07 May 2011

No way to win a war

An article in the 10 April 2011 edition of the Los Angeles Times tells step by step the tragic tale of how an American Predator drone crew working out of an air force base in Nevada managed to convince itself that a convoy of three Afghan vehