Killing cities

In a perceptive commentary on the ground-breaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal into civilian casualties caused by the US air campaign against Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq – see also my posts here and hereRobert Malley and Stephen Pomper write:

The Trump administration has celebrated a no-holds-barred approach to the fight against ISIS, given greater deference to ground commanders, loosened restrictions imposed by its predecessor, and expanded the fight to an ever-growing number of Middle Eastern and African theaters. This adds up to a quasi-automatic recipe for greater civilian casualties. Independent monitoring organizations have tracked the numbers, and invariably they point to a serious uptick in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since January 2017. The explanation lies partly in the transition in Iraq and Syria toward the final, more urban phase of the conflict in the heavily populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa. But partly only. It also lies in policy guidance, as well as in matters such as tone, attitude, and priorities set at the very top—including by the commander in chief. These have a way of trickling down and affecting performance on the battlefield.

And yet. Those dead civilians that The New York Times found not to have been counted were not counted by the Obama administration. They were not counted by people who were intent on limiting civilian casualties and ensuring transparency. That those safeguards proved inadequate even in the hands of an administration that considered them a priority raises particularly vexing questions.

Part of the problem, as they note, is the nature of the campaign itself.  This is not the sort of counterinsurgency campaign that emerged in Afghanistan and Iraq in which air power was used in support of US and allied ground troops (although we know that also produced more than its share of civilian casualties); neither is it a counterterrorism campaign directed against so-called High Value Targets who supposedly ‘present a direct and imminent threat to the United States’ (ditto; and as I discuss in ‘Dirty dancing’ – DOWNLOADS tab – ‘imminence’ turned out to be remarkably elastic, a deadly process of time-space expansion).
Ultimately, though, their anxieties turn on what they call the ‘over-militarization’ of the US response to al Qaeda and its affiliates and to IS.  They explain, succinctly, what has encouraged this militarized response (not least the lowering of the threshold for military violence allowed by remote operations):
[U]ntil this changes, an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer the consequence. Some will be counted. Others, not. All will have paid a terrible price.
In December the Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirmed an escalation in US air strikes across multiple theatres in Trump’s first year in office:
President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen [in 2017].

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Much remains unclear about these actions, apart from Trump’s signature combination of machismo and ignorance, but we do know that Obama’s restrictions on the use of military force outside Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have been loosened:

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House.

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

In September NBC reported that the Trump administration was planning to allow the CIA to take a more aggressive role and to give the agency more authority to conduct (para)military operations.  In consequence a comprehensive revision of Obama’s guidelines was in prospect:

The drone playbook, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG, includes a provision that no strike should go forward unless analysts determine that there is a near-certainty that no civilians will be harmed. And it includes a provision forbidding the addition of new detainees to the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The Trump administration is contemplating removing both of those restrictions.

Pakistan remains a nominally covert area of operations.  US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas resumed in March after a nine-month hiatus – though Trump’s latest spat with Islamabad raises questions about the sporadic but systematic co-operation that had characterised so much of the campaign – and (provocatively: again, see ‘Dirty Dancing’ for an explanation) one strike took place outside the FATA in June 2017.  The Bureau’s detailed list is here: five strikes are listed, killing 15-22 people.

In Afghanistan the Bureau noted that air strikes had doubled and that this escalation has been accompanied by a corresponding decrease in transparency (Chris Woods told me the same story for Iraq and Syria when we met in Utrecht).

All of this confirms the report released today by Action on Armed Violence.

At least 15,399 civilians were killed in the first 11 months of 2017 according to Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) recording of English language media explosive violence events.  This devastating toll – up to the end of November – strongly suggests that 2017 was the worst year for civilian deathsfrom explosive weapons since AOAV’s records began in 2011.

This sharp rise, constituting a 42% increase from the same period in 2016, when 10,877 civilians were killed, is largely down to a massive increase in deadly airstrikes.

Compared to 2011, the first year of AOAV’s recording, the rise in civilians killed by explosive violence in the first 11 months of 2017 constitutes an 175% increase (5,597 died in the same period seven years ago).

On average, our records to November show that there were 42 civilian deaths per day caused by explosive violence in 2017.

The report continues:

For the first time since our recording of all English language media reports of explosive weapon attacks began, the majority of civilian deaths were by air-launched weapons. Of the total civilian deaths recorded (15,399), 58% were caused by airstrikes, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Civilian deaths from airstrikes in this 11-month period was 8,932 – an increase of 82% compared to the same period in 2016 when 4,902 civilians were killed, or 1,169% compared to 2011, when 704 died.

Significantly, as airstrikes are almost always used by State actors, rather than non-State groups, States were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths from explosive weapons for the first time since our records began.

Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV commented:

 These are stark figures that expose the lie that precision-guided missiles as used by State airforces do not lead to massive civilian harm. When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, the results are inevitable: innocent children, women and men will die.

In the same vein, Karen McVeigh‘s summary for the Guardian quotes Chris Woods from Airwars:

This is about urban warfare and that’s why we are getting crazy numbers… War is moving into cities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Russia or the US-led coalition or ground forces leading the assault, the outcome for civilians under attack is always dire…. We’re becoming too complacent about urban warfare, and militaries and governments are downplaying the effects.

I think that’s right, though I also think war is moving back into the cities (if it ever left them); the serial military operations in Mosul and Raqqa are vivid examples of what Chris means, but they also recall the assaults on Fallujah and other cities documented in Steve Graham‘s still utterly indispensable Cities under siege.

The point is sharpened even further if we widen the angle of vision to take in air campaigns conducted by other air forces: the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Air Force in Syria, or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Yet again, killing cities to save them.  As a spokesperson for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently put it last summer, ‘This is very similar to the Vietnam war, where entire cities were destroyed… What is happening in Raqqa is like dropping a nuclear bomb in stages.’

Steve’s work should also remind us that these dead cities are not produced by air strikes alone.  Once reduced to rubble they have often been disembowelled (I can think of no better word) by ground forces; it’s as though these now barely human landscapes compel or at any rate license the continued degradation of both the living and the dead:  see, for example, Kenneth Rosen on ‘The Devil’s Henchmen’ here or  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad‘s chillingly detailed report on the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul here.

I’m still astonished that all those high-minded theoretical debates on planetary urbanism somehow ignore the contemporary intensification of urbicide and urban warfare (see ‘Mumford and sons’ here).

Those who don’t count and those who can’t count

An excellent article from the unfailing New York Times in a recent edition of the Magazine: Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal on ‘The Uncounted‘, a brilliant, forensic and – crucially – field-based investigation into civilian casualties in the US air war against ISIS:

American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.

The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.

What Azmat and Anand found on the ground, however, was radically different:

Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.

We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history [my emphasis].  Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes …  remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

They provide immensely powerful, moving case studies of innocents ‘lost in the wreckage’.  They also describe the US Air Force’s targeting process at US Central Command’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar (the image above shows the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division at the CAOC, which ‘provides a common threat and targeting picture’):

The process seemed staggeringly complex — the wall-to-wall monitors, the soup of acronyms, the army of lawyers — but the impressively choreographed operation was designed to answer two basic questions about each proposed strike: Is the proposed target actually ISIS? And will attacking this ISIS target harm civilians in the vicinity?

As we sat around a long conference table, the officers explained how this works in the best-case scenario, when the coalition has weeks or months to consider a target. Intelligence streams in from partner forces, informants on the ground, electronic surveillance and drone footage. Once the coalition decides a target is ISIS, analysts study the probability that striking it will kill civilians in the vicinity, often by poring over drone footage of patterns of civilian activity. The greater the likelihood of civilian harm, the more mitigating measures the coalition takes. If the target is near an office building, the attack might be rescheduled for nighttime. If the area is crowded, the coalition might adjust its weaponry to limit the blast radius. Sometimes aircraft will even fire a warning shot, allowing people to escape targeted facilities before the strike. An official showed us grainy night-vision footage of this technique in action: Warning shots hit the ground near a shed in Deir al-Zour, Syria, prompting a pair of white silhouettes to flee, one tripping and picking himself back up, as the cross hairs follow.

Once the targeting team establishes the risks, a commander must approve the strike, taking care to ensure that the potential civilian harm is not “excessive relative to the expected military advantage gained,” as Lt. Col. Matthew King, the center’s deputy legal adviser, explained.

After the bombs drop, the pilots and other officials evaluate the strike. Sometimes a civilian vehicle can suddenly appear in the video feed moments before impact. Or, through studying footage of the aftermath, they might detect signs of a civilian presence. Either way, such a report triggers an internal assessment in which the coalition determines, through a review of imagery and testimony from mission personnel, whether the civilian casualty report is credible. If so, the coalition makes refinements to avoid future civilian casualties, they told us, a process that might include reconsidering some bit of intelligence or identifying a flaw in the decision-making process.

There are two issues here.  First, this is indeed the ‘best-case scenario’, and one that very often does not obtain.  One of the central vectors of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is volatility: targets are highly mobile and often the ‘window of opportunity’ is exceedingly narrow.  I’ve reproduced this image from the USAF’s own targeting guide before, in relation to my analysis of the targeting cycle for a different US air strike against IS in Iraq in March 2015, but it is equally applicable here:

Second, that ‘window of opportunity’ is usually far from transparent, often frosted and frequently opaque.  For what is missing from the official analysis described by Azmat and Anand turns out to be the leitmotif of all remote operations (and there is a vital sense in which all forms of aerial violence are ‘remote’, whether the pilot is 7,000 miles away or 30,000 feet above the target [see for example here]):

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the United States Air Forces Central Command at Udeid, told us what was missing. “Ground truth, that’s what you’re asking for,” he said. “We see what we see from altitude and pull in from other reports. Your perspective is talking to people on the ground.” He paused, and then offered what he thought it would take to arrive at the truth: “It’s got to be a combination of both.”

The military view, perhaps not surprisingly, is that civilian casualties are unavoidable but rarely intentional:

Supreme precision can reduce civilian casualties to a very small number, but that number will never reach zero. They speak of every one of the acknowledged deaths as tragic but utterly unavoidable.

Azmat and Anand reached a numbingly different conclusion: ‘Not all civilian casualties are unavoidable tragedies; some deaths could be prevented if the coalition recognizes its past failures and changes its operating assumptions accordingly. But in the course of our investigation, we found that it seldom did either.’

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that whenever there is an investigation into reports of civilian casualties that may have been caused by US military operations it must be independent of all other investigations and can make no reference to them in its findings; in other words, as I’ve noted elsewhere, there is no ‘case law’: bizarre but apparently true.

But that is only part of the problem.  The two investigators cite multiple intelligence errors (‘In about half of the strikes that killed civilians, we could find no discernible ISIS target nearby. Many of these strikes appear to have been based on poor or outdated intelligence’) and even errors and discrepancies in recording and locating strikes after the event.

It’s worth reading bellingcat‘s analysis here, which also investigates the coalition’s geo-locational reporting and notes that the official videos ‘appear only to showcase the precision and efficiency of coalition bombs and missiles, and rarely show people, let alone victims’.  The image above, from CNN, is unusual in showing the collection of the bodies of victims of a US air strike in Mosul, this time in March 2017; the target was a building from which two snipers were firing; more than 100 civilians sheltering there were killed.  The executive summary of the subsequent investigation is here – ‘The Target Engagement Authority (TEA) was unaware of and could not have predicted the presence of civilians in the structure prior to the engagement’ – and report from W.J. Hennigan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske is here.

Included in bellingcat’s account is a discussion of a video which the coalition uploaded to YouTube and then deleted; Azmat retrieved and archived it – the video shows a strike on two buildings in Mosul on 20 September 2015 that turned out to be focal to her investigation with Anand:

The video caption identifies the target as a ‘VBIED [car bomb] facility’.  But Bellingcat asks:

Was this really a “VBIED network”? Under the original upload, a commenter starting posting that the houses shown were his family’s residence in Mosul.

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike. Do you really know who these people were? They were innocent and happy family members of mine.”

Days after the strike, Dr Zareena Grewal, a relative living in the US wrote in the New York Times that four family members had died in the strike. On April 2, 2017 – 588 days later – the Coalition finally admitted that it indeed bombed a family home which they confused for an IS headquarters and VBIED facility.

“The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition, told Airwars.

Even though the published strike video actually depicted the killing of a family, it remained – wrongly captioned – on the official Coalition YouTube channel for more than a year.

This is but one, awful example of a much wider problem.  The general conclusion reached by Azmat and Anand is so chilling it is worth re-stating:

According to the coalition’s available data, 89 of its more than 14,000 airstrikes in Iraq have resulted in civilian deaths, or about one of every 157 strikes. The rate we found on the ground — one out of every five — is 31 times as high.

One of the houses [shown above] mistakenly identified as a ‘VBIED facility’ in that video belonged to Basim Razzo, and he became a key informant in Azmat and Anand’s investigation; he was subsequently interviewed by Amy Goodman: the transcript is here. She also interviewed Azmat and Anand: that transcript is here.  In the course of the conversation Anand makes a point that amply and awfully confirms Christiane Wilke‘s suggestion – in relation to air strikes in Afghanistan – that the burden of recognition, of what in international humanitarian law is defined as ‘distinction’, is tacitly being passed from combatant to civilian: that those in the cross-hairs of the US military are required to perform their civilian status to those watching from afar.

It goes back to this issue of Iraqis having to prove that they are not ISIS, which is the opposite of what we would think. We would think that the coalition would do the work to find out whether somebody is a member of ISIS or not. Essentially, they assume people are ISIS until proven otherwise.

To make matters worse, they have to perform their ‘civilianness’ according to a script recognised and approved by the US military, however misconceived it may be.  In the case of one (now iconic) air strike in Afghanistan being an adolescent or adult male, travelling in a group, praying at one of the times prescribed by Islam, and carrying a firearm in a society where that is commonplace was enough for civilians to be judged as hostile by drone crews and attacked from the air with dreadful results (see here and here).

This is stunning investigative journalism, but it’s more than that: the two authors are both at Arizona State University, and they have provided one of the finest examples of critical, probing and accessible scholarship I have ever read.


Many readers will know Emily Gilbert‘s stunning work on the financialization of the battlespace through consolation payments made by the US and their allies to victims of military violence (‘solatia’).  If you’re not among them, see her ‘The gift of war: cash, counterinsurgency and “collateral damage“‘ in Security Dialogue 46 (2015) 403-21; also her essay on ‘Tracing military compensation’ available here.

In a similar vein (I imagine) is a forthcoming book by journalist and novelist Nick McDonell: Solatia: an account of civilian casualties in America’s wars:

Since 2003, America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians — by some counts, more than a million — and the number continues to grow. Of the many questions arising from these deaths — for which no one assumes responsibility, and which have been presented, historically, as unavoidable — perhaps the most fundamental question, for Americans, is this: if all men are created equal, why are we willing to kill foreign civilians?

Solatia (the term for money the U.S. pays to the families of civilian dead), sets out to answer that question. In all its wars, the United States both condemns and causes civilian casualties. But what exactly constitutes a civilian casualty? Why do they occur? What do our officials know of those reasons? How do they decide how many people they are willing to kill “by accident” — in a night raid, or drone strike, or invasion? And who, exactly, gets to decide?

Solatia is a globe-trotting, decade-spanning exploration into one of the most fundamental issues of our time. Following an array of officials, combatants, and civilians trying to survive — spies and senators, police chiefs and accountants caught in air strikes, orphaned street kids and widowed mothers, Iranian milita leaders, Taliban spokesmen and Marine special forces operators — Solatia confronts the U.S.’ darkest history abroad, illuminates its ongoing battles, and offers an original view of what it means to be a citizen of America at war.

It’s due in March from Penguin/Random House.

A lack of intelligence

Harim Air Strike MAP annotated

The second of the three recent US air strikes I’ve been looking at took place near Harim [Harem on the map above] in Syria on the night of 5-6 November 2014.  The report of the military investigation into allegations of civilian casualties is here.

The aircraft launched multiple strikes against two compounds which had been identified as sites used as meeting places for named (though redacted) terrorists and sites for the manufacture and storage of explosives by the al-Qaeda linked ‘Khorasan Group’ (if the scare-quotes puzzle you, compare here and here).

The compounds each contained several buildings and had previously been on a No Strike List under a category that includes civilian housing; they lost their protected status when ‘they were assessed as being converted to military use’ but ‘other residential and commercial structures were situated around both targets’.  An annotated image of the attack on the first compound is shown below:

Harim Air Strike on Compound 001

Although the report argues that ‘the targets were engaged in the early morning hours when the risk to civilians was minimized’ – a strange statement, since most civilians would have been asleep inside those ‘residential structures’ – US Central Command subsequently received open-source reports of from three to six civilian casualties, together with still and video imagery.  By the end of December 2014 the Combined Joint Task Force conducting ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ had completed a preliminary ‘credibility assessment’ of the claims and found sufficient evidence to establish a formal investigation into the allegations of civilian casualties.  The investigating officer delivered his final report on 13 February 2015.

He also had access to a report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights that provided a ground-level perspective (including video) unavailable to the US military.  Its narrative is different from US Central Command, identifying the targets as being associated with An-Nussra:

The warplanes launched, at first, four missiles that hit three military points, which are located next to each other, in the northeast of the town:

1 – The Agricultural Bank, which is used by An-Nussra front as a center.
2 – The central prison checkpoint, where An-Nussra fighters were stationed.
3 – An ammunition depot in the same area.

The shelling destroyed and burned the Agricultural Bank’s building completely in addition to damaging a number of building nearby. Furthermore, a number of cars were burned while a series of explosions occurred after an explosion in the ammunition depot..
Afterwards, the warplanes targeted a fourth center with two missiles. [This target] was a building by an old deserted gas station located near the industrial school in the south of the town. The shelling destroyed the center completely as well as the gas station in addition to severely damaging the surrounding buildings. Harem residents were aided by the civil-defense teams to save people from underneath the rubble.

SNHR documented the killing of two young girls; one could not be unidentified but the other was Daniya, aged 5, who was killed along with her father who was said to be one of the An-Nussra fighters living in a house near the Agricultural Bank.  Daniya’s mother and her brother Saeed, aged 7, were seriously wounded.

The report also included post-strike imagery from YouTube videos and Twitter feeds:

Harim VIDEO 1 jpeg

Harim VIDEO 2 jpeg

In contrast to the report on the air strike in Iraq I discussed in my previous post, this one includes no details of the attack, nor the procedures through which it was authorised and conducted – though we do know that there is a considerable military bureaucracy behind all these strikes, especially in the administration of what in this case was clearly a pre-planned rather than emergent target.  For more on the bureaucratisation of targeting, incidentally, see  Astrid Nordin and Dan Öberg, ‘Targeting the ontology of war: From Clausewitz to Baudrillard’, Millennium 43 (2) (2015) 392-410; analytically it’s right on the mark, I think, and I’ll be advancing similar arguments in my Tanner Lectures – though stripped of any reference to Baudrillard…

But there is one revealing sentence in the report.  Although the investigating officer had no doubt that the Harim strikes were perfectly legal, everything worked like clockwork and nothing need be changed –

Harim conclusion

– there is nevertheless a recommendation for ‘sustained ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] whenever practicable based on operational requirements, to ensure that no civilians are entering or exiting a facility.’  The clear implication is that these strikes – pre-planned, remember: these were not fleeting targets of opportunity – were not supported by real-time ISR.  When you add to that the reliance placed by the investigation on ground imagery from YouTube and Twitter, you begin to realise how little the US military and its allies must know about many of the targets they strike in Iraq and Syria.  (I might add that the US has not been averse to using Twitter feeds for targeting too: see Robert Gregory‘s compelling discussion in Clean bombs and dirty wars: air power in Kosovo and Libya, where he describes the central role played by Twitter feeds from Libyan rebels in identifying targets for the US Air Force and its NATO allies: by the closing months of the campaign France was deriving 80 per cent of its intelligence from social media contacts on the ground).

All this gives the lie to the cheery ‘let ’em have it’ guff from Robert Caruso, commenting on US air strikes in Syria last September:

By relying so heavily on drones in our recent counter-terror campaigns we’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind our back. But a key to the success of Monday’s strikes was the use of manned aircraft with pilots who can seek out enemy targets and make on-the-spot decisions…

it’s time to drop the drone fetish, and the limitations it imposed, and go back to using manned airpower, which is more powerful and better suited to hunting down elusive targets like ISIS.

Regular readers will know that I’m not saying that drones are the answer, or that their ability to provide persistent, real-time, full-motion video feeds in high definition makes the battlespace transparent; on the contrary (see my ‘Angry Eyes’ posts here and especially here: more to come soon).

But the absence of their ISR capability can only make a bad situation worse.  In February, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center conceded that that US had not ‘closed the gap on where we need to be in terms of our understanding, with granularity, about what is going on on the ground in Syria.’  Indeed, during the first four months of this year ‘nearly 75 percent of U.S. bombing runs targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [a total of more than 7,000 sorties] returned to base without firing any weapons’, and reports claimed that aircrews held their fire ‘mainly because of a lack of ground intelligence.’

Full-motion video cannot compensate for that absence, of course, and in any case there are serious limitations on the number of ISR orbits that are possible over Iraq and Syria given the demands for drones over Afghanistan and elsewhere: each orbit requires three to four aircraft to provide 24/7 coverage, and the global maximum the US Air Force can provide using its Predators and Reapers varies between 55 and 65 orbits (or ‘combat air patrols’).

In late August 2014 Obama authorised both manned and unmanned ISR flights over Syria, and since then the United States has been joined by the UK and France in deploying MQ-9 Reapers over Iraq and Syria, where their video feeds have helped to orchestrate missions carried out by conventional strike aircraft (see, for example, here).  In August 2015 France claimed that all its air strikes in Iraq had to be validated by ISR provided by a drone:


But that was in August, before Hollande threw caution to the winds and ramped up French air strikes in response to the Paris attacks in November – an escalation that relied on targeting packages supplied by the United States.

In any case, Predators and Reapers are also armed and in their ‘hunter-killer’ role they had executed around one quarter of all airstrikes conducted by the United States in Iraq and Syria by June 2015 and more than half the air strikes conducted by the UK in Iraq.  Although the UK only extended its bombing campaign against Islamic State to Syria this month, its Reapers had been entering Syrian airspace in steadily increasing numbers since November 2014 to provide ISR (in part, presumably, to enable the United States to orchestrate its air strikes) and in September 2015 it used one of them to carry out the UK’s first acknowledged targeted killing near Raqqa (see also here and here); the United States has also routinely used the aircraft in the extension of its multi-sited targeted killing program to Syria (see also here).

All this bombing, all this blood: and yet strategically remarkably little to show for it.   And all for a lack of intelligence…

Three strikes…

I’ve been working away on my Tanner Lectures, which has plunged me back in to my research on air strikes.  There is a dismal topicality to the subject, since in the UK the hawks on both right and left are circling the lobbies in the wake of the attacks in Paris (but still not, it seems, those in Beirut) demanding that yet more bombs fall on Syria.  They are less than hawk-eyed, however, since they offer no insight into what – precisely (not exactly the right word where bombing is concerned) – this is designed to achieve.  They have learned nothing from the 100-odd years of the history of bombing, or even from its more recent effects.

And talking of Beirut: when I delivered a presentation there in 2006, six months after Israel’s devastating air strikes on its southern suburbs, I borrowed my title [‘In another time-zone the bombs fall unsafely’: see DOWNLOADS tab] from Blake Morrison‘s poem ‘Stop’ which was reprinted in an anthology to aid children’s charities in Lebanon:

Blake Morrison STOP.001

So let me turn to three recent investigations of civilian casualties caused by US air strikes.  In each case it’s difficult to say as much as one ought to be able to say: in the first two cases (in Iraq and Syria) the reports have been heavily redacted, and in the third case (the attack on MSF’s hospital in Kunduz) all we have so far is an extended summary (though Kate Clark, as always, does a brilliant forensic job in filleting it here).

In this post I’ll discuss the report of an investigation into an air strike by two A-10 (‘Warthog’) aircraft on an Islamic State checkpoint near Al Hatra in Iraq on 13 March 2015.  On 2 April CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar was forwarded the following e-mail:

e-mail translation Al Hatra CIVCAS

Officers at the CAOC completed an initial ‘Civilian Casualty [CIVCAS] Credibility Assessment’ and agreed that the details in the e-mail were consistent with the known air strike.  On 20 April an investigation was established ‘to determine the veracity of the CIVCAS claim’ and, in the event that it was upheld, to review the targeting process ‘to determine if any errors occurred.’  Between 22 April and 1 June the investigating officer interviewed the military personnel involved in the air strike and reviewed intelligence reports and imagery of the target area.  This included an examination of the weapons system video (WSV) conducted by an ISR imagery analyst, and a transcript of the associated audio: neither has been released to the public, but you can get a sense of what A-10 imagery can (and cannot) show in this compilation video from Iraq here.

al Hatra map JPEG

Al Hatra is the site of the ancient fortified city of al Hadr, 2km northwest of the modern settlement (see map above), established under the Seleucids, and after its capture by the Parthians it became one of the major cities of the post-Alexandrian world.   Since October, intelligence reports had identified the ruins as an Islamic State training camp, and in March IS announced its intention to level the site and purge it of the ‘symbols of idolatry‘. (In April it released a video showing just that: see the images below, and more here).

IS video of al Hatra

IS Video of destruction at al Hatra

The initial target for the air strike on 13 March was an IS checkpoint and ‘enemy personnel’ who were stopping traffic.  They had been seen by an A-10 aircraft en route for refuelling – A10s fly sorties lasting between five and nine hours, and can require two or three inflight refuellings – and the information had been passed to the Dynamic Targeting Cell responsible for drawing up a detailed target folder or target package (a ‘Joint Targeting Message’) for all emergent targets: in effect, targets of opportunity.

Targeting and Targets (JP 3-60) 2013

It must have seemed routine to those on duty in the CAOC (shown below): there had been multiple strikes in the vicinity for several months.  The Dynamic Targeting Cell cleared the operation via the Battle Director at Al Udeid with the CAOC director who acted as the ‘Target Engagement Authority’ to sanction the strike, with ultimate responsibility for all lethal strikes against Islamic State in Syria and designated areas of western Iraq.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC), Al Udeid Air Base, 2015

While this was happening, the same aircraft reported that two vehicles had pulled into the side of the road next to the checkpoint (and within ‘the target area outline’: notice how rapidly individuals disappear from view, contained first within objects and then the objects within an area).

The occupants began to interact with the people manning the checkpoint – the pilot said the two vehicles ‘appeared to be a part of the checkpoint’ but he also made it clear that this was only an ‘opinion’ and that responsibility for the positive identification of the vehicles and passengers as a legitimate target had to rest with superior officers – and the Dynamic Targeting Cell agreed to ‘seek additional authority’.  After a short time he radioed back with permission for them to be included as part of the original Joint Targeting Message: ‘You’re cleared to execute Joint Targeting Message [Reference Number] including vehicles and all associated PAX [people/passengers] with PID [Positive Identification].’  The investigating officer evidently thought this perfectly reasonable, agreeing that ‘these vehicles did not display characteristics typical of transient vehicles at checkpoints’; rather than passing through (as seven other vehicles did), they stopped and ‘appeared to be functionally and geospatially tied to the … checkpoint and personnel authorized for strike.’

But this amendment to the original targeting package was never reported up the chain of command to the Target Engagement Authority who only validated the original Joint Targeting Message.  He was provided with imagery showing the intended target area, confirmed that it had ‘a single use purpose’, and so had no doubt that the checkpoint and its operators constituted ‘a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack’ and that it was a ‘legitimate military target’ in accordance with international humanitarian law – what the US military prefers to call ‘the law of armed conflict’ – and consistent with the military’s own rules of engagement.  The repetition of those qualifiers is vital: the US military defines Positive Identification [PID] as ‘the reasonable certainty that a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack is a legitimate military target’.

The Target Engagement Authority sought no advice from a Judge Advocate, the military lawyer on duty, about the propriety of striking the vehicles and passengers because they were not included in the original package.  He testified that ‘at no point was there any discussion of vehicles in association with this strike’: in fact, he explicitly instructed the aircrew ‘to clear for transients [passing vehicles] prior to weapons release.’

The deputy legal adviser to the Combat Operations Division in the CAOC explained that a Judge Advocate was involved in all Dynamic Targeting strikes.  The Dynamic Targeting Chief works with the Targets Duty Officer to establish positive identification of the target.  The Targets Duty Officer usually spends half of a 12-hour shift on the combat operations floor with the Chief and half with ISR analysts preparing target packages, and it is the responsibility of the Chief to write the ‘5Ws’ – who, what, where, when and why – necessary for any dynamic targeting strike.  As the two of them ‘work’ the target, the deputy legal adviser added, they ‘may bring [in] the legal adviser at various times’ throughout the process to provide advice derived from international humanitarian law, the rules of engagement and any special instructions (‘spins’).  The Judge Advocate also acts as ‘a second pair of eyes’ scrutinising the co-ordinates of the target and provides legal recommendations to the Target Engagement Authority.

It seems clear, even with the redactions, that in this case the Judge Advocate was not consulted about the (verbal) amendment to the initial targeting package because the procedure was amended as a direct consequence of the incident under investigation.  Instead of ‘returning to his or her desk’ once approval had been obtained from the Target Engagement Authority, the Judge Advocate is now required to observe ‘the passing of the Joint Targeting Message and [to] monitor the strike by remaining close to the Dynamic Targeting cell.’

There is also a wider responsibility: the deputy legal adviser made it clear that ‘anyone in the chain or the Dynamic Targeting cell has the responsibility to call an abort on the strike if the conditions change.’  In this case, clearly, they did – but nobody intervened.

The Dynamic Targeting Chief claims he telephoned the Battle Director for permission to extend the original Joint Targeting Message, but the exchange took just 80 seconds.  One witness – who may well have been the Battle Director: it’s impossible to know for sure – thought this highly unlikely: 80 seconds would have been ‘very, very quick for [him] to take a call, gather the information, relay it to the Targeting Engagement Authority, get approval, and then relay it back down to [the Dynamic Targeting Cell].’  And the CAOC director was adamant: ‘even if the aviators could identify the vehicles as hostile … there was still no authority to strike without requesting authorization for a Joint Targeting Message change‘ from him.


The A-10’s sensor remained ‘padlocked on these vehicles’ and when the pilot was finally cleared to engage he naturally assumed that the Target Engagement Authority had been satisfied by their inclusion in the target package.  Six seconds before they were hit, four people got out; the ISR analyst reviewing the post-strike video concluded that one of them was possibly a child.  But the investigating officer emphasised that they were only visible on the weapons system video and only after being played back at slow speed: ‘There is no reasonable expectation that [the pilot] could have seen, assessed and called for ABORT on the strike through real-time viewing of his targeting pod display inflight.’  The A-10 has a targeting pod under one wing which, as Andrew Cockburn reports, ‘ in daylight transmits video images of the ground below, and infrared images at night. This video feed is displayed on the plane’s instrument panel.’  As the pilot approached the target and entered his ‘weapons engagement envelope’ – again, note the geometric disposition – the investigating officer accepts that neither could he have ‘been able to discriminate between combatant and non-combatant personnel’.

The vehicles were attacked with the A-10’s 30mm rotary cannon – ‘a good weapon for reducing collateral damage’, according to one pilot (see the image below!) – and soon after a second A-10 dropped a single GBU-38 bomb and destroyed the guard shack; this is a conventional 500 lb bomb converted into a ‘guided bomb’, a ‘precision munition’, through the incorporation of a GPS/inertial navigation system so that it can attain a circular error probable of between 10 and 30 metres (which means that, assuming a bivariate normal distribution and all other things being equal, then 50% of the time it will land within that radius: which also means that the other half of the time it won’t, even under ideal experimental conditions).


Here is how that same pilot (who was not, so far as I know, flying this mission) characterised these operations against IS to Tom Philpott in April:

A-10 pilots are trained to find a target, seek verification and do on-the-fly targeting and strike. While that sounds like a solo operation, Stohler says “the coalition flying up there is enormous and we work as a team.”

Almost all targets get vetted up to higher command to determine validity. “As you can imagine this is complex,” Stohler says… The most challenging moment “is the weapon employment phase of the flight,” says Stohler. “Our number one focus is to deliver the ordnance on target, on the first pass, while minimizing collateral damage. This takes a great deal of skill that our pilots train to daily back home.”

“I tell our guys this is like trying to drop bombs on bad guys in your hometown. Your goal is not to hurt anyone else, or destroy anything that you don’t have to destroy. It’s a constant challenge to do that and we do it very well.”

But while collateral damage is key it might not be “a showstopper,” says Stohler. “Clearly if the target we need to hit is significant we will employ on it wherever it is – if we have the approval.”

In this case it took under an hour from first observing the checkpoint to striking the target; only eight minutes elapsed between the confirmation of the Joint Targeting Message and the execution of the strike; and it took just three or four seconds ‘from trigger squeeze to impact’.  According to the e-mail, at least two women and three children were killed.  The military decided not to award the writer of that message any compensation for the destruction of her vehicle and no solatia payments will be made to the families of the deceased since no survivors have come forward to ask for them.

CENTCOM’s press release summarising the investigation is a model of complacency and fails to include any of the qualifications and mis-steps I’ve noted in the previous paragraphs:

Based on the actions being observed, aircrew and CAOC personnel assessed that the checkpoint, additional vehicles, and additional personnel were lawful targets consistent with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) at the time the weapon was released on the target area.

The investigation concluded that the airstrikes resulted in the destruction of the intended target, and that the two vehicles parked at the checkpoint were also hit. Upon further review, it was determined that all ordnance functioned properly and accurately struck the intended target.

The investigation concluded that the airstrikes were conducted in accordance with applicable military authorizations, targeting guidance, and LOAC. The target engaged was a valid military target, and the LOAC principles of military necessity, proportionality, and distinction were observed. All reasonable measures were taken to avoid unintended deaths of or injuries to non-combatants by reviewing the targets thoroughly prior to engagement, relying on accurate assessments of the targets, and engaging the targets when the risk to non-combatants was thought to be minimized.

Micah Zenko has an analysis of this strike here, and he adds these chilling paragraphs:

To intensify the U.S.-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State … the Pentagon is considering further loosening the rules of engagement (ROEs) that are intended to minimize civilian casualties and expanding the target sets that can be bombed…

The first problem with this theory is that large militant armies are not defeated, either exclusively or primarily, with air power. Military and civilian policymakers repeat the mantra that “you can’t kill your way out” of the problem posed by such adversaries, but then continue to call upon air power to do just that. This is despite the fact that all of the militant armies and terrorist groups that have been bombed and droned for the past 14 years have survived. None have been completely destroyed, which is allegedly the strategic objective against the Islamic State. Moreover, the size of the al Qaeda-affiliated groups that the United States claims to be at war with have either stayed flat or grown, while the total number of State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations has grown from 34 in 2002 to 59 in 2015.

However, the larger concern with this mindset is the assured growth of collateral damage and civilian casualties that will accompany significantly loosened ROEs. Last month, Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, the U.S. Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, observed that the coalition was “challenged in finding enough targets that the airplanes can hit that meet the rules of engagement.” However, he added an important caveat: “If you inadvertently — legally — kill innocent men, women, and children, then there’s a backlash from that. And so we might kill three and create 10 terrorists.”

And yet, as Micah emphasizes, there have been only two military investigations into civilian casualties throughout the air campaign against IS:

8,300 airstrikes, 16,000 Islamic State targets destroyed, more than 20,000 Islamic State fighters killed — and only two claims of collateral damage. Either the U.S.-led coalition is really, really, really good at bombing these days, or they are shooting first and not asking questions later.

More in the same vein from Joseph Trevithick at War is Boring here.  You can access the US Air Force’s own (secret) tabulation of CIVCAS allegations here, which lists 45 separate incidents, far in excess of the two that have been officially acknowledged to date.  Joseph notes that most of them were dismissed within 48 hours as ‘not credible’ because there was ‘insufficient evidence’ or ‘insufficient information.’  Al Hatra was number 44:

CIVCAS allegation 44 al Hatra

The  Airwars team has provisionally estimated that from 8 August 2014 to 24 November 2015 ‘between 682 and 977 civilian non-combatants are likely to have been killed in 113 incidents where there is fair reporting publicly available of an event, and where Coalition strikes were confirmed in the near vicinity on that date.’  I’ve pasted their map of total claimed civilian casualties in Iraq (to 30 June 2015) below; you can find their full report, Cause for Concern, here.

Civilian casualties claimed Iraq 8 August 2014-30 June 2015

To be continued.  Sadly.

Angry Eyes (2)

MAP isaf-rc-south

This is the second installment of my analysis of an air strike orchestrated by a Predator in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010; the first installment is here.

(4) Command and control?

What was happening in and around Khod was being followed not only by flight crews and image analysts in the continental United States but also by several Special Forces command posts or Operations Centers in Afghanistan.  In ascending order these were:

(1) the base from which ODA 3124 had set out at Firebase Tinsley (formerly known as Cobra);

(2) Special Operations Task Force-12 (SOTF-12), based at Kandahar;

(3) Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) based at Bagram.

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.064

Once the ODA 3124 left the wire, command and support passed to SOTF-12; the OD-B at Tinsley had limited resources and limited (and as it happens intermittent) communications access and could only monitor what was happening.

That was normal, but in fact both higher commands did more or less the same: and the investigating team was clearly appalled.  At SOTF-12 all senior (field grade) officers were asleep during the period of ‘highest density of risk and threatening kinetic activity’ (although they had established ‘wake-up criteria’ for emergency situations).  The Night Battle Captain had been in post for just three weeks and had been given little training in his role; he received a stream of SALT reports from the Ground Force Commander of ODA 3124 (which detailed Size of enemy force, Activity of enemy force, Location and Time of observation) but simply monitored the developing situation – what one investigating officer characterised as ‘a pretty passive kind of watching’.

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.065

The same was true at CJSOTF-A (the staff there monitored 15-25 missions a day, but this was the only active operation that had declared a potential Troops in Contact).

When the more experienced Day Battle Captain entered the Joint Operations Center at Kandahar and was briefed by the Night Battle Captain he was sufficiently concerned to send a runner to ask the Judge Advocate, a military lawyer, to come to the JOC.  He believed the occupants of the vehicles were hostile but was not convinced that they posed an immediate threat to troops on the ground:  ‘I wanted to hear someone who was extremely smart with the tactical directive and use of CAS [Close Air Support] in a situation I hadn’t seen before’.

This was a smart call for many reasons; the commander of US Special Forces, Brigadier General Edward Reeder, told the inquiry: ‘Honestly I don’t take a shit without one [a JAG], especially in this business’.  Significantly, the Safety Observer at Creech testified that there was no ‘operational law attorney’ available onsite for aircrews conducting remote operations; conversely, JAGs were on the operations floor of CENTCOM’s Combined Air and Space Operations Centre at Ul Udeid Air Base and, as this case shows, they were available at operations centers established by subordinate commands in-theatre.

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GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.074

The JAG at Kandahar was not routinely called in for ‘Troops in Contact’ but on this occasion he was told ‘my Legal Opinion [was] needed at the OPCENT and that it wasn’t imminent but they wanted me to rush over there right away…’

Meanwhile up at Bagram Colonel Gus Benton, the commanding officer of CJSOTF-A, was being briefed by his second-in-command who understood that the Ground Force Commander’s intention was to allow the three vehicles to move closer to his position at Khod.  He thought that made sound tactical sense.

‘I said that … is what we did, we let them come to us so we can get eyes on them. During my time I never let my guys engage with CAS if they couldn’t see it. I said that is great and COL [Benton] said “that is not fucking great” and left the room.’

At 0820, ten minutes after the JAG entered the JOC at Kandahar, while he was watching the Predator feed, the phone rang: it was Benton.  He demanded Lt Colonel Brian Petit, the SOTF-12 commander, be woken up and brought to the phone:

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.076

He spectacularly mis-read the situation (not least because he mis-read the Predator feed).  It was true that the vehicles were in open country, and not near any compounds or villages; but Benton consistently claimed that the vehicles were ‘travelling towards our objective’ whereas – as MG McHale’s investigating team pointed out to him – they were in fact moving away from Khod.

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.077

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.078

There had also been some, inconclusive discussion of a possible ‘High Value Target’ when the vehicles were first tracked, but the presence of a pre-approved target on the Joint Prioritised Effects List (Benton’s ‘JPEL moving along this road’) had never been confirmed and the Ground Force Commander had effectively discarded it (‘above my authority’, he said).

Certainly, the JAG at Kandahar read the situation differently:

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.075

When Benton rang off, the JAG went over to the Day Battle Captain and Lt Col Petit and recommended an Aerial Vehicle Interdiction (AVI) team be called in for a show of force to stop the vehicles without engaging the occupants in offensive action.

They agreed; in fact another Task Force also watching the Predator feed called to make the same suggestion, and the Fires Officer set about arranging to use their Apache helicopters to conduct an AVI:

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.079

The Fires Officer had been responsible for setting up the Restricted Operating Zone for aircraft supporting the ODA – de-conflicting the airspace and establishing what aircraft would be available – but its management was de-centralised:

‘I establish the ROZ, give the initial layout of what assets are going on, and then I pass that to the JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the Ground Force Commander at Khod].  I pass the frequencies to the assets and the JTAC controls them from there.’

At 0630, long before all this frantic activity at Kandahar, the two OH-58s had arrived at a short hold location beyond the ‘range of enemy visual and audio detection’, and at 0730 they had left to refuel at Tarin Kowt.  The Day Battle Captain and the Fires Officer both thought they were still off station.  In fact, the helicopters had returned to hold at Tinsley/Cobra at 0810 and flat pitched to conserve fuel (which means they landed and left the rotor blades spinning but with no lift); thirty minutes later the JTAC called them forward and the Predator began to talk them on to the target.

The Day Battle Captain had another reason for thinking he and his colleagues in the JOC had more time.  He maintained that the helicopters had been brought in not to engage the three vehicles but to provide air support if and when the ‘convoy’ reached Khod and the precautionary ‘AirTic’ turned into a real TIC or Troops in Contact:

‘… the CAS brought on station for his [the Ground Force Commander’s] use was not for the vehicles but for what we thought was going to be a large TIC on the objective. The weapons team that was pushed forward to his location was not for the vehicles, it was for the possibility of a large TIC on the objective based on the ICOM chatter that we had.’

That chimes with Benton’s second-in-command at Bagram, who also thought the Ground Force Commander was waiting for the ‘convoy’ to reach Khod, but neither witness explained the basis for their belief.  It was presumably a string of transmissions from the JTAC to the Predator crew: at 0538 he told them the Ground Force Commander wanted to ‘keep tracking them and bring them in as close as we can until we have CCA up’ (referring to the Close Combat Attack helicopters, the OH-58s); shortly before 0630 he confirmed that the Ground Force Commander’s intent was to ‘permit the enemy to close, and we’ll engage them closer when they’re all consolidated’; and at 0818 he was still talking about allowing the vehicles to ‘close distance.’

Yet this does not account for the evident urgency with which the Day Battle Captain and the JAG were concerned to establish ‘hostile intent’ and ‘immediate threat’.  When the vehicles were first spotted they were 5 km from Khod, and when they were attacked they were 12 km away across broken and difficult terrain: so what was the rush if the Ground Force Commander was continuing to exercise what the Army calls ‘tactical patience’ and wait for the vehicles to reach him and his force?

In fact, the messages from the Ground Force Commander had been mixed; throughout the night the JTAC had also repeatedly made it clear that the ODA commander’s intent was ‘to destroy the vehicles and the personnel’.  The Ground Force Commander insisted that ‘sometime between 0820 and 0830’ he sent a SALT report to SOTF-12 to say that he was going to engage the target.  Unfortunately there is no way to confirm this, because SOTF’s text records of the verbal SALT reports stopped at 0630 for reasons that were never disclosed (or perhaps never pursued), but it would explain why the JTAC’s log apparently showed the JAG contacting him at 0829 to confirm there were no women and children on the target.  It would also account for testimony by one of the screeners, who realised that the helicopters were cleared to engage at 0835, ten minutes before the strike, when the NCO responsible for monitoring the Predator feed at SOTF-12 ‘dropped’ into the ‘ISR’ (I presume the relevant chat room window), and in response:

‘The MC [Mission Intelligence Co-ordinator at Creech] passed that the OH58 were cleared to engage the vehicles. We were all caught off guard… It seemed strange because we had called out that these vehicles were going west. I don’t know how they determined these vehicles to be hostile… I brought up a whisper [private chat] with the MC, I said are you sure, what are the time frames when they will be coming in, and the MC responded saying we don’t know their ETA and at that moment the first vehicle blew up…’

Should those watching the events unfold have been taken aback when the vehicles were attacked?  According to the pilot of the Predator, he and his crew were surprised at the rapid escalation of events:

‘The strike ultimately came a little quicker than we expected…. we believed we were going to continue to follow, continue to pass up feeds… When he decided to engage with the helos when they did, it happened very quickly from our standpoint. I don’t have a lot of info or situational awareness of why the JTAC decided to use them when they did. When they actually came up … the JTAC switched me on frequencies. So we weren’t talking on the frequency I was talking to him on a different frequency to coordinate with the helos.

But their surprise was as nothing compared to the reaction of most observers when the first vehicle exploded.  The officer in charge of the screeners and imagery analysts who had been scrutinising the Predator feed at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida couldn’t believe it:

GREGORY Angry Eyes 2015 IMAGES.088

The Day Battle Captain testified:

‘I did not feel that the ground force commander would use any kind of close air support whatsoever to engage those vehicles… Based on the information that I had and looking at the vehicles move away it did not appear that they were moving towards the ground forces…

… as we were watching the Predator feed the first vehicles exploded. And everyone in the OPSCEN was immediately shocked… The amount of time from when that course of action approved by the SOTF commander to when we actually saw the strike occur there was no time, there was not adequate time to inform the ground commander that that was the course of action decided by the CJSOTF commander… I have phones ringing left and right, talking to people, trying to explain things, you know we look up on the screen and it happened…’

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The Fires Officer:

‘I don’t think at any time anyone communicated to the GFC [Ground Force Commander] not to strike these vehicles because it is not something that we normally do. We feel that if he is in contact with the Predator and the OH-58s that we sent out to screen which we were not aware of and he is on the ground he generally has a pretty good picture of what is going on. He might be more privy to some conversation that he had with the OH-58 than what we know about. We normally give the GFC pretty big leeway on how they operate and the same with the JTAC because he has control of the assets and I am not going to try to take his assets away.’

In short, the investigation concluded that the Ground Force Commander never knew that an Aerial Vehicle Interdiction was being arranged, and neither of his higher commands were aware that he had cleared the helicopters to attack the three vehicles.

But, as I will show next, what lay behind these failures of communication was a de-centralised, distributed and dispersed geography of militarised vision whose fields of view expanded, contracted and even closed at different locations engaged in the administration of military violence.  Far from being a concerted performance of Donna Haraway‘s ‘God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere – this version of networked war was one in which nobody had a clear and full view of what was happening.

Part of this can be attributed to technical issues – the different fields of view available on different platforms, the low resolution of infra-red imagery (which Andrew Cockburn claims registers a visual acuity of 20/200, ‘the legal definition of blindness in the United States’), transmission interruptions, and the compression of full-colour imagery to accommodate bandwidth pressure.  So for example:

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But it is also a matter of different interpretive fields.  Peter Asaro cautions:

‘The fact that the members of this team all have access to high-resolution imagery of the same situation does not mean that they all ‘‘see’’ the same thing. The visual content and interpretation of the visual scene is the product of analysis and negotiation among the team, as well as the context given by the situational awareness, which is itself constructed.’

The point is a sharp one: different visualities jostle and collide, and in the transactions between the observers the possibility of any synoptic ‘God-trick’ disappears.  But it needs to be sharpened, because different people have differential access to the distributed stream of visual feeds, mIRC and radio communications.  Here the disposition of bodies combines with the techno-cultural capacity to make sense of what was happening to fracture any ‘common operating picture’.   As one officer at Kandahar put it:

‘We didn’t have eyes on, minus ISR platform, that we can all see, who watches what? All the discrepancies between who watches what. What I see may be different from what someone else might interpret on the ISR… ISR is not reliable; it is simply a video platform.’

He was talking specifically about the multiple lines of communication (and hence bases for interpretation) within his Operations Center: now multiply that across sites scattered across Afghanistan and the continental United States and it becomes clear that the contemporary ‘fog of war’ may be as much the result of too much information as too little.

To be continued.

Angry Eyes (1)

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I promised to post the notes for my presentation of ‘Angry Eyes: the God-Trick and the geography of militarised vision‘, and this is the first instalment (illuminated by some of the slides from the presentation). This isn’t the final, long-form version – and I would welcome comments and suggestions on these notes – but I hope it will provide something of a guide to where I’m coming from and where I’m going.

In many ways, this is a companion to ‘Dirty Dancing: drones and death in the borderlands’ (I’ll post the full text version of that shortly; until then see here, here and here), but that essay examines aerial violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, tracing the long history of air strikes in the region, from Britain’s colonial ‘air policing’ of its North West Frontier through the repeated incursions by Afghan and Soviet aircraft during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (which are missing from most critical accounts) to today’s drone strikes directed by the CIA and air raids conducted by the Pakistan Air Force. ‘Angry Eyes’ focuses instead on a series of US air strikes inside Afghanistan.

(1) Eyes in the Sky

The history of aerial reconnaissance reveals an enduring intimacy between air operations and ground operations. Balloons and aircraft were essential adjuncts to army (and especially artillery) operations; before the First World War most commentator insisted that the primary use of military aircraft would be to act as spotters for artillery, enabling the guns to range on distant targets, and that bombing would never assume a major offensive role. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Orville Wright was among the sceptics: ‘I have never considered bomb-dropping as the most important function of the airplane,’ he told the New York Times in July 1917, ‘and I have no reason to change this opinion now that we have entered the war.’  For him – though he did not altogether discount the importance of striking particular targets, like the Krupp works at Essen – the key role of the aeroplane was reconnaissance (‘scouting’) for ground forces, including artillery: ‘About all that has been accomplished by either side from bomb dropping has been to kill a few non-combatants, and that will have no bearing on the result of the war.’  That was, of course, a short-sighted view – even in the First World War aircraft carried out strikes against targets on and far beyond the battlefield – but the sharper point is that the importance of aerial reconnaissance depended on a version of what today would be called networked war (albeit a desperately imperfect one) (see my ‘Gabriel’s Map [DOWNLOADS tab]; for the pre-war history of bombing, see here; for the bombing of Paris in the First World War see here). 

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Over the next 50 years the technologies of vision changed dramatically: from direct to indirect observation, from delayed to real-time reporting, and from still to full motion imagery.

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And the ligatures between seeing (or sensing) and shooting steadily contracted until these functions were combined in a single platform – notably (but not exclusively) the Predator and the Reaper.  Even then, wiring aerial operations to ground manoeuvres often (even usually) remains central:

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Remarks like these speak directly to Donna Haraway’s cautionary critique of the ‘God-Trick’: the claim to see everything from nowhere, or at least from a privileged ‘vanishing point’. This has been made explicit by Lauren Wilcox in Bodies of Violence:

… the satellite systems and the drone’s video cameras mean that the bomber’s eye view is the God’s eye view of objectivity… this myth is put into practice in the apparatus of precision bombing, in which the view from above becomes the absolute truth, the view from nowhere.

And – Haraway’s point, which has been sharpened by Wilcox – is that this view from nowhere is, in some substantial sense, a view from no-body (and even of no-body). Here is Owen Sheers in his novel I saw a man:

“A U.S. drone strike.” That was all the press release said. No mention of Creech, screeners, Intel coordinator, an operator, a pilot. It was as if the Predator had been genuinely unmanned. As if there had been no hand behind its flight, no eye behind its cameras.

wilcox-bodies-of-violenceThe appeal to the divine is thus more than a rhetorical device. One Predator pilot admitted that ‘Sometimes I felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar.’ As Wilcox notes, then,

‘Precision bombing reproduces the illusion of a disembodied subject with not only a privileged view of the world, but the power to destroy all that it sees…. The posthuman bodies of precision bombers, relying on God’s eye, or panoptical, views are produced as masterful, yet benign, subjects, using superior technology to spare civilians from riskier forms of aerial bombardment.’

And yet there have been seemingly endless civilian casualties…

(2) Killing and casualties in Afghanistan

Throughout the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, air strikes have been the overwhelming cause of civilian deaths caused by coalition forces:

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As Jason Lyall‘s marvellous work shows (below), air strikes have been concentrated in the south.  I should note that the title of his map refers explicitly to ISAF air operations – I’m not sure if this includes those conducted under the aegis of Operation Enduring Freedom, a separate US-UK-Agfghan operation, although a primary source of his data is USAF Central Command’s Airpower Statistics.  It makes a difference, for reasons I’ll explain later; the strike that is my primary focus took place in the south (in Uruzgan) but was in support of a Special Forces operation conducted under OEF.

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In any event, most of those strikes have been carried out from conventional platforms – strike aircraft or attack helicopters – not drones (though notice how the data on weapons released from Predators and Reapers was rapidly removed from the regular Airpower Statistics issued by US Central Command):

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This relates to a specific period, and one might expect drone strikes to become even more important as the numbers of US ground troops in Afghanistan fall.  Even so:

  • in many, perhaps most of those cases drones have provided vital intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities: in effect, they may well have orchestrated the attacks even if they did not execute them;
  • according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism [‘Tracking drone strikes in Afghanistan‘], ‘Afghanistan is the most drone bombed country in the world… Research by the Bureau… has found more than 1,000 drone attacks hit the country from the start of 2008 to the end of October 2012. In the same period, the Bureau has recorded 482 US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya’; and
  • where drones have also carried out the attacks, Larry Lewis’s analysis of classified SIGACT data shows that ‘unmanned platforms [are] ten times more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned platforms’ (see also here)

There have been two main forms of air strike in Afghanistan.  First, the US military carries out so-called ‘targeted killing’ there as well as elsewhere in the world; it has its own Joint Prioritized Effects List of people deemed to be legitimate military targets (see here and here), and the supposed capacity of its drones and their crews to put ‘warheads on foreheads’ means that they are often involved in these remote executions.

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Even so, these operations have certainly caused the deaths of innocent civilians (see, notably, Kate Clark‘s forensic report on the Takhar attack in September 2010: more here).

Second, the US Air Force also provides close air support to ground troops – and civilian casualties are even more likely to result from these  situations, known as ‘Troops in Contact’.

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HRW Troops in Contact and CIVCAS

As Marc Garlasco noted when he was working for Human Rights Watch:

“When they have the time to plan things out and use all the collateral damage mitigation techniques and all the tools in their toolbox, they’ve gotten to the point where it is very rare for civilians to be harmed or killed in these attacks.  When they have to do it on the fly and they are not able to use all these techniques, then civilians die.”

That said, it is simply wrong to claim that the US military is indifferent to civilian casualties.   There have been several major studies of civilian casualties (see also here and here).

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In addition, the juridification of later modern war means that military lawyers (JAGs) are closely involved in operational decisions (though the laws of war provide at best a limited shield for civilians and certainly do not outlaw their deaths); Rules of Engagement and Tactical Directives are issued and modified; and investigations into ‘civilian casualty incidents’ (CIVCAS) are established at the commander’s discretion.  Of most relevance to my own argument is General Stanley McChrystal‘s Tactical Directive issued on 6 July 2009.

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This was not window-dressing.  Here is Michael Hastings in his by now infamous profile of McChrystal in Rolling Stone (8 July 2010):

McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

Indeed, McChrystal’s actions were fiercely criticised: see Charles Dunlap here (more here).

(3) Predator View

And so I turn to one of the most extensively documented CIVCAS incidents in Afghanistan: an attack on three vehicles near the village of Shahidi Hassas in Uruzgan province in February 2010, which killed at least 15-16 civilians and injured another 12.  This has become the ‘signature strike’ for most critical commentaries on drone operations:

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In the early morning of 21 February 2010 a US Special Forces team of 12 soldiers (these are always described as Operational Detachment Alpha: in this case ODA 3124) supported by 30 Afghan National Police officers and 30 Afghan National Army troops flew in on three Chinook helicopters to two locations near the village of Khod.  This is an arid, mountainous region but Khod lies in a river valley where an extensive irrigation system has been constructed to create a ‘green zone’:

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On a scale from 0 to 2, this was a ‘level 1 CONOPS’, which means that it was judged to pose a ‘medium risk’ to the troops with ‘some potential for political repercussions’.  These are usually daylight cordon and search operations with air support.  In this case the mission was to search the compounds in and around the village for a suspected IED factory and to disrupt ‘insurgent infrastructure’.

The Taliban clearly knew they were coming.  While the troops waited for dawn the scanners on their MBITR radios picked up chatter urging the mujaheddin to gather for an attack, and they passed the frequency to an AC-130 gunship which was providing air support; through their night vision goggles the troops could see figures ducking into the cover provided by the irrigation ditches; and communications intercepted by other support aircraft, including a manned electronic signals intelligence platform referred to only by its call sign ‘Arrow 30’, confirmed a strong Taliban presence.

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There were reports of vehicles moving towards the village from the south, and then headlights were detected five kilometres to the north.  The AC-130 moved north to investigate.  It had an extensive sensor suite on board but its resolution was insufficient for the crew to detect whether the occupants of the vehicles were armed [PID or ‘positive identification’ of a legitimate military target], and so they co-ordinated their surveillance with a Predator that had taken off from Kandahar Air Field and was controlled by a crew (call-sign KIRK 97) at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.  In addition to its Multi-Spectral Targeting System, the Predator was equipped with an ‘Air Handler’ that intercepted and geo-located wireless communications; this raw signals intelligence was handled by an ‘exploitation cell’ (almost certainly operated by a National Security Agency unit at Kandahar) who entered their findings into one of the chat-rooms monitored by the Predator and other operations centres that were involved in the mission.

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When the AC-130 started to run low on fuel, the Predator took over ISR for the duration of the mission.  The JTAC could not see the trucks from his position on the ground, and neither did he have access to the full-motion video feed from the Predator – the ODA was not equipped with a ruggedised laptop or ROVER [Remote Operational Video Enhanced Receiver] that should have been standard equipment (‘There’s one per base, and if it goes down you’re out of luck’) – and so he had to rely entirely on radio communications with the flight crew.

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Throughout the night and into the morning the crew of the Predator interpreted more or less everything they saw on their screens as indicative of hostile intent: the trucks were a ‘convoy’ (at one stage they were referred to as ‘technical trucks’); the occupants were ‘Military Aged Males’ (’12-13 years old with a weapon is just as dangerous’); when they stopped to pray at dawn this was seen as a Taliban signifier (‘I mean, seriously, that’s what they do’); and when the trucks swung west, away from the direct route to Khod, this was interpreted as ‘tactical manoeuvring’ or ‘flanking’.

Eventually the ground force commander with ODA 3124 became convinced of hostile intent, and anticipated an imminent ‘Troops in Contact’.  This in turn prompted the declaration of a precautionary ‘AirTIC’ to bring strike aircraft on station since the Predator only had one Hellfire missile onboard.  The ground force commander was annoyed when fighter aircraft arrived (call-sign DUDE 01) – ‘I have fast movers over my station, my desire is to have rotary-wing aircraft’ – because he believed the engine noise would warn the target.  In fact, the JTAC who had access to intercepts of Taliban radio communication confirmed that ‘as soon as he showed up everyone started talking about stopping movement’;  coincidentally, as it happened, the vehicles immediately swung west, heading away from Khod.

Two US Army Kiowa combat helicopters (OH-58s, call-sign BAM-BAM) were now briefed for the attack.

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Their situation map (below) confirmed this as a landscape of ever-present threat, and this imaginative geography was instrumental in the reading of the situation and the activation of the strike:

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Meanwhile, the Predator’s sensor operator was juggling the image stream, switching from infrared to ‘Day TV’ and trying to sharpen the focus:

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The helicopters had their own sensor system – a Mast Mounted Sight (MMS) – but its resolution was low (see below); they were also reluctant to come in low in case this warned the target:

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In any case, there were severe limitations to what the pilots could see:

So, for all these reasons, they were reliant on what the Predator crew was telling them (they too had no access to the FMV feed from the Predator).  They lined up for the shot, and the Predator crew keenly anticipated being able to ‘play clean up’. ‘As long as you keep somebody that we can shoot in the field of view,’ the Predator pilot told his Sensor Operator, ‘I’m happy.’

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Throughout the mission the Predator crew had been communicating not only by radio but also through mIRC (internet relay chat); multiple windows were open during every mission, but KILLCHAIN was typed into the primary chat room to close down all ‘extraneous’ communications during the final run so that the crew could concentrate on executing the strike.

The ground commander through the JTAC cleared the helicopters to engage: ‘Type Three’ on the slide above refers to a control situation in which the JTAC can see neither the target nor the strike aircraft and wishes to authorise multiple attacks within a single engagement.  According to the US Air Force’s protocols for terminal control:

Type 3 control does not require the JTAC to visually acquire the aircraft or the target; however, all targeting data must be coordinated through the supported commander’s battle staff (JP 3-09.3). During Type 3 control, JTACs provide attacking aircraft targeting restrictions (e.g., time, geographic boundaries, final attack heading, specific target set, etc.) and then grant a “blanket” weapons release clearance to meet the prescribed restrictions. The JTAC will monitor radio transmissions and other available digital information to maintain control of the engagement.

Hellfire missiles from the helicopters ripped into the trucks, and when the smoke cleared those watching – from the helicopters and on screens at multiple locations in Afghanistan and the continental United States – began to suspect that women and children were clearly in the field of view.  A team from ODA 3124 was helicoptered in to co-ordinate the evacuation of casualties and to conduct a ‘sensitive site exploration’.

It turned out that the occupants of the vehicles were all Hazaras who were vehemently anti-Taliban (4,000 Hazara had been massacred by the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998); they were going to Kandahar for a variety of reasons – shopkeepers going for supplies, a mechanic going to buy spare parts, students returning to school, patients seeking medical treatment, others simply looking for work – and they were travelling together (‘in convoy’) for safety through what they knew was Taliban territory. When civilian casualties were eventually confirmed – which is a story in itself – General McChrystal set up an Informal Investigation.

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Most commentators (including me in “From a view to a kill”: DOWNLOADS tab) have endorsed the central conclusion reached by the Army investigation:

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But this was not the conclusion reached by the USAF Commander’s Directed Investigation into the actions of the Predator crew (which McChrystal ordered when he received McHale’s report).  Major-General Robert Otto conceded that ‘the Predator crew’s faulty communications clouded the picture on adolescents and allowed them to be transformed into military-aged males’, but he insisted that their actions were otherwise entirely professional:

‘Upon INFIL and throughout the operation, extensive Intercepted Communications (ICOM) chatter correlated with FMV and observed ground movement appeared to indicate a group of over thirty individuals were an insurgent convoy…. Kirk 97 did not display an inappropriate bias to go kinetic beyond the desire to “support the ground commander”. The crew was alert and ready to execute a kinetic operation but there was no resemblance to a “Top Gun” mentality.’

The reference was to a statement made to McHale’s team by a captain at Creech:

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Be that as it may, the last clause– the desire ‘to help out and be part of this’ – is, I think, substantial.  As I argued in “From a view to a kill”, most Predator and Reaper crews insist that they are not thousands of miles from the battlefield but just eighteen inches away: the distance from eye to screen.  There is something profoundly immersive about the combination of full-motion video and live radio communication; perhaps the crews who operate these remote missions over-compensate for the physical distance to the troops on the ground by immersing themselves in a virtual distance that pre-disposes them to interpret so much that appears on their screens as hostile and threatening.

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So far, so familiar.  But two qualifications impose themselves.

First, virtually all the published accounts that I have read – and the one that I have published – draw on a detailed report by David S. Cloud, ‘Anatomy of an Afghan war tragedy‘, that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 10 April 2011, which was based on a transcript of radio communications between the Predator crew, the helicopter pilots and a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) who was relaying information to and from the ground force commander.  But according to Andrew Cockburn, McHale’s original investigation compiled a hand-drawn timeline of events that ran for 66 feet around the four walls of a hangar he had commandeered for his office; his investigation ran to over 2,000 pages of evidence and transcripts.  It’s a complicated, composite document: a record of transactions – of conversations, negotiations and interrogations inflected by the chain of command – made at different times, in different places and under different circumstances. Redactions make inference necessarily incomplete, and there are inevitably inconsistencies in the accounts offered by different witnesses. So I need to be cautious about producing a too coherent narrative – this is not the tightly integrated ‘network warfare’ described by Steve Niva in his excellent account of Joint Special Operations Command (‘Disappearing violence: JSOC and the Pentagon’s new cartography of networked warfare’, Security dialogue 44 (2013) 185-202).

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Still, when you work through those materials a radically different picture of the administration of military violence emerge.  In his important essay on ‘The necropolitics of drones’ (International Political Sociology 9 [2015] 113-127) Jamie Allinson uses McHale’s executive summary to demarcate the kill-chain involved in the incident:

The US military “kill chain” involved in the Uruzgan incident comprised ground troops, referred to in the text as “Operational Detachment Alpha” (ODA), the Predator Drone operators based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the “screeners” processing information from the Predator video feeds at Hurlburt Field Base in Florida, and helicopter gunships known as ‘OH-58D’ in the text. The helicopters fired the actual missiles: but this was on the basis of decision made by drone operators based on their interpretation of what the screeners said.

But – as I’ll show in the second instalment – the kill-chain was far more extensive and included two Special Forces operations centers at Kandahar and Bagram that were responsible for overseeing and supporting the mission of ODA-3124.

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The significance of this becomes clearer – my second qualification – if the air strike in Uruzgan is analysed not in isolation but in relation to other air strikes that also produced unintended casualties.  As a matter of fact, official military investigations are required to be independent; they are not allowed to refer to previous incidents and, indeed, JAGs who advise on targeting do not routinely invoke what we might think of as a sort of ‘case law’ either.  But if this air strike is read in relation to two others – an attack by two F-15E strike aircraft on a tanker hijacked by the Taliban near Kunduz on 4 September 2009, and an attack carried out by a Predator in the Sangin Valley on 6 April 2011 – then revealing parallels come into view.  All three were supposed to involve ‘Troops in Contact’; the visual feeds that framed each incident – and through which the targets were constituted as targets – were highly ambiguous and even misleading; and the role of the ground force commander and the operations centers that were supposed to provide support turns out to have been critical in all three cases.

To be continued.