Drones and the rise of the high-tech assassins
How twenty-three innocent Afghani civilians were wiped out by self-deceiving drone operators seven and a half thousand miles away.
In a cold February dawn in 2010, two small SUVs and a four-door pickup truck headed down a dirt road in the mountains of southern Afghanistan. They had set out soon after midnight, traveling cross-country to reach Highway 1, the country’s principal paved road, which would lead them to Kandahar and north to Kabul. Crammed inside were more than thirty men, women, and children, four of them younger than six. Everyone knew one another, for they all came from the same cluster of mountain villages roughly two hundred miles southwest of Kabul. Many of the men, unemployed and destitute, were on their way to Iran in hopes of work. Others were shopkeepers heading to the capital to buy supplies, or students returning to school. The women carried turkeys, gifts for the relatives they would stay with in Kabul. A number were Hazaras, an ethnic minority of Shia Muslims whom the Taliban treated with unremitting cruelty whenever they had the opportunity. Now they were in western Uruzgan Province, Taliban country and therefore very dangerous for them, but they risked the shortcut because they were short on gas.
They met no other cars and little foot traffic; the world around them must have seemed empty. But it was not. Unbeknownst to them, they were being watched and their every movement – even the warmth from their bodies – transmitted across the globe. As the ramshackle vehicles – one of them kept breaking down and another blew a tire – clattered along, people they would never meet conferred across oceans and continents as to who they were, where they were going, what they were carrying, and whether they should live or die.
Unwittingly, the little group was driving toward an Operational Detachment Alpha, a U.S. Special Forces patrol dropped in with a supporting force of Afghan soldiers soon after midnight to attack the nearby village of Khod. Such raids were routine in Afghanistan, planned and executed by the semimythic Special Operations Command that specializes in the pursuit and elimination of “high-value targets.” Someone thought this operation important enough to give it the code name Operation Noble Justice.
Sunday, February 21, 4:12 a.m.
Pilot of MQ-1 Predator, call sign Kirk 97: We are eyes on the first vehicle; observing to try and PID on the pax in the open; stand by for movement on the second.
The 27-foot-long Predator drone was circling at 14,000 feet. Below its belly protruded a “sensor” ball carrying a variety of cameras, including an infrared video that picked up the warmth thrown off by the vehicles and passengers 2.5 miles below. Almost in an instant – but not quite – the images flashed across the world to twin screens inside a metal box roughly the size of a shipping container at Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert. Facing the screens sat “Kirk 97,” a pilot guiding the drone by remote control. Beside him sat a sensor operator who guided the cameras and weapons-targeting laser. In another room nearby a third member of the crew, the mission intelligence coordinator, was watching the same video images.
The pictures had audiences elsewhere. Hurlburt Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle is headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command and home to one station of the vast but little-known global network referred to as the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS). This is the central nervous system funneling, collating, and sharing the unimaginable quantities of imagery and electronic information collected by air force drones and reconnaissance planes (ISR for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) around the globe. In theory, anyone in any part of DCGS has access to any information that has been fed into the system, wherever they are.
Thus it was that the images captured by the Predator were being watched at Hurlburt by a dedicated team, a minibureaucracy of young men and women, each with specialized tasks. In overall charge was an intelligence tactical coordinator (ITC) supervising two “screeners.” The chief screener, a civilian on contract from SAIC, a major defense corporation heavily involved in drone operations, outranked the second screener, a junior air force officer who happened to be her husband. Also present were two full-motion video analysts (FMVs). While one FMV watched the screen, the other typed “products,” conclusions drawn from the imagery, which were then passed to the screeners for onward transmission via a system known as Internet Relay Chat to the mission intelligence coordinator sitting in his trailer in Nevada. A geospatial analyst tasked with generating relevant geographical information for the other analysts made up the complement.
The video had still more destinations. Special Operations, born in World War II as a term for agents sent behind enemy lines to train and lead friendly guerrillas, had by the twenty-first century ballooned into a 66,000-strong branch of the U.S. military, with an inevitably complex command arrangement. The little raiding party in Uruzgan that night was under the supervision of a Special Operations Task Force headquartered in Kandahar, which was naturally in receipt of the ubiquitous video, along with the written messages streaming back and forth between Nevada and Florida. Kandahar in turn answered to Combined Special Operations Task Force headquarters at Bagram, outside Kabul, where the video was also screening.
The ultimate beneficiary of all these complex arrangements was a sergeant attached to the raiding party. Known as a “joint terminal attack controller,” he was responsible for communicating via radio with any and all air support, including the Predator, and relaying orders and intelligence to and from the young captain commanding the party. Calling himself Jaguar 25, the sergeant was the force’s only link with the team in Nevada, which in turn was the sole link with the screeners in Florida.
Almost as soon as the raiding party disembarked from their helicopters shortly after midnight, someone out in the darkness had switched on a handheld radio and broadcast a general call to arms. “They are here,” he said, “let us get all the Mujaheddin together and defend this place.” It was a simple, uncomplicated exhortation addressed to no one in particular and audible to anyone with a radio, utterly unlike the assorted esoteric systems employed by the U.S. forces. Americans listening in were bemused by their enemy’s unconcern for eavesdropping, and indeed the Taliban summons – if that was what it was – was overheard by a host of U.S. military intelligence posts on the ground and in the air. Accordingly the word was passed to look out for enemy reinforcements. Two vehicles in tandem, the pickup and one SUV, lumbering into the area easily fit that picture, and suspicions hardened when they and another SUV flashed lights at each other before continuing on together in the direction of the patrol as it waited for daylight.
Mission intelligence controller: See if you can zoom in on that guy, ’cos he’s like . . .
Pilot: What did he just leave there? Is that a fucking rifle?
Sensor: Maybe just a warm spot from where he’s been sitting.
Pilot: I was hoping we could make a rifle out. Never mind.
Sensor: The only way I’ve ever been able to see a rifle is if they move them around, when they’re holding them, with muzzle flashes out or slinging them across their shoulders.
Drone operators are not in immediate contact with the real world, literally, thanks to the phenomenon known as latency, a reference to the time it takes for information to make its way from the drone to a satellite twenty-two thousand miles up in space, down again to a ground station in Ramstein, Germany, switching to a fiber-optic cable through which it travels across western Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and the continental United States, before reaching Nevada and the screen in the pilot’s trailer. As the electronic pulses are split, reunited, and buffered for assembly into packages pending their dispatch to the next way station, microsecond delays steadily accumulate. It means that the scene on a pilot’s screen is out of date, usually two seconds but sometimes as much as five seconds. As the crew reacts to what they are seeing, moving their controls to send an instruction to the aircraft they are “flying,” that signal in turn takes two to five seconds to deliver. This time lapse is why drone takeoffs and landings must be handled by a separate team of pilots stationed close to the runway so that they can see the planes they are flying in real time. Potential targets on the ground are aware of the delay: Yemeni members of al-Qaeda reported in 2011 that when they hear a drone overhead, they move around as much as possible.
Nor do the pictures themselves necessarily always bear close resemblance to the world as the rest of us see it and sometimes are “no better than looking at Google Earth through a straw,” as one veteran remarked of the plane’s “spotter TV” feature. Thus for most of the time the convoy was under watch, the sensor could only focus on two of the three vehicles at a time. If the operator zoomed out even slightly, the already imperfect resolution was lost. Imagery became even less precise if there was dust in the air, if the drone was too high, at dusk or dawn (when both infrared and daylight-use electro-optical cameras lose efficiency), or when the sensor operator could not focus properly. The video as received by troops on the ground that night in Uruzgan was even poorer, described by one as “crap, full of static and crackling.”
Jaguar 25 (call sign of the JTAC, a Special Forces sergeant on the ground liaising with the Predator): What we’re looking for is a QRF (Quick Reaction Force); we believe we may have a high level Taliban commander.
Pilot: Wouldn’t surprise me if this was one of their important guys, just watching from a distance, you know what I mean?
Then came an unwelcome message from Florida.
Mission intelligence controller: Screener said at least one child near SUV.
Sensor: Bullshit . . . where? Send me a fucking still [picture]. I don’t think they have kids at this hour, I know they’re shady, but come on.
Pilot: At least one child . . . Really? Listing [him as a] MAM [military-aged male] – that means he’s guilty.
Sensor: Well maybe a teenager, but I haven’t seen anything that looks that short, granted they’re all grouped up here, but.
Mission intelligence controller: They’re reviewing.
Pilot: Yeah, review that shit . . . Why didn’t he say possible child, why are they so quick to call fucking kids but not to call shit a rifle.
Just as the sun rose above the mountains, the convoy halted on a riverbank, and many of the passengers got out. To the watchers, the pictures revealed something ominous.
Pilot: They’re praying.
Sensor: This is definitely it. This is their force. Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do.
Mission intelligence coordinator: They’re going to do something nefarious.
All the adults in the party, including the six or seven women, got out when the convoy stopped at the river. But to the infrared camera high above – and so, too, to the watchers far away – the men and women were merely indistinguishable blobs. Since the party was presumptively one of Taliban reinforcements, no one thought to ponder their gender.
An hour later the vehicles, which had been heading south toward the American ground unit, turned off in a different direction. This led them ultimately twelve miles away from the Americans on the ground, an indication that, whoever they were, they most likely had no hostile intent. Nevertheless the Predator pilot assessed this as merely a “flanking” maneuver to get behind the troops and cut off their escape route.
Low on fuel, the AC-130 Specter gunship that had been on the scene earlier had by now departed. However, the Predator was about to be joined by two OH-58 Kiowas, light, two-man Special Forces helicopter gunships armed with Hellfire missiles and 2.75” rockets. Back in Nevada, the crew was getting impatient.
Pilot: Can’t wait till this actually happens, with all this coordination and shit.
Sensor operator and mission intelligence coordinator: (Murmuring) Yeah.
Down on the ground, the travelers in the pickup heard the drumming of helicopter rotor blades. Several urged the driver to slow down in hopes they would look less suspicious. It was just beginning to get light.
Though far removed from the scene of the action, drone crews see themselves in the same martial tradition as the fighter pilots of an earlier age, down to the flight suits they wear to work, the combat stress they report experiencing, not to mention the combat pay and awards they have successfully demanded. Their trailer chatter that night echoed that of combat crews who are flying through a battle zone for real. Only once in a while does the record reveal that they were in fact firmly on the ground, seven and a half thousand miles away.
Sensor Operator: Well, sir, would you mind if I took a bathroom break real quick?
Pilot: No, not at all, dude.
This particular pilot, a major who had formerly flown C-130 transport planes, was a veteran of a thousand “missions” and deemed experienced enough to train other pilots. The sensor operator, an enlisted man, was also highly experienced, and they were used to working as a team. As their commander later explained, “These two guys for the last couple of years have been together on shift, they have the same weekends together, they cycle through the schedule over and over.”
The crews spoke a language almost incomprehensible to outsiders, so laden with acronyms that plain English was often supplanted. But that night’s conversations show that the military jargon, like the two-second video delay, imposed another layer between them and the reality on the ground. Any MAM (military-aged male) became by definition an enemy fighter, irrespective of age, and therefore a legitimate target. Positive identification (PID) is an official U.S. military term for someone positively identified as an immediate hostile threat and therefore a legitimate target. As investigators subsequently discovered, the term meant entirely different things to different people.
Pilot: Our screeners are currently calling 21 MAMs, no females, and two possible children. How copy?
Jaguar 25: Roger, and when we say children, are we talking teenagers or toddlers?
Sensor: I would say about twelve. Not toddlers; something more towards adolescents or teens.
Pilot: Yeah, adolescents.
On paper, the system was fail-safe. The pilot and sensor operator could check each other’s assessments, and if that was not sufficient they had the mission intelligence coordinator and the safety observer right there beside them. Beyond that, the team in Florida had the full-motion video analysts and the screeners and the intelligence tactical coordinator reviewing the pictures, joined later by two immediate superiors. There were in addition the two separate Special Forces headquarters in Afghanistan itself, each with an assigned “battle captain” supervising ongoing operations.
Pilot: Our screener identified only one adolescent, so that’s one double-digit age range. How copy?
Jaguar 25: We’ll pass that along to the ground force commander. But like I said, 12 to 13 years old with a weapon is just as dangerous.
Sensor: Oh, we agree, yeah.
Pilot: Hey, good copy on that. We understand and agree.
Matters were moving toward a climax. Reliant on bulletins from the Predator crew, the captain commanding the raiding party on the ground had interpreted the news that the convoy was now heading away from the Americans on the ground as confirmation not only that the enemy was “maneuvering” but that it contained an HVI (high-value individual), always a priority target for U.S. forces in this war. He gave the order to strike. The helicopters would take the first shot. The helicopter crews, who had come on the scene late, were simply informed that there had been positive identification of three weapons, at a minimum, along with twenty-one MAMs, and that they were “clear to engage.” No one had told them about adolescents, still less children. Two continents and an ocean away, the Predator crew in Nevada made their own final preparations for action.
Pilot: Alright, so the plan is, man, uh, we’re going to watch this thing go down and when they Winchester [run out of ammunition] we can play cleanup.
Sensor: Initial plan: without seeing how they break up, follow the largest group.
Pilot: Yeah, sounds good. When it all comes down, if everybody is running in their separate direction, I don’t care if you just follow one guy, you know like whatever you decide to do, I’m with you on it . . . as long as you keep somebody that we can shoot in the field of view I’m happy.
The crew was now making final preparations for the attack, arming the missile and going through the final checklist. The sensor operator reminded his intelligence colleague to focus on the business at hand.
Sensor: Hey, MC.
