The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. “They’re praying. They are praying,” said the Predator’s camera operator, seated near the pilot.
… “This is definitely it, this is their force,” the cameraman said. “Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do.”
“They’re gonna do something nefarious,” the crew’s intelligence coordinator chimed in.
The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles.
“Oh, sweet target,” he said.
At 5:30 a.m., when the convoy halted briefly, the drone’s camera focused on a man emerging from one of the vehicles. He appeared to be carrying something.
“What do these dudes got?” the camera operator said. “Yeah, I think that dude had a rifle.”
“I do, too,” the pilot replied.
But the ground forces unit said the commander needed more information from the drone crew and screeners to establish a “positive identification.”
“Sounds like they need more than a possible,” the camera operator told the pilot. Seeing the Afghan men jammed into the flat bed of the pickup, he added, “That truck would make a beautiful target.”
— Excerpt from an April 10, 2011, Los Angeles Times investigative article on a U.S. Predator drone strike in Afghanistan, on Feb. 21, 2010.
Shortly after these words were spoken, the unmanned U.S. drone unleashed massive violence on the convoy. The report said 23 Afghans were killed in this drone strike, two of whom were boys younger than 4 years old. None were insurgents. None had weapons. The Army agreed in its official report that it was a tragic mistake, has disciplined some members of the drone team, and has paid reparations to each dead Afghan’s family in the amount of $2,900.
The British Defense Ministry, which also runs unmanned drone missions in Afghanistan (which the British buy from the United States), recently leaked an internal report warning of the trend toward increased roboticization of warfare: “It is essential that before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) … we ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely …”
It seems clear that what the Brits worry about in private has already happened here in the United States. We have lost our soul and our conscience when it comes to the impact of our actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere we have engaged in aggressive military action since 9/11.
The Los Angeles Times article on the drone strike ends:
“Technology can occasionally give you a false sense of security that you can see everything, that you can hear everything, that you know everything,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, who oversaw the Air Force investigation. “I really do think we have learned from this.”
Subsequent history has shown this claim to be patently false. Drone strikes were stepped up after this tragedy and mistakes are reported every week or so about the latest drone strike that killed Afghan or Pakistani civilians. Here’s a brief list of some of the most significant tragedies since President Barack Obama came into office, including drone and nondrone strikes:
» U.S. bombers killed at least 26 Afghan civilians in Farah province in Afghanistan on May 4, 2009, the U.S. military acknowledged in its official investigation, but also acknowledged that the actual count may be much higher. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission found at least 86 civilians were killed by U.S. bombs and the U.S. report acknowledged the Afghan report as “balanced” and “thorough.”
» 39 civilians, most of whom were women and children, were killed by NATO forces on July 23, 2010, in Nangarhar province, according to Afghan officials. U.S. officials later admitted that civilians had been killed in the attacks, which included the bombing of a funeral procession — a macabre irony symbolic of the unjust violence directed against the Afghan and Pakistani people.
» 65 Afghan civilians, including 50 women and children, were killed by NATO forces on Feb. 21, 2011, according to Afghan officials as high as Hamid Karzai himself. NATO denies the claim (although Obama has apologized for the tragedy), but time and again denials of civilian deaths have been offered by U.S. and NATO officials only to be retracted later as evidence forces the truth to be acknowledged.
» U.S. helicopter rockets killed nine Afghan boys ages 7 to 13 years old as they gathered firewood on a hillside in Kunar province on March 1, 2011.
» U.S. drones killed 40 civilians in North Waziristan, Pakistan, on March 17, 2011. The head of Pakistan’s army insisted at the time that the United States stop its drone strikes in Pakistan. Pakistanis asserted that the 40 killed were tribal elders meeting to resolve a local mining dispute. U.S. officials insisted they were militants. The Pakistani government has frequently insisted that the United States stop all drone strikes in Pakistan as a breach of its sovereignty. U.S. officials claim that Pakistan privately consents to such strikes and protests publicly because of local Pakistani attitudes toward the United States. We have only U.S. government officials to rely on for such claims.
» 25 people were killed by another drone strike on April 22, 2011, in Pakistan — most of whom were suspected militants, but at least seven were women and children.
» Early this year, the New America Foundation completed a comprehensive report on drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2004. The Web site includes informative graphics and statistics. The updated site concludes that 1,476 to 2,352 people have died since 2004 and the civilian death rate has dropped to about 20 percent now from 32 percent through 2010. This is an improvement, to be sure, but cold comfort to the victims of such strikes and to those who care about the victims. “Only 20 percent” of those killed are civilians is a hard justification to make with any conviction. This amounts to 300 to 450 civilians killed since 2004 in drone strikes.
» It is important to keep in mind that drone targets are often not confirmed by anything more than U.S. surveillance video from the very drones that do the killing. This is a profound lack of accountability. Even when drone strikes are alleged to have killed militants, we should take such assertions with a large grain of salt — often no one verifies such statements.
In addition to civilian deaths, thousands more have been injured and maimed by U.S. and NATO attacks — far more than have been killed. These nonfatal attacks are too often forgotten.
Drone attacks are conducted by “pilots” and other team members sitting in air-conditioned offices in Nevada, with almost no accountability and no personal risk. The British report warns: “Do we fully understand the psychological effects on remote operators of conducting war at a distance? (War) must link the killing of enemies with an element of self-sacrifice, or at least risk to oneself.”
The chilling transcript from the Los Angeles Times article shows that this musing is not merely philosophical: the U.S. drone team wanted very badly to find targets to kill. They were excited over the prospect of the three-car convoy being insurgents. The potential targets prayed as they were being observed from afar — they had to be terrorists. The standard of evidence required for unleashing hellfire on the target is, as revealed by the transcript of the incident, incredibly low.
The U.S. team cheered and joked as innocent Afghans lay in the dirt and died:
The Predator crew in Nevada was exultant, watching men they assumed were enemy fighters trying to help the injured. “‘Self-Aid Buddy Care’ to the rescue,” one of the drone’s crew members said.
“I forget, how do you treat a sucking chest wound?” said another.
By separating risk and conscience from warfare, the U.S. and British drone programs risk killing and maiming countless more civilians in coming years — and they also ensure that we as a country lose our soul in the process. Do we really want that?
More generally, the idea of waging a remote and remote-control war against militants and terrorists in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as a key offensive in the broader never-ending “war on terror,” is profoundly misguided. How many new sworn enemies of the United States do we make with every strike, whether we succeed in killing terrorists or not? Can we possibly kill or deter every Afghan or Pakistani enemy with drone strikes or other warfare? The answer is clearly “no.”
We have succeeded, however, in making enemies in Pakistan. Only 17 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the United States, according to a 2010 Pew survey, with 59 percent of Pakistanis describing the United States as an enemy. Only 8 percent have a favorable view of Obama and his actions in Pakistan — the lowest of all 22 countries surveyed by Pew.
Having troops engaged on the ground instead of from air-conditioned drone cockpits a continent away is far from a guarantee of conscience, however. In a chilling and highly disturbing set of events beginning in early 2010, a number of U.S. soldiers were actively engaged in intentionally killing Afghan civilians in faked gunfights. Some soldiers collected fingers of the slain civilians as trophies. Rolling Stone reported in detail on the activities of the U.S. “kill team” in Afghanistan. Army Spec. Jeremy Morlock, a U.S. enlisted soldier who has admitted to these activities on camera, was recently sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in March. Morlock is captured in photos holding the head of a dead Afghan civilian up by the hair, grinning broadly for the camera.
Morlock’s mother stated in an interview for her local newspaper, the Mat-Su Valley (Alaska) Frontiersman:
“That’s not the kind of person he is,” she said. “He was a really kind, tender spirit and I’m not saying that was taken away, but war changes people, sadly.
“I hate the military,” she said, adding that when the smoke clears, there will be other officials who will have gotten away with allowing those killings to happen (by blaming enlisted soldiers instead of higher-ups). “They’re never going to find the truth now, are they?”
Rolling Stone reported:
Toward the end of Morlock’s interview, the conversation turned to the mindset that had allowed the killings to occur. “None of us in the platoon — the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant — no one gives a fuck about these people,” Morlock said.
Then he leaned back in his chair and yawned, summing up the way his superiors viewed the people of Afghanistan. “Some shit goes down,” he said, “you’re gonna get a pat on the back from your platoon sergeant: Good job. Fuck ‘em.”
The kind of behavior that has been condoned, if not officially approved, by U.S. troops in Afghanistan should shock the conscience of decent people everywhere.
We need to get out of Afghanistan now and end our illegal drone programs around the world. For every drone strike, helicopter rocket, rifle fire or hand grenade that kills innocent civilians, we create new enemies. We deserve better — and so do the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, the Obama administration should have sufficient cover to claim “mission accomplished” and quickly end these wars.
We should remain engaged in Aghanistan and Pakistan, in particular. Pakistan is clearly a very important country because of its nuclear weapons and endemic extremism. But aggressive military engagement is the opposite of what is needed. We must change hearts and minds through nonviolent means, not by bombing and shooting in a misguided effort to win affection and influence.
— Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney. Click here for his blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik.