and justice, to recognise and substantiate the suffering of citizens and provide multiple perspectives on the conflict that acts to prevent revisionist or simplified narratives while raising awareness of the situation in the country and highlighting the futility of violence to next generations. Video and images often compliments official narratives and press accounts of an event or situation, adding both detail and nuance. At other times, they directly rebut certain factual claims and contradict pervasive narratives.


Many of the videos on which this visual analysis relies (me too) were uploaded to YouTube.  Armin Rosen reports:


Google, which is YouTube’s parent company, knows how significant its platform has been during the war. “The Syrian civil war is in many ways the first YouTube conflict in the same way that Vietnam was the first television conflict,” Justin Kosslyn, the product manager for Jigsaw, formerly called Google Ideas, said during an interview on the sidelines of September’s Oslo Freedom Forum in New York, where Kosslyn had just spoken. “You have more hours of footage of the Syrian civil war on YouTube then there actually are hours of the war in real life.” In 2016, Jigsaw developed Montage, a Google Docs-like application that allows for collaborative analysis of online videos. Kosslyn said the project was undertaken with human rights-related investigations in mind.

The value of YouTube’s Syria videos is indisputable, especially since the regime and other armed actors have closed off much of the country to journalists and human rights observers. [Eliot] Higgins and his colleagues [at Bellingcat] proved beyond all doubt that Assad’s forces gassed a suburb of Damascus in August 2013, and a U.N. organization is now in the early stages of assessing YouTube’s Syria footage for its future use in war crimes trials. In December 2016, the U.N. General Assembly voted to establish the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in war crimes prosecutions related to Syria. In connection with the IIIM, Hiatt and his team at Benetech are developing software that can search and organize the estimated 4 million videos related to the conflict. The IIIM will facilitate the use of the videos in court if alleged human rights abusers ever face trial.

Last summer YouTube started deleting videos that violated its Terms of Service; the platform used algorithms to flag the offending materials and within days some 900 Syria-related channels were removed.

Alarm bells rang; here’s Chris Woods of Airwars talking to the New York Times:

“When the conflict in Syria started, independent media broke down and Syrians themselves have taken to YouTube to post news of the conflict…  What’s disappearing in front of our eyes is the history of this terrible war.”

And Eliot Higgins (on YouTube!):

After the concerted protests many of the videos were restored, but the cull continued and by the end of the year more than 200 channels providing over 400,000 videos had been removed.  Again, some of those were subsequently restored, but the Syrian Archive estimates that more than 200,000 videos are still offline.



The intervention was the product of an understandable desire to remove ‘propaganda’ videos – part of the fight back against ‘fake news’ – but here’s the rub:

Videos from the conflict could prove critical in cases where they might violate the site’s ToS—even ISIS propaganda videos help identify members of the organization and explain its internal hierarchies. “The difficulty in this type of work is that the information put out there on social media by the perpetrators of the violence can also be used to hold those perpetrators accountable,” Shabnam Mojtahedi [a legal analyst with the Syria Justice and Accountability Center: see also here for its statement on this issue] notes.

And it’s not just YouTube.  In an extended report for The Intercept Avi Asher Schapiro detected

a pattern that’s causing a quiet panic among human rights groups and war crimes investigators. Social media companies can, and do, remove content with little regard for its evidentiary value. First-hand accounts of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, and the targeting of civilians by armies can disappear with little warning, sometimes before investigators notice. When groups do realize potential evidence has been erased, recovering it can be a kafkaesque ordeal. Facing a variety of pressures — to safeguard user privacy, neuter extremist propaganda, curb harassment and, most recently, combat the spread of so-called fake news — social media companies have over and over again chosen to ignore, and, at times, disrupt the work of human rights groups scrambling to build cases against war criminals.

“It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” says Julian Nicholls, a senior trial lawyer at the International Criminal Court,  where he’s responsible for prosecuting cases against war criminals, “the idea that there’s a video or photo out there that I could use, but before we identify it or preserve it, it disappears.”

As Christoph Koettl, a senior analyst with Amnesty International and a founder of Citizen Evidence Lab put it, these social media platforms are ‘essentially privately-owned evidence lockers’.  And that should worry all of us.

Ground Truth

I’m just back from an invigorating conference on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ at Utrecht – more on this shortly – and it was a wonderful opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones.  Chris Woods gave an outstanding review of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and told me of an interview Airwars had conducted with Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal whose forensic investigation of civilian casualties in Iraq I discussed in a previous post.  The US-led Coalition has still not responded to their findings, even though they initially afforded a remarkable degree of co-operation.

The full interview really is worth reading, but here is Azmat explaining how their joint investigation started:

We began planning this in February 2016. By April I was on the ground [In Iraq] and I was embedding with local forces, both Shia militias and then with Peshmerga forces, in certain frontline towns. I remember early on seeing how pivotal these airstrikes were in terms of re-taking cities.

There was one town that was really important to Shias, and so dozens of Shia militias had tried to retake it — Bashir — from where ISIS had launched mortars with chemical agents into a neighboring town, Taza. I watched several Shia militias based in Taza try and fail to retake Bashir, putting in all of their troops. Then the peshmerga agreed to try and retake it, and they put in maybe a fraction of the number of troops, but were supported by Coalition airstrikes in a way the militias weren’t, and Bashir fell within hours.

It really showed me the extent to which these airstrikes played a pivotal role in re-taking territory, but also the level of devastation. Many parts of Bashir were just up in smoke, when I visited the day after it was re-taken.

Unless you were on the ground, you couldn’t get a real sense of that scale. There’d been good accounts looking at civilian casualties — but nobody had looked at both those that successfully hit ISIS targets and those that didn’t, so a systematic sample. That’s what we teamed up to do. As more cities were being retaken, we though there’s an opportunity to do this….

In terms of verifying allegations, our work went far beyond interviews and analyzing satellite imagery. In addition to interviewing hundreds of witnesses, we dug through rubble for bomb fragments, or materials that might suggest ISIS use, like artillery vests, ISIS literature, sometimes their bones, because nobody would bury them.

We also got our hands on more than 100 sets of coordinates for suspected ISIS sites passed on by local informants. Sometimes we were able to get photos and videos as well. And ultimately, we verified each civilian casualty allegation with health officials, security forces, or local administrators.

The interview also revisits the attack on the Rezzo family home, a pivot of their NYT essay, which includes even more disturbing details.  As Azmat and Anand explain, this was a strike which ought to have shown Coalition targeting at its most adept; far from it.

Khan: This is a deliberate airstrike, not a dynamic one. It was an “ISIS headquarters,” which we were told, when I was at the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center), a very senior intelligence officer told me that a target with one of the highest thresholds to meet is usually an ISIS headquarters… In so many ways Basim’s case was the ultimate, highest most deliberative process.

Airwars: When you say the best case scenario, you mean the best case on the Coalition side in terms of what intelligence they could have, and they still screwed up in such a fundamental way?

Gopal: if there was ever a strike they could get right, this would be the one. They have weeks to plan it, they have it as an ISIS headquarters. And so you know, if it’s an ISIS headquarters, the threshold for actionable intelligence has to be much higher. It can’t just be drone footage that doesn’t see women and children.

Airwars: They identified it as a headquarters and what was the genesis of that? In the story you talk about – it’s infuriating to read – that they didn’t see women and children.

Khan: One of the things I asked at the CAOC in Qatar was how do you identify local patterns of behavior. For example, I said, under ISIS a lot of women are not leaving their homes. So when you are looking at these pattern of life videos, are you taking these variable local dynamics into account? How do you distinguish for example when you are bombing in Iraq and one of these areas, how do you distinguish between patterns of behavior that are specific to Iraq vs. bombing in Afghanistan. What are the differences?

I was told that they could not get into a great deal of detail about ISIS’ “TTPs” — tactics, techniques, and procedures — their understanding of how ISIS generally operates.  They told me that these are developed through the intelligence community, in coordination with a cultural expert, but that they could not offer more detail about it.

Gopal: At the end of the day, it appears there are no consequences for getting it wrong, so there are no incentives to try to get it right.

Drone Imaginaries and Society

News from Kathrin Maurer of a conference on Drone Imaginaries and Society, 5-6 June 2018, at the University of Southern Denmark (Odense).  I’ll be giving a keynote, and look forward to the whole event very much (and not only because, while I’ve visited Denmark lots of times and loved every one of them, I’ve never made it to Odense):

Drones are in the air. The production of civilian drones for rescue, transport, and leisure activity is booming. The Danish government, for example, proclaimed civilian drones a national strategy in 2016. Accordingly, many research institutions as well as the industry focus on the development, usage, and promotion of drone technology. These efforts often prioritize commercialization and engineering as well as setting-up UAV (Unmanned Arial Vehicle) test centers. As a result, urgent questions regarding how drone technology impacts our identity as humans as well as their effects on how we envision the human society are frequently underexposed in these initiatives.

Our conference aims to change this perspective. By investigating cultural representations of civilian and military drones in visual arts, film, and literature, we intend to shed light on drone technology from a humanities’ point of view. This aesthetic “drone imaginary” forms not only the empirical material of our discussions but also a prism of knowledge which provides new insights into the meaning of drone technology for society today.

Several artists, authors, film makers, and thinkers have already engaged in this drone imaginary. While some of these inquiries provide critical reflection on contemporary and future drone technologies – for instance issues such as privacy, surveillance, automation, and security – others allow for alternative ways of seeing and communicating as well as creative re-imagination of new ways of organizing human communities. The goal of the conference is to bring together these different aesthetic imaginaries to better understand the role of drone technologies in contemporary and future societies.

 The focus points of the conference are:

–     Aesthetic drone imaginaries: Which images, metaphors, ethics, emotions and affects are associated to drones through their representation in art, fiction and popular culture?

–     Drone technology and its implications for society: How do drones change our daily routines and push the balance between publicity and privacy?

–     Historical perspective on drones: In what way do drone imaginaries allow for a counter-memory that can challenge, for instance, the military implementation of drones?

–     Drones as vulnerability: Do drones make societies more resilient or more fragile, and are societies getting overly dependent on advanced technologies?

     Utopian or dystopian drone imaginaries: What dream or nightmare scenarios are provided by drone fiction and how do they allow for a (re)imagining of future societies?

–     Drones and remote sensing: In what way do drones mark a radical new way of seeing and sensing by their remotely vertical gaze and operative images?

     Drone warfare: Do drones mark a continuation or rupture of the way we understand war and conflict, and how do they change the military imaginary?

The conference is sponsored by the Drone Network (Danish Research Council) and Institute for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark.

 You can contact Kathrin at  kamau@sdu.dk

The conference website is here.