Mission intelligence controller: Yes?
Sensor: Remember, Kill Chain!
MIC: Will do.
The first missile from the lead helicopter scored a direct hit on the pickup, instantly killing eleven passengers. The two following SUVs jerked to a halt, and the passengers began frantically to scramble out. The second missile hit the rearmost vehicle, but in the engine block, which absorbed enough of the blast to allow some of the passengers to escape. Four died immediately. The third missile missed the middle SUV, barely, with the blast blowing out the rear window as passengers bailed out. As a matter of routine, the attackers pursued these squirters, their word for people fleeing a strike, with 2.75” rockets, though all of these missed.
Then someone noticed something strange. The people who had escaped were not running.
Sensor: That’s weird.
Pilot: Can’t tell what the fuck they’re doing.
Safety observer: Are they wearing burqas?
Sensor: That’s what it looks like.
Pilot: They were all PIDed as males. No females in the group.
Sensor: That guy looks like he’s wearing jewelry and stuff like a girl, but he ain’t . . . if he’s a girl, he’s a big one.
Despite the sensor operator’s hopeful theory, these were not Taliban in drag but women who had scrambled out and were waving their brightly colored scarves at the circling helicopters, which eventually ceased fire. Twenty-three people had been killed, including two boys, Daoud, three years old, and Murtaza, four. Eight men, one woman, and three children aged between five and fourteen were wounded, many of them severely.
Mission intelligence coordinator: Screener said there weren’t any women earlier.
Sensor: What are those? They were in the middle vehicle.
Mission intelligence coordinator: Women and children.
The conversation in the Nevada trailer was losing its previously jaunty tone, as MAMs became mothers, and adolescents turned back into children.
Pilot: It looks like, uh, one of those in the, uh, bright garb may be carrying a child as well.
Sensor: Younger than an adolescent to me.
Safety observer: Well . . .
Safety observer: No way to tell, man.
Sensor: No way to tell from here.
Soon afterward the Predator turned and flew away ahead of bad weather that was moving in from the west.
Even as the wreckage burned and shell-shocked survivors stumbled about, news was beginning to spread. Local villagers were soon on the scene, and within an hour Taliban radios were broadcasting word that “forty to fifty civilians” had been killed by an American air strike. By early afternoon, the reports had reached the Palace, the crenellated nineteenth-century fortress in the middle of Kabul that housed President Hamid Karzai. Meanwhile, U.S. military communications were proving rather less efficient.
The sudden, silent, flash of the first missile that incinerated the pickup and passengers on their screens caught most of the spectators in Afghanistan and the United States entirely by surprise. The intricate network of observation, control, and communication linking the myriad headquarters and intelligence centers stretching between Nevada and Kabul had somehow failed to alert participants – other than the crews actually pulling or preparing to pull the triggers – that events had reached their natural conclusion, and people were about to die. Then, even when it was almost immediately clear that things had not gone according to plan, the news moved at glacial speed through the U.S. command system. Messages rumbled back and forth between different headquarters regarding BOG (boots on the ground), meaning sending someone to have a close-up look at the scene for BDA (battle damage assessment).
Eventually helicopters were sent to bring the raiding party itself to the site where the dead bodies, or at least those that were intact, had been laid out by villagers who had flocked to the scene. The captain, according to a brother officer, was in a state of panic, searching fruitlessly for a weapon, anything, that would justify this as a legitimate target. “He wasn’t finding anything. I think it overwhelmed him.” Special Operations Task Force headquarters meanwhile told him “not to second-guess yourself; we’ll figure it out later.”
The captain was not the only officer to panic. Despite the services of a multibillion-dollar system of intelligence and communication, it took twelve hours for news that the U.S. had killed twenty-three civilians to make its way up the chain. Despite confirmation from the helicopter crews, the Predator team, and the troops that arrived on the scene, successive layers of Special Operations commanders refused to report CIVCAS (civilian casualties). Bizarrely, the technology was less efficient than the Taliban’s. With the inflated volume of traffic, emails were taking four and a half hours to move through the classified system from Kandahar to Kabul.
Only when surgeons at a Dutch military hospital talked to their U.S. counterparts about the wounded civilians that had just been admitted was the truth officially disclosed, but by that time, anyone in Afghanistan with a radio already knew. At the time, Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander, was laboring to garner support among Afghans by restricting airstrikes in an effort to reduce civilian casualties. He was not pleased to hear the belated reports from Uruzgan, and raced over to President Karzai’s palace to tender his apologies. “I express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We all share in their grief,” he declared on Afghan television two days later. “I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan people. I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans.”
Families of the dead ultimately received $5,000 each, plus one goat.
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