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

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0245

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).

0300

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.

0445

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]

NOTES

[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).

Under Afghan Skies (1)

As promised in my previous post, here is the first installment of my essay on an airstrike on three vehicles in Uruzgan, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010; the incident was widely reported – see the images immediately below this prefatory note – and, for reasons I explain in detail below, it has become a central focus for critics of remote warfare.  

The images in the body of the text are taken from my conference presentation, but the version that will appear in “Reach from the sky” will have different images and a number of specially drawn maps. I have also added a number of direct links to some of the sources I cite. 

 For the otherwise unattributed page references in the text, see note 38 below.  

Under Afghan Skies: Aerial violence and the imaginaries of remote warfare

Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting. [1]

Contemporary conflict takes many different forms, from siege warfare to cyber-war, but it is the military drone that has captured the public imagination.  Like other modalities of later modern war the drone is a combination of the remarkably old and the radically new – visions and even versions of ‘unmanned’ platforms have a history as long as that of aerial violence itself – but its twenty-first century incarnation occupies a central place in the Western iconography of wars fought in the global borderlands since 9/11.

The drone has assumed such prominence in those shattered lands for several reasons, not the least of which is that its deployment is confined to uncontested air space – by default or design [2] – because advanced militaries would have no difficulty in shooting such a comparatively slow and sluggish platform out of the sky. [3]

It is thus no accident that the drone has become a standard means of waging ‘unconventional’, asymmetric warfare against non-state actors.   And yet, even though Afghanistan has long been the epicentre of drone warfare, the figure of the drone may not be central to the political imaginary of the Afghan Taliban, which rarely distinguishes between different forms of airstrike or between aerial violence and other forms of explosive violence. [4]  This is not altogether surprising. Predators and Reapers fire exactly the same weapons as many conventional strike aircraft and combat helicopters, and in a war zone like Afghanistan this often makes it difficult to identify the source of an attack. This is not to say that the people of Afghanistan – particularly those who have witnessed airstrikes – have not learned to distinguish and dread the buzzing of drones overhead.  Like other unwilling members of what Lisa Parks describes as the ‘new disenfranchised class of ”targeted people”’ whose daily lives are ‘haunted by the spectre of aerial bombardment’, they know only too well that the audible and sometimes visible presence of a drone can foreshadow a sudden strike from the sky. [5]

Many of the most powerful critical commentaries on military drones have drawn attention to an airstrike on three vehicles on 21 February 2010 near the mountain pass of Khotal Chowzar that straddles the provinces of Daikundi and Uruzgan in southern Afghanistan. This was a pre-emptive response to what was seen – literally so – as a threat to US Special Forces and Afghan forces conducting a counterinsurgency operation in the village of Khod in Uruzgan. [6]  After the strike it became clear that all the casualties  – in fact, all the occupants of the vehicles – were civilians. They came from a cluster of poor villages in Daikundi, and included men hoping to find work in Iran, students returning to university, shopkeepers and mechanics going to buy stock and spares, and men and women attending medical appointments or taking their children to visit relatives. Most of them were Hazaras – a tribe with a long history of persecution by the majority Pashtun and more recently by the Taliban [7] – who were travelling together for support and safety.

The vehicles were heavily laden and had to stop frequently for repairs as they slowly bumped their way on dirt roads on a circuitous route to the mainly paved national Highway 1 – the Ring Road – that would take some of them south to Kandahar, some west to Herat and beyond, and others north to Kabul. The Ring Road was damaged and dangerous.  The Taliban had attacked not only traffic on the highway (notably military supply convoys) but also bridges, causeways and culverts, forcing drivers to detour on to dirt tracks, and once back on the road they had to run the gauntlet of checkpoints manned by insurgents and criminal gangs who exacted ‘tolls’ for their passage. [8]   But this first stage through the mountains was perilous too.  The ground was rough, the tracks were in poor condition and several rivers had to be forded. More unsettling, all the adults in the vehicles knew that they were travelling through the heart of Taliban country.  But none of them expected the danger to come from the sky.   Nasim, a car mechanic  travelling in one of the SUVs, explained: ‘We weren’t worried when we set out. We were a little scared of the Taliban, but not of government forces… Why would they attack us?’[9] In fact, several of the US military observers watching the live video feed from an MQ-1 Predator drone that had been tracking the vehicles for hours and who saw the strike go down were at first convinced that they had hit an IED (improvised explosive device) planted by the Taliban.

It is still not clear how many victims of the airstrike there were, but the US Army made 23 compensation payments (solatia) to the families of those who were killed, and 12 survivors were airlifted to military hospitals where they received emergency treatment for what, in several cases, were life-changing injuries.  [10]

The Uruzgan attack was but one of many air strikes in Afghanistan that caused multiple civilian casualties (Figure 1).

Afghanistan was the focus of US drone strikes during this period – other target areas were Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Somalia and Yemen – but drone strikes in Afghanistan were far outweighed by conventional bombing. US Central Command (CENTCOM) reported that coalition aircraft released 4,163 weapons – bombs and missiles – in Afghanistan in 2009, of which 255 (6.1 per cent) were from remote platforms; 5,102 in 2010, of which 278 (5.4 per cent) were from remote platforms; and 5,409 in 2011, of which 294 (5.4 per cent) were from remote platforms. [11] These (dis)proportions are undoubtedly important – critics need to widen their focus to address aerial violence in all its forms – and yet these raw figures fail to capture the wider significance of remote platforms. Even when their own weapons were not fired, drones were routinely used to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for air strikes from conventional platforms.  And when they did release their own bombs or missiles, one study using SIGACT data from Afghanistan in 2010-11 found that drones were ten times more likely to cause civilian casualties than conventional strike aircraft. [12]  These considerations help to explain concern about remote warfare, but the Uruzgan attack attracted widespread attention for three more particular reasons.

First, it flew in the face of significant operational changes introduced the previous year by General Stanley McChrystal, commander of both US Forces–Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), that were expressly designed to prevent incidents like it. His intervention was the most recent in a series of attempts to limit civilian casualties caused by coalition forces.  On 27 and 29 April 2007 US Special Forces conducting counterinsurgency operations in the Zerkoh valley in Herat province in northwest Afghanistan had called in repeated airstrikes from US Air Force AC-130 gunships and other aircraft.  ISAF announced that scores of suspected Taliban had been killed with no civilian casualties, but later reports claimed that between 40 and 60 civilians had been killed, dozens more injured and hundreds of homes damaged. [13] In response, ISAF’s commander General Dan McNeill issued a first Tactical Directive in June 2007 requiring advance estimates of likely civilian casualties (‘collateral damage estimates’) before planned strikes and stipulating that air power should only be used as a last resort ‘when forces are taking fire from [a residential] compound or there is an imminent threat from the compound, and when there are no other options available.’The effects of the initial Tactical Directive were limited – not for nothing was its architect known as ‘Bomber’ McNeill – and the civilian toll continued to mount.  Then, on 22 August 2008, airstrikes by a US Air Force AC-130 gunship and an MQ-9 Reaper in support of ground operations led by US Special Forces in the village of Azizabad in the same region of Herat province killed as many as 92 civilians.  McNeill’s successor General David McKiernan issued a second Tactical Directive on 2 September 2008 that emphasised the importance of a graduated escalation of force and imposed additional constraints on airstrikes that risked causing civilian casualties.  McKiernan also established a Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell, required all allegations of civilian casualties to be reported and investigated promptly, and emphasized the connection between minimizing civilian casualties and securing the cooperation of the local population.[14]

This was widely seen as a turning point in the air war in Afghanistan, yet what Bob Dreyfuss described as the ‘steady drum-beat of mass casualty incidents’ did not let up. [15]  The next pivotal incident occurred on 4 May 2009, when repeated airstrikes near the village of Granai in Farah province, carried out by US Air Force F-18 fighter jets and a B-1 bomber in support of ground operations by Afghan forces and US Marines, killed at least 26 and perhaps as many as 147 civilians.  The catastrophe prompted the newly appointed McChrystal to tighten the Rules of Engagement (ROE) – classified theatre-specific orders issued by senior military commanders that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which lethal force may be used (within the parameters of International Humanitarian Law) – and to issue a third Tactical Directive on 2 July 2009 that enjoined ‘commanders at all levels to scrutinize and limit the use of force like Close Air Support (CAS) against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties.’  Although McChrystal made it clear that his intention was not to prevent commanders opening fire in self-defence when there were no other options available, he was no less adamant that ‘the use of air-to-ground munitions and indirect fires is only authorised under very limited and prescribed conditions’ (which remained classified). [16]

McChrystal’s intervention attracted fierce criticism from the hawks circling the Pentagon – just three days before the Uruzgan attack an op-ed in the New York Times complained that ‘the pendulum has swung too far in favour of avoiding the deaths of innocents at all costs’ [17] – but although the new policy enjoyed more success than its predecessors it also suffered major setbacks. [18]  In the early hours of 4 September 2009, two months after the revised Tactical Directive was issued, a German ISAF commander in Kunduz ordered two US Air Force F-15 fighter jets to attack two fuel tankers that had been hijacked by the Taliban.  The vehicles had become stranded on a sandbank as they tried to ford the shallow Kunduz river, and the Taliban asked local villagers to siphon off the fuel so the tankers would be light enough to drive off. When the pilots saw the crowds of people on their screens they were reluctant to strike and instead proposed a show of force to scatter the villagers.  But their objections were overruled by the Bundeswehr commander, who declared a ‘TIC’, meaning ‘Troops in Contact’ – even though his garrison at Fort Kunduz was 10 km away and there were no other coalition forces in the vicinity – and cleared the pilots to engage purportedly in self-defence. [19]  Estimates of civilians killed varied from 60 to more than 140.  McChrystal was furious.  It was a matter of what he called ‘insurgent math’: for every innocent person killed, 10 new enemies were created. [20]  ‘For a while,’ according to one US official, ‘the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a CIVCAS [civilian casualty] incident.’ [21]  This was more than a clever remark. CENTCOM’s Deputy Combined Force Air Component Commander at the time argued that McChrystal’s efforts to minimise civilian casualties ‘were based not just in changes to written guidance, but in the day-to-day forceful interaction between McChrystal and his commanders.’  In his view, the third Tactical Directive was not a marked departure from its predecessors; what made the difference was McChrystal’s ‘emphasis on “tactical patience” and daily accountability’. [22] After the Kunduz debacle, McChrystal ordered an immediate investigation and emphasised to his commanders that ‘we need to know what we are hitting.’  [23]

Second, the Uruzgan attack – which came less than six months later – was carried out not by conventional strike aircraft but by two US Army helicopters, a tactic known as Close Combat Attack (CCA) that had been developed ostensibly to enable a more refined use of force than the Close Air Support (CAS) deployed in the Granai and Kunduz incidents. [24]  CCA can be traced back to the Korean war, and was in part a contrivance – an attempt to agree the boundaries between the mission sets of the US Air Force and US Army aviation [25] – but many of those who directed ground operations in Afghanistan (including the Ground Force Commander at Khod) believed that the use of armed helicopters, coming in ‘low and slow’, allowed for a more discriminating use of airpower in the vicinity of friendly forces – whose safety was the main consideration – than the Air Force’s high-flying ‘fast movers’.

Whatever the merits of the distinction, it must seem strange to make an attack carried out by helicopters a test case for remote warfare. But the airstrike in Uruzgan was orchestrated through an MQ-1 Predator that had been launched from Kandahar Air Field by a forward-deployed flight crew and then handed off to a mission crew from the 15th Air Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base located 35 miles outside Las Vegas. [26]  The Predator’s on-board systems were accessed via a C-band line-of-sight data link for launch and recovery at Kandahar, and then a Ku-band satellite data link, a portal at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and a fibre-optic cable under the Atlantic and across the continent to the Ground Control Station at Creech.

The aircraft was equipped with a Multi-Spectral Targeting System controlled by a sensor operator (a technical sergeant) sitting on the right of the pilot (a captain) in the Ground Control Station. [27] It transmitted full-motion video (FMV) in infra-red (IR) or colour in near real-time to the flight crew and across multiple military networks in Afghanistan and the United States, including video analysts (‘screeners’) from the 11th  Intelligence Squadron of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field in the Florida Panhandle. [28] The FMV feed was supposed to allow a more accurate targeting process than the lower resolution screens that were standard on conventional strike aircraft: in other words – McChrystal’s words – to enable those involved ‘to know what they were hitting.’  Indeed, a senior US military lawyer had predicted that the digital technologies used on these remote platforms – their capacity to represent the battlespace with unrivalled clarity and to record cascades of events for subsequent review – would give ‘unprecedented traction, transparency, and relevance’ to legal protocols and operational procedures designed to protect civilians. [29]  That claim – a version of what Donna Haraway called more generally ‘the God-trick’ – has properly been a central object of critical attention, and part of my purpose is to show that this critique needs to be supplemented by the recognition of a dispersed and distributed geography of militarized vision. [30]

But the Uruzgan attack became the diagnostic case for critics of remote warfare for a third reason through which the pivotal role of the Predator was brought into unusually sharp focus.  Coalition headquarters in Kabul did not become aware of the presence of civilian casualties until the early evening of 21 February, but within hours of being briefed McChrystal ordered a full investigation into the incident (p. 1189-90). This was defined as an ‘Informal Investigation’ governed by US Army Regulation 15(6), and Major-General Timothy McHale was appointed as investigating officer. McChrystal’s charge to the investigation ran to three pages and consisted of 20 detailed, numbered questions and procedural instructions.McHale was assisted by five senior officers, who joined him for interviews with the witnesses and provided expert advice on ground combat, aviation, special operations and ground liaison. He was also assisted by five legal advisers and paralegals.   The two senior legal advisers were also involved in the interviews, and their presence underscored that this was a quasi-juridical process.  Witnesses had to make sworn statements, and McHale’s findings had to be ‘supported by a preponderance of the evidence’ and his recommendations had to be ‘legally consistent with the findings’ (pp. 15-16).  The team flew from Kabul to Kandahar Air Field on 22 February, which was their base for the next several weeks; they conducted multiple interviews there, some by phone with witnesses in the United States and others in person at other locations in Afghanistan.  It was a wide-ranging investigation, ‘informal’ only in the sense that it was a fact-finding exercise rather than a hearing against a named respondent, which meant that it was not subject to the strict rules of evidence or to the standard of proof applicable in criminal proceedings. [31]  In practice it was rigorous, detailed and forensic, and McHale made major findings of fault and recommended reprimands or admonishments for three Army commanders and three staff officers (pp. 65-6).

McHale submitted his final report on 18 April 2010, McChrystal approved its findings on 21 May, and a redacted version of the Executive Summary was published one week later and widely reported.  A key document in the investigation was the communications transcript of intercom exchanges between the members of the Predator crew in the United States and radio exchanges between the Predator pilot and the forward air controller – the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) – on the ground with the Special Forces in Afghanistan.  The Los Angeles Times obtained a 65-page redacted version of the transcript – the original ran to 75 pages – and published it on 10 April 2011 as part of a detailed reconstruction of the attack by journalist David Cloud.  The dramatic and at times chilling exchanges recorded in the communications transcript opened a rare window into the conduct of remote warfare and provided the optic through which virtually all critics have viewed the attack. [32]

That window has since been closed because the public release of information on drone strikes has been severely restricted, especially by the Trump administration. In consequence, even though the Uruzgan attack was carried out in circumstances that no longer apply – ISAF’s combat mission ended in December 2014 and was replaced by the limited (still NATO-led) Operation Resolute Support, a ‘train, advise and assist’ mission, and the United States currently has less than 10,000 ground troops in Afghanistan [33] – and it was co-ordinated by a remote platform no longer in active service – production of the Predator ended in 2011 and the US Air Force retired the remaining aircraft in March 2018 – the incident retains a unique importance for the critical analysis of remote operations.

In relying on the communications transcript critics have inevitably focused on the conduct of the Predator crew and followed their tracking of the three vehicles up to the moment of impact and its immediate aftermath. This has led them to endorse and elaborate one of the main findings of the Army investigation, albeit in different terms, and to attribute central (sometimes even sole) responsibility to the Predator crew.

The commanding officer of the 15th Air Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech had done his very best to forestall that verdict.  After his crew had completed their telephone interviews, he called McHale’s team to express his (and their) concern that ‘you guys … [think] they were out to employ weapons no matter what’ (p. 879).   One of the investigators took him through the communications transcript, suggesting that the Predator crew displayed a clear and chronic disinclination to believe the vehicles ‘could be anything other than a threat formation’ (p. 887).  He identified 19 passages where there appeared to be ‘a predisposition or proclivity to make sure this was confirmed as a good target’ and 13 where the Predator crew modified the assessments from the screeners accordingly.  ‘Every time there is a representation of something other than a target,’ he argued, ‘until after the strike there is pushback’ (p. 882). Their commanding officer protested that this was confined to intercom exchanges amongst the crew – which he said was the product of their collective experience and their frustration at the screeners’ reluctance to make definitive calls [34] – and that the pilot never allowed it to cloud his radio communications with the JTAC (pp. 880-1).  He followed up with two e-mails within four hours of each other, arguing that even if his crew had been ‘leaning forward’ – in favour of a strike – this had been started by the JTAC who ‘was already leaning extremely far forward’.  ‘Upon arrival on the scene,’ he wrote, ‘there were numerous indications passed to the crew by [the JTAC] that implied an imminent kinetic event’ and that it was his transmissions – not theirs – that most clearly revealed ‘a predisposition to shoot’ (p. 898).  McHale was unconvinced.  ‘A pervasive theme throughout several interviews’, his report concluded, ‘and seen through the internal crew dialogue, was the desire to go kinetic’ (to use lethal force) (p. 33).  This propensity – which McHale suggested derived from a pervasive ‘Top Gunmentality’ amongst the Predator crews at Creech [35] – ‘skewed their reports’ to such a degree that they were at once inaccurate and unprofessional and materially distorted the decision field of the Ground Force Commander who cleared the helicopters to strike (p. 61).  This was strong language, but McHale’s ability to censure the Predator crew was limited because this was an Army investigation and as such he could fault its conduct but make no disciplinary recommendations.  The most he could do (and did) was call for the Air Force to carry out its own investigation. [36]

On my reading, the assessments of the commanding officer at Creech and McHale’s team both had merit.  As I will detail in what follows, the Predator crew was drawn into a pre-existing interpretive matrix constructed by other actors, on the ground and in the air, in which the imperative to strike the vehicles had already been established and accepted.  But the Predator crew clearly (and enthusiastically) joined in the continued elaboration of the vehicles as a threat formation and they did nothing to challenge that perception; on the contrary, they heightened it.

Most critics go beyond these matters of individual and collective responsibility to address what they see as structural features of remote warfare. McHale’s ability to do so was circumscribed because, even as he drew conclusions and made recommendations to guide future operations, he had to conform to the protocol that prevents informal investigations from considering other, comparable incidents.  But what McHale did do was connect aerial violence – the cardinal medium of remote warfare – to the conduct of ground operations.  It bears repeating that all the incidents that prompted the three Tactical Directives involved airstrikes in support of ground forces(‘troops in contact’). [37]  Although ground operations are often close-in and visceral, they too have their remote dimensions because they are embedded in extended networks of command and control that, while they increasingly draw on FMV feeds from remote platforms, are not circumscribed by them.  McHale had much to say about the inadequacies of those networks, and the failings of the actors located within them, so that to recover the deadly interaction between air and ground – to understand what happened to the occupants of those three vehicles on that early February morning – requires a close reading of his full report and its indictment of the failings of other actors outside Creech Air Base.  It simply cannot be closed around the communications transcript.

The record of the Army investigation remained classified until it was released by CENTCOM in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the American Civil Liberties Union; the Pentagon initially refused to release the file, but after a court challenge it did so on 20 May 2011. [38]  Although the consolidated file has been redacted it is sufficiently detailed to widen the analytical scope to address the other, no less important causes of the incident identified by McHale.  The larger set of files consists of more than 2,000 pages, including a differently redacted version of the communications transcript.[39]  It makes the interpretive field considerably richer but also more complicated.  A central issue is the co-existence of multiple temporalities within the written record.  The communications transcript is limited to 21 February, whereas the subsequent interviews (which include many more actors and the victims themselves) took place between 22 February and 8 March 2010.

The resulting file is a composite record of transactions conducted at various times – of conversations, negotiations, interviews and re-examinations – and presents multiple narratives from different points of view and different locations, virtually all of them shaped by the post-strike knowledge of civilian casualties and its implications.  As one member of McHale’s team recognised, he (and everyone else) had the ‘unfortunate privilege of 20/20 vision’ and got to watch ‘this movie from the end back’ (pp. 880-1).  This matters – the reason for his qualifying adjective – because the challenge for the investigators (and now the rest of us) was to set hindsight aside, as far as possible, and reconstruct what was known (or should have been known) as the situation developed through the early hours of 21 February. [40]  The task was made even more difficult because the testimony they elicited was shot through with observation, explanation, speculation, misapprehension, forgetfulness (real or feigned), evasion, and – inevitably – hindsight, all inflected by rank and the loyalty intrinsic to the military chain of command and military culture.

The story that emerges is, unsurprisingly, not a consistent one.  Witnesses contradicted one another, and on occasion themselves (several were formally warned that they were suspected of giving false testimony), and there is no grand narrative within which the individual accounts can be reconciled.  There are also strategic absences.  McHale’s team interviewed the pilot of the Predator, and the senior pilot who was called in as Safety Observer at Creech during the closing minutes of the engagement, but testimony from the sensor operator and his relief is missing from the file.[41]  Whether this is the result of a failure to interview the two of them or a poorly collated response to the FOIA request is unclear. [42]  The commanding officer of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron had the whole Predator crew present in his office for the initial telephone interview with McHale’s team, and emphasised the importance of the sensor operators, but the transcript of what segued into the first interview (with the pilot) ends abruptly with no closing formularies, no redactions and no explanation (p. 918).  Whatever the reason, this is a highly significant omission. [43]  The pilot was the flight commander and conducted virtually all the radio communications with the JTAC assigned to the Special Forces on the ground, but the sensor operator was not only responsible for controlling the Multi-Spectral Targeting System.  S/he also assisted the pilot with ‘altitude de-confliction, ROES, SPINS [Special Instructions]’ (p. 903), and participated in the collective production of a running commentary on the video feed and on the likely course of (lethal) action that was focal to the construction of the three vehicles as an imminent threat to coalition forces.

Other gaps in the file are the result of redactions. The final report, the communications transcript and most of the interviews have passages redacted, and there are at least 400 other pages that have been withheld from release for security reasons, but the silences go beyond these blank spaces.  McHale’s team viewed the FMV feed from the Predator and the video from the helicopter gun cameras, but neither has been released. All the redacted file provides are two screen captures of a Hellfire missile striking the lead vehicle and its immediate aftermath (p. 8), and a series of still photographs of the destroyed vehicles and their dead occupants (pp. 1755-1762), so that it is impossible to scrutinise the all important imagery that was transmitted before the strike.  The communications transcript is also incomplete, because it is confined to intercom exchanges among the Predator crew and radio transmissions between the pilots and the JTAC on the ground, and there is no public record of textual communications via the military’s Internet Relay Chat (mIRC) (apart from scattered references in the subsequent interviews). These constituted far more than small talk.  The US military makes extensive tactical use of online messaging through its secure networks because it is usually more reliable than voice communication and  allows for the concurrent conversations necessary in multi-actor operations (the Ground Control Station at Creech Air Force Base and the Special Forces Operations Centers at Bagram and Kandahar Air Fields all had multiple chat windows open); it also preserves a text record of observations, decisions and actions for after action review.  In addition, it is ideal for distributed, intermittent, low bandwidth environments like Afghanistan where it can be accessed outside the wire on ruggedized laptops and data-enabled satellite phones.  In short, mIRC is many ways the raw medium – the textual nuts and bolts – of many military operations, and its absence from public view imposes a significant silence. [44]  Where other textual records are available – the transcripts of radio communications (including a separate transcript of radio traffic to and from the helicopters) and the interviews with witnesses – they are written versions of oral exchanges and cannot convey the intonation, emphases or hesitations of the original (though in places these can reasonably be inferred), still less the body language that accompanied them. These are all serious limitations, yet for all the interpretive problems the consolidated file opens a wider view and longer perspective that can considerably enlarge and enhance our understanding of remote warfare.  [45]

The account that follows is based on a close reading of that file, and is necessarily condensed: McHale’s team reconstructed a time-line that extended for 66 feet round the walls of a hangar. [46] It will also seem as remote as the warfare it describes, at least in the first instance, because much of it is conveyed in the standardised vocabulary of military reason and the military imaginary, with its endless acronyms (see Table 1) (which even the Predator crew forgot on occasion), its abbreviations and its formularies. I gloss these wherever possible – redaction sometimes makes that difficult – but I retain the remote, technical language because abstraction is intrinsic to the execution of calculated forms of military violence and its distancing effect helps to explain how the Uruzgan attack took place.  ‘I was an English major in college,’ the Predator pilot testified, ‘so I think semantics can make a big difference’ (p. 913).  So it does (and did); yet the language used by him and the other crew members frequently ruptured the dispassionate recitation of military formulae. This was not confined to the aircrew, and I hope it will become clear that the exchanges on 21 February and the days that followed were also animated by affect: by boredom, apprehension, glee, excitement, fear, panic and ultimately horror.  The members of McHale’s team were not immune from these emotions either, and at times their exasperation at the responses of some of the officers they interviewed broke the surface of their otherwise impeccably calm, courteous and professional questioning.

NOTES

[1] This is an Afghan landay, a traditional 22-syllable couplet, which I’ve taken from Eliza Griswold, I am the beggar of the world: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) p. 23; it appears there in the section headed ‘Love’ not ‘War’, but many Afghans compare the buzzing of drones to bees and wasps – and their ‘eyes’ sting too.

[2] In Afghanistan the Taliban has had no air power since its regime was toppled by the US invasion in 2001, and its capacity for a successful ground-to-air strike is limited; in Syria the US routinely de-conflicted the air space with Russia in order to launch airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) positions; and US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan entailed close, covert co-operation between Washington and Islamabad.

[3] In 2020 the US Air Force’s inventory of remote platforms plateaued at six per cent of its total aircraft capacity, as concern was (re)directed towards conflict against major state actors, notably China and Russia, and the ‘non-permissive’ (‘anti-access/area denial’) environments that would entail: Mark Cancian, US Military Forces in FY2020(Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2019).

[4] Christopher Wyatt and David Dunn, ‘Seeing things differently: Nang, Tura, Zolmand other cultural factors in Taliban attitudes to drones’, Ethnopolitics18 (2019) 201-17.  The Pakistan Taliban are likely to have a different view given the role of drones in the execution of the US programme of targeted killing in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas: see Derek Gregory, ‘Dirty dancing: drones and death in the biorderlands, in Caren Kaplan and Lisa Parks (eds) Life in the age of drones (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2017) pp. 25-58 [and DOWNLOADS tab].

[5] Lisa Parks, ‘Drones, vertical mediation and the targeted class’, Feminist Studies42 (1) (2016)227-35: 231.

[6] The incident is almost universally geo-located to Uruzgan, but the Afghan National Army commander who accompanied the US Special Forces insisted that the strike site was just across the border in Daikundi (p. 505), a province created in 2004 from the northern districts of Uruzgan. A researcher who interviewed survivors several years after the attack also located the strike in Kijran District, Daikundi, but when the US  Army’s investigation team interviewed them in hospital two days after the strike they said came from three villages in Kijran (p. 1037): Alex Edney-Brown, ‘“I saw pieces of bodies”: Afghan civilians describe terrorization by US drones’, Truthout, 1 July 2017.  For the source of otherwise unattributed page references here and elsewhere, see note 38 below.

[7] The Hazaras are Shia and the Pashtun Sunni Muslims.  The Hazaras were brutally uprooted from Uruzgan in the nineteenth century by the majority Pashtun, and after mass killings and forcible removals many of them settled in Daikundi.  They were marginalized by successive regimes in Kabul, but the rise of the Taliban (a Sunni Islamicist movement) in the 1990s made their position steadily more precarious, and the Taliban carried out mass murders of Hazaras in 1998, 2000 and 2001.  But the Hazaras were by no means passive; they were a natural recruiting ground for local anti-Taliban militias.  In parts of Uruzgan the militias gained a reputation for exacting revenge on Sunni villages, and in 2010 many of them were recruited into the ‘Afghan Local Police’, who were trained and supported by US Special Forces: May Jeong, ‘The US-trained warlords committing atrocities in Afghanistan’, In these times, 19 September 2017.

[8] Saeed Shah, ‘Dangerous Afghan highway threatens NATO supply flow,’ McClatchy Newspapers, 29 June 2010; On Afghanistan’s roads: extortion and abuse against drivers (Kabul: Integrity Watch Afghanistan, 2013).

[9] David Cloud, ‘Anatomy of an Afghan war tragedy’, Los Angeles Times, 10 April 2011.

[10] The families of those killed each received $5,000; the families of those injured received $3,000.  Initial reports also claimed there were three women and three children who were uninjured.

[11] Combined Forces Air Component Commander, 2007-2012 Airpower statistics (AFCENT (CAOC) Public Affairs, 31 December 2012). By 2012 the proportion of strikes carried out from remote platforms in Afghanistan had increased to 10 per cent of weapons released.  No detailed breakdown is available after that, but the proportion probably continued to increase (especially during the drawdown of coalition forces). In 2015 coalition aircraft released 947 weapons, a dramatic decline from the height of the air campaign, but 530 (56 per cent) of those bombs and missiles were from remote platforms: Josh Smith, ‘Afghan drone war – data show unmanned flights dominate air campaign’, Reuters, 20 April 2016.

[12] Larry Lewis, Drone Strikes: Civilian Casualty Considerations (Joint Coalition and Operational Analysis, 2013).  SIGACTS are ‘significant activities’: violent activities of military significance.

[13] Carlotta Gall and David Sanger, ‘Civilian deaths undermine Allies’ war on Taliban’, New York Times, 13 May 2007.

[14] Civilian harm tracking: analysis of ISAF efforts in Afghanistan (Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2014).

[15] Bob Dreyfuss, ‘Mass casualty-attacks in the Afghan war’, The Nation, 19 September 2017.

[16 ] I have taken these statements from the unclassified version of the Tactical Directive released by ISAF on 6 July 2009.  McChrystal prefaced his instructions by emphasizing that ‘We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeat – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.’  See also Dexter Filkins, ‘US tightens airstrike policy in Afghanistan’, New York Times, 21 June 2009. McChrystal’s was neither the last nor the most radical directive; General John Allen issued a fourth revision of the Tactical Directive on 30 November 2011 that was intended ‘to eliminate ISAF-caused civilian casualties across Afghanistan’ and instructed commanders to presume ‘every Afghan is a civilian unless otherwise apparent.’

[17] Lara Dadkhah, ‘Empty skies over Afghanistan’, New York Times,18 February 2010.

[18] In the twelve months after McChrystal’s Tactical Directive was issued, civilian casualties attributed to US and allied forces fell by 28 per cent, and deaths from airstrikes fell by more than 33 per cent: Joseph H. Felter and Jacob B. Shapiro, ‘Limiting civilian casualties as part of a winning strategy: the case of courageous restraint’, Daedalus14 (1) (2017) 44-58.

[19] The declaration of ‘Troops in Contact’ finessed the existing Rules of Engagement, which would have prevented the tankers from being bombed, by ‘manufacturing hostile intent’: E.L. Gaston, When Looks Could Kill: Emerging state practice on self-defence and hostile intent (Global Public Policy Institute, 2017) p. 23. According to two commentators, the Kunduz incident ‘led to the redefining of the term “Troops in Contact” to prevent self-defense criteria from being applied inappropriately’:  Sarah Sewall and Larry Lewis, Reducing and Mitigating Civilian Casualties(Joint Civilian Casualty Study, 2011). The Uruzgan attack raised serious questions about the effectiveness of that revision.

[20] ‘From a conventional standpoint, the killing of two insurgents in a group of ten leaves eight remaining… From the insurgent standpoint, those two killed were likely related to many others who will want vengeance’: ISAF Commander’s Counterinsurgency Guidance, 26 August 2009.

[21] Michael Hastings, ‘The runaway General’, Rolling Stone, 8 July 2010.

[22] Lt Gen Stephen Hoog, ‘Airpower over Afghanistan: Observation and Adaptation for the COIN Fight’, in Dag Henriksen (ed), Airpower in Afghanistan: the Air Commanders’ perspectives(Air University Press, Maxwell AFB: 2014) pp. 235-257:  243.

[23] Derek Gregory, ‘Kunduz and “seeing like a military”’, http://www.geographicalimaginations.com, 2 January 2014; Christiane Wilke, ‘Seeing and unmaking civilians in Afghanistan: visual technologies and contested professional visions’, Science, technology and human values 42 (2017) 1031-66.

[24] The US military defines Close Air Support (CAS) as ‘air action by fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and which require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.’  How close?  ‘The word “close” does not imply a specific distance; rather it is situational’: Close Air Support, Joint Publication 3-09.3 (8 July 2009; revised 25 November 2014).  As the definition makes clear, attack helicopters may be used for CAS but they are preferred for Close Combat Attack (CCA) because they are more flexible than fixed-wing aircraft, slower than those ‘fast movers’ so they can more readily attack difficult targets, and their smaller munitions allow them to fire closer to friendly forces: Maj Patrick Wylde, ‘Close Air Support versus Close Combat Attack’, School of Advanced Military Studies, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, 2012.

[25] The term CCA was abandoned in the revised edition of US Army Field Manual FM 3.04, Army Aviation (2015).

[26] Redesignated the 15th Attack Squadron on 15 May 2016, the squadron was part of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, which was the first in the US Air Force to be wholly dedicated to the operation of remotely-piloted aircraft (in May 2007).

[27] The Multi-Spectral Targeting System integrated an infra-red sensor, a colour/monochrome daylight TV camera, an image-intensified TV camera, a laser target designator and a laser illuminator into a single sensor package.

[28] Strictly speaking ‘FMV analyst’ is an entry-level position and ‘screener’ is a promoted position; for convenience I refer to all the image analysts as ‘screeners’ (as did the Predator crew).  Most missions would have 2 FMV analysts, a screener and a geospatial analyst assigned to support them (p. 1389).  The Predator crew also referred to the screeners collectively as ‘DGS’ (Distributed Ground System).  The US Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) is a secure network dedicated to the collection, processing, exploitation and analysis of product from its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms around the world; its nodes include Distributed Ground Systems (DGS), like the 11thIntelligence Squadron which is part of Air Force Special Operations Command, and more limited Distributed Mission Sites (DMS).

[29] Jack M. Beard, ‘Law and war in the virtual era’, American Journal of International Law103 (2009) 409-45; Beard served as Lieutenant Colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and as Associate Deputy General Counsel (International Affairs) in the Department of Defense.  The protocols and procedures to which Beard referred included International Humanitarian Law and the ROE, but they were conditional: none of them provided absolute protection for civilians in war zones. And Beard’s primary argument concerned the visibility of military actions and the possibility of sanctions if those protocols and procedures were breached – not the visibility of the battlespace: Derek Gregory, ‘From a view to a kill: drones and late modern war’, Theory, culture & society 28 (2011) 188-215: 200.

[30] This would be no surprise to her: see Donna Haraway, ‘Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective,’ Feminist studies 14 (1988) 575-99.  On ‘drone vision’ and the God-trick, see Roger Stahl, ‘What the drone saw: the cultural optics of the unmanned war’, Australian journal of international affairs 67 (2013) 659-74; Lauren Wilcox, ‘Embodying algorithmic war: Gender, race, and the posthuman in drone warfare’, Security dialogue 48 (1) (2017) 11-28.

[31] AR 15 (6) Investigating Officer’s Guide (US Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth KS); Alon Margalit, ‘The duty to investigate civilian casualties during armed conflict and its implementation in practice’, Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law15 (2012) 155-86: 176.   Since 2014 AR 15 (6) investigations have become less common and in their place the less formalized, faster Civilian Casualty Assessment Report (CCAR) has become widely used: for a comparison between the two, see In search of answers: US military investigations and civilian harm (Human Rights Institute, Columbia Law School and the Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2020) pp. 34-5, 39.

[32] Cloud, ‘Anatomy of an Afghan war tragedy’; the transcript is available at http://documents.latimes.com/transcript-of-drone-attack.   Extracts from the communications transcript open Grégoire Chamayou, Theory of the drone (New York: New Press, 2015) pp. 1-9 and Andrew Cockburn, Kill Chain: the rise of the high-tech assassins (New York: Holt & Co., 2015) pp. 1-16 (though Cockburn is one of the few to refer to the report as a whole). The most detailed analysis of the Uruzgan incident to date relies entirely on the Times transcript – see Jamie Allinson, ‘The necropolitics of drones’, International political sociology9 (2015) 113-27 – and the transcript also provided the base for the reconstruction of the strike in Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary National Bird (Ten Forward Films, 2016).

[33] Towards the end of 2017 the US Air Force refocused on Afghanistan (from Iraq and Syria) and in October 2017 carried out 653 airstrikes there, the highest number since November 2010; In 2018 US aircraft released 7,362 weapons there and in 2019 they released 4,723; no breakdown is available between conventional and remote platforms.

[34] There were at least two reasons for the screeners’ reluctance. The primary screener was a contractor employed by SCRC, and she explained that the commercial relationship obliged her to err on the side of caution: ‘If I suggest or make an assessment, I have to make sure that I am 100 per cent OK with that decision’ (p. 1391).  If the Air Force were to complain about her performance to her employer, she said, ‘that is something that they would take it on themselves to correct’  (p. 1396).  For a desperate attempt to shift responsibility to the primary screener, see Maj Keric Clanahan, ‘Wielding a very long, people-intensive spear: inherently governmental functions and the role of contractors in U.S. Department of Defense Unmanned Aircraft Systems missions,’ Air Force Law Review 70 (2013) 119-202, who claims (erroneously) that the decision to strike the three vehicles ‘was largely based upon intelligence analysis conducted and reported by a civilian contractor’ (p. 178). There are many problems with the use of private contractors in military operations, but this was not one of them. Her caution – which Clanahan passes over in silence – was also dictated by the shortcomings of the video feed: ‘With the tools we are given,’ the primary screener told McHale, ‘there is only so much analysis we can do’ (p. 1396).  I return to these limitations below.

[35] Six months earlier Time had featured an online report by Mark Thompson on Predator operations at Creech headlined ‘A new kind of Top Gunfor a new kind of war’: 5 October 2009; the reference was to the 1986 film starring Tom Cruise as a US Navy fighter pilot.  But McHale’s claim was prompted by a statement from the Safety Observer, a senior pilot at Creech called in during the closing minutes of the engagement, who testified that ‘everyone around here, it’s like Top Gun, everyone has the desire to  … employ weapons against the enemy’ (p. 1456).

[36] McHale’s recommendation to McChrystal did trigger a second (more limited) USAF investigation convened by the commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing and carried out by Brig Gen Robert Otto: ‘Commander-Directed Operational Assessment on Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Distributed Common Ground System Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures arising from Uruzgan province CIVCAS, 21 February 2010’, (10 July 2010); only 5 of its 38 pages (identified as Otto’s ‘Statement of Opinion’) were authorized for public release.  The table of contents shows that 16 (wholly redacted) pages were devoted to ‘Predator mission conduct’, which was determined to be ‘a factor’ in the incident.  But Otto’s summary statement challenged McHale’s criticism of the Predator crew.   He dismissed the Top Gun jibe and found ‘no resemblance to a “Top Gun” mentality’ (p. 35).  Otto conceded that the Predator crew’s ‘faulty communications clouded the picture’ but insisted that their actions were otherwise entirely professional and emphatically did not display ‘an inappropriate bias to go kinetic’ (p. 35).

[37] Human Rights Watch,Troops in Contact’: Airstrikes and civilian deaths in Afghanistan (2008).

[38] The files are available online at US Central Command’s FOIA Library at https://www3.centcom.mil/foia_rr/foia_rr.asp (under <5 USC 552(a)(2)(D)Records>); at ACLU’s website: https://www.aclu.org/drone-foia-department-defense-uruzgan-investigation-documents; and via archive.org.  All my unattributed page references are to these files.

[39] The 65-page transcript in the Los Angeles Times starts at 0453 local time, but the transcript contained in the consolidated files of the investigation released under the FOIA does not start until 0714 and runs to only 36 pages (pp. 1951-1986); the preceding pages presumably remained classified, although 25 pages are duplicated so the omission may be the result of poor collation rather than redaction.  Where the two transcripts overlap, they have been redacted differently.  The reasons for the differences are obscure, but the transcript was evidently released in two versions.   The provenance of the Times transcript (labelled ‘Tab E’) remains unclear; the newspaper credited the US Air Force, but US Central Command (which released the redacted version to the ACLU) told me that they had not released that version, the Air Force confirmed that it had not released it either, and its FOIA Library records only David Cloud’s request for the USAF (not US Army) investigation, which was closed out on 18 March 2011 – one month after the Times published his main article.   Yet the transcript on which Cloud relied for his report, and which was published in the Times, has been redacted so – even if the attribution to the USAF was designed to protect a source – that version presumably was cleared for release at some stage.  Unless otherwise noted, all timed observations in my text are from the Times transcript.

[40] One press report described the shock of officers at ISAF headquarters in Kabul who subsequently viewed the video feed from the Predator: ‘It was clear from the tape that civilians were about to be rocketed. “You look at the tape, you see the people getting in and out of the vehicles, and there’s really not a lot of ambiguity that you’re seeing women and probably children,” one officer said. “You’re not looking at men with weapons”’: Alan Cullison and Matthew Rosenberg, ‘Afghan deaths spur US reprimands’, Wall Street Journal, 31 May 2010. I wonder about this claim.  On the evening of 21 February McChrystal showed the  video to Brig Gen Edward Reeder (the commander of Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command) in Kabul – he had already seen at least part of it himself – and Reeder watched 40 minutes of the feed with Rear Adm Greg Smith (ISAF’s Director of Communications): ‘On the post-strike monitoring,’ Reeder testified, ‘I saw burqas and children…’ (pp. 1189-90; my emphasis).  The weight of evidence from other observers in the hours before the engagement makes it clear how difficult it was to detect women from the video feed, but if that press report is correct the presumptive clarity – the lack of ambiguity – of those officers’ identification must have derived at least in part from the fact that they already knewthat women and children had been injured in the strike.

[41] The sensor operator who was on shift for most of the night and into the early morning had a scheduled break from 0830 to 0930 – a period which included the strike on the vehicles – and s/he was relieved by another sensor operator.

[42] That said, the former is far more likely: both sensor operators were USAF technical sergeants, and the two anonymised lists of interviewees included in the consolidated file show only one technical sergeant (the JTAC) (p. 1063; cf. pp. 490-1).

[43] It may be that McHale simply ran out of time. He asked McChrystal for an extension from 8 March to 24 March to enable his team to draft summaries of all the witness statements (more than 53 of them) and ‘to interview at least one other witness’ (p. 17), but the file records only one re-interview (p. 130) and interviews with the ‘Predator Piloting Team’ were completed by 5 March (p. 68).  The sensor operators were on the original list of interviewees agreed with the commanding officer of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron but on 4 March he raised a number of scheduling difficulties in making them available. They were ‘scattered over a couple of shifts’ and McHale was told it would take 48 hours to arrange cover (p. 894). McHale’s team did not interview the third member of the Predator crew either, the Mission Intelligence Coordinator (MC) who was responsible for online text messaging (mIRC) and for liaising with SOTF-South at Kandahar and with the screeners in Florida.  S/he sat in the Operations Center outside the Ground Control Station at Creech but was an integral member of the crew and participated fully in the mission.

[44] The Fires Officer at SOTF-South explained that ‘the majority of our co-ordinations are done on the phone or on mIRC chat’ (p. 720); see also US Army FM 6-02.73, Tactical Chat (July 2009); ‘Tactical chat: how the US military uses IRC to wage war’, Public Intelligence, 22 January 2013. The importance of mIRC to the US military can also be judged by the ‘Afghan War Diaries’ released by Wikileaks, which included over 35,000 pages of mIRC transcripts: https://wardiaries.wikileaks.org.

[45] Ben Emmerson QC, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-terrorism, praised the McHale report as ‘a model of accountability and transparency’: Report, 10 March 2014: 10 (A/HRC/25/59).  It was a marked departure from the investigation into the Azizabad attack, which was widely criticised as inadequate – Human Rights Watch described Brig Gen Michael Callan’s report as ‘deeply flawed’ : Report, 15 January 2009 – and the release of the consolidated file a complete contrast to the investigation into the Kunduz attack, where the details remained classified – despite promises to the contrary – and ISAF even refused to cooperate with the Bundestag’s official investigation into the incident.

[46] Cockburn, Kill Chain, p. 14.  To complicate the time-line still further, Creech Air Force Base is in the US military’s Uniform time zone, 8 hours behind its Zulu time (GMT/UTC) – the time recorded in the communications transcripts – and Afghanistan is in its Delta time zone, 4 hours ahead of Zulu; local time in Afghanistan is 4 ½ hours ahead of GMT/UTC.  In order to fix the narrative I have converted all times to local time in Afghanistan.  I have also corrected a number of the report’s phonetic transcriptions, and done my best to work around the redactions (some redacted passages appear elsewhere in the consolidated files en clair).

Under Afghan Skies: prologue

In what seems like another lifetime, although it was only last month, I spoke at a wonderful conference on “The Aesthetics of Drone Warfare“, organised by Beryl Pong and her team at the University of Sheffield.

I gave a new version of my research on the Uruzgan air strike that has preoccupied so many critics of drone warfare.  You can find earlier versions here and here, and I discussed the aftermath of the strike and the fate of the casualties in an essay called “Eyes in the Sky, Bodies on the Ground” which you can find under the DOWNLOADS tab [the original appeared in Critical Studies on Security 6 (2018) 347-358]. The Sheffield talk will eventually be online, though like so much else in these difficult times I’m sure that’s been delayed.  I’ve also given developing versions of the argument at several other conferences, under various titles; ‘developing’ because I haven’t been able to let it go.  Each time I dive back into the archival materials I seem to find something new – that’s in the nature of archival research, I think – but I’ve now been able to work up what is, I hope, the near-final written version.

This will be the last Part (I had hoped ‘chapter’, but it’s too long for that) of my new book, Reach from the Sky, which is intended to be both a geography and a genealogy of aerial violence.  Over the next several weeks I’ll be posting the essay here in serial form – interspersed, I suspect, with other notices: I’ve decided to return to blogging at something like my old pace – and I would be truly grateful for any comments, questions or suggestions (at derek.gregory@ubc.ca).

Trying to piece together what happened has been like playing multi-dimensional chess (I imagine: I’ve never tried), which is why there are so many notes.  As I worked on this version I realised that I had become so immersed in the narrative that I had started to take for granted contextual information that many, perhaps most readers probably wouldn’t have: hence the need to explain as I go, without breaking the flow. I hope you’ll let me know if it works.

One last rider: I’ve tried to keep the overt theory to a minimum, and for two reasons.  The first is that for me – now, anyway! – theory works best in solution, diffused into my presentation of the empirical materials with which I’m (also) working. Theory makes my argument possible, but in my experience it rarely survives its encounter with the archive intact (nor should it): it’s a medium, something to be worked with and constantly re-made.  It’s also – like the narrative that I will present in the coming weeks – always open and incomplete, an intellectual force-field of tensions and contradictions, because there is no one Theory that asks all the important questions or provides all the convincing answers.  So I’m obliged to work in the space between competing perspectives rather than seek some meta-theoretical resolution; there are decisions that still have to be made – of course: not all perspectives are valid – but I have refused to nail my colours to a single mast and have that determine my direction of travel.

More directly: the world does not exist in order to provide examples of our theorisations of it.  My interest here is in the fate of all those Afghan civilians who were killed and injured on 21 February 2010 and in what that might tell us about aerial violence and nominally ‘remote’ warfare.  And this brings me to my second reason.  Much of what I’ve read on ‘drone warfare’ seems long on theory but short on substance.   There are, of course, essays that activate theory to provide sensitive and illuminating insights into the conduct and consequences of aerial violence, and you’ll see that I’m indebted to many of them.  To  bring those ideas into a close engagement with the empirical – transforming both in the process – is a slow, delicate and time-consuming process.  It’s also, I hope, a collaborative one: which is where you come in….

More to come.  Stay safe and be well.

Combat Obscura

A new documentary on the war in Afghanistan, Combat Obscura, is available on iTunes.  From The Daily Beast:

The new Afghanistan war documentary Combat Obscura doesn’t introduce itself, explain itself, or end in a satisfying way.

It’s weird, funny, disturbing, brutal, and heartbreaking—and one of the best documentaries in years.

Combat Obscura is directed by Miles Lagoze, a former U.S. Marine Corps cameraman who spent much of 2011 in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan with a battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment based in North Carolina.

After getting out of the Marine Corps and spending a little time processing his experiences, Lagoze, now 29, enrolled in film school at Columbia University.

He just graduated. Combat Obscura is his first movie.

Lagoze came home from Afghanistan with all the footage the Marine Corps doesn’t want the public to see.

 

That last sentence needs elaboration.  Writing in the New York Times, Ben Keningsberg explains:

As a United States Marine in Afghanistan, Miles Lagoze, the director, worked as a videographer, documenting scenes of war for official release. (We see a clip of such material on CNN midway through the film.) Somehow, Lagoze kept his hands on unreleased footage he and others shot in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, and made it the basis for this film.

The Beast describes Eric Schuman, the film’s editor, as the production’s ‘secret weapon’:

“I would watch through the footage Miles had shot and pull from it what I found most interesting and compelling and then organize that material by subject…  I would then try to arrange that material together into sequences that, when placed all together, told a thematic story about a deployment in Afghanistan. By the end, Miles and I came upon a structure that I hope conveys a loss of innocence and growing nihilism and apathy as the film goes on.”

I’ll leave the last word to J.D. Simkins in the Military Times (who praises the film’s accuracy and honesty):

The film’s true brilliance lies in its situational hysteria, a scene-by-scene unpredictability that serves as a microcosm of a war with no end — and no definitive outcome — in sight.

Like the forever war, a lack of closure looms ominously over the film, a sentiment echoed by many of the war’s actors. Lagoze is no different.

Trauma Geographies online

My Antipode Lecture on Trauma Geographies is now available online via YouTube.

(If you wonder why I’m hunched over my laptop, the microphone was fixed to the podium….).  Since I’m now turning this into an essay, I’d welcome any questions, comments or suggestions.

You can find more details  including open access to a series of related articles – at the Antipode Foundation website here.

Drones and Shadow Wars

I ended my lecture at the Drone Imaginaries conference in Odense this week by arguing that the image of the drone’s all-seeing ‘eye in the sky’ had eclipsed multiple other modalities of later modern war:

Simply put, drones are about more than targeted killing (that’s important, of course, but remember that in Afghanistan and elsewhere ‘night raids’ by US Special Forces on the ground have been immensely important in executing supposedly ‘kill or capture’ missions); and at crucial moments in the war in Afghanistan 90 per cent of air strikes have been carried out by conventional aircraft (though intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance from remote platforms often mediated those strikes).

To sharpen the point I showed this image from a drone over Afghanistan on 15 April 2017:

This showed the detonation of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB or ‘Mother Of All Bombs’):

This is a far cry from the individuation of later modern war, the US Air Force’s boast that it could put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and that often repeated line from Grégoire Chamayou about ‘the body becoming the battlefield’.

And, as I’ve been trying to show in my series of posts on siege warfare in Syria, there are still other, shockingly violent and intrinsically collective modalities of later modern war.  Drones have been used there too, but in the case of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces targeting has more often than not avoided precision weapons in favour of saturation bombing and artillery strikes (see here).

All this means that I was pleased to receive a note from the brilliant Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the widening of its work on drones (which will continue, to be sure):

Under President Donald Trump the US counterterrorism campaign is shifting into another phase, and the Bureau is today launching a new project to investigate it – Shadow Wars.  The new phase is in some ways a continuation and evolution of trends seen under Obama. The same reluctance to deploy American troops applies, as does the impetus to respond militarily to radical groups around the world. But as extremist groups spread and metastasise, the US’s military engagements are becoming ever more widespread, and complicated. Peter Singer, a senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, who is a leading expert on security, says: “Shadow wars have been going on for a long time, but what’s clearly happened is that they’ve been accelerated, and the mechanisms for oversight and public notification have been peeled back. The trend lines were there before, but the Trump team are just putting them on steroids.”

A new US drone base has been built in Niger, but its ultimate purpose is unclear. In Afghanistan, the US is trying to prevail over the Taliban, without committing to a substantial increase in troop numbers, by waging an increasingly secretive air war. In Yemen, the US is leaning on the United Arab Emirates as its on the ground counterterrorism partner, a country with a troubled human rights record. Meanwhile, proxy confrontations with Iran are threading themselves into the mix.

Our Shadow Wars project will widen the focus of the Bureau’s drone warfare work. Over the next year, we will bring new and important aspects of US military strategy to light, of which drones are just one troubling aspect.

We aim to explore issues such as America’s increasing reliance on regional allies, the globalisation of the private military industry, the blurring of lines between combat and support missions and the way corruption fuels a state of permanent conflict. As with our work on drones, our primary concern in this new project is to publicise the effects these evolving practices of war have on the civilians on the ground.

Insurgent terrain

Just available from Gastón Gordillo: ‘Terrain as insurgent weapon: An affective geometry of warfare in the mountains of Afghanistan’, Political Geography (2018) [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2018.03.001].

Gastón explains:

My argument…   is that the irreducibility of terrain can be best examined through the bodily experiences, affects, and agency of the human actors engaging it da lens I call an affective geometry. This is not the Euclidian or Cartesian geometry of mathematized grids, coordinates, and straight lines abstracted from bodies and affects. This is the qualitative, non-linear geometry conceptualized by Spinoza (1982), attentive to how bodies affect and are affected by other bodies in a multiplicity of ways, which range from negative ways that may diminish the body’s capacity to act to positive ways that may expand the body’s powers for action.

In analyzing how bodies are affected by and affect terrain, an affective geometry can be seen as a materialist phenomenology that conceives of human bodies in their subjective interiority and dispositions and also as mobile, self-propelling bodies that in sit- uations of combat dand as long as they remain able bodiesd walk, run, climb rocks, duck on the ground, fall in ditches, shoot, feel exhausted hiking a mountain, and feel pain if hit by gunfire.

 

Turning to the Korengal Valley, and drawing on the work of Sebastien Junger and Tim Hetherington (especially Restrepo: see here for a commentary that meshes with this post) Gastón shows how terrain was opaque, threatening, even penetrative to the US military – for all the ‘imperial verticality’ of its air power – and that the mountains (in all their ‘ambient thickness’) ‘confused them, tired them, and disrupted imperial phantasies of spatial mastery’, whereas their enemies, who weaponised the terrain far more effectively, were able to realise an ‘insurgent verticality’ though their knowledge of and, indeed, intimacy with the mountains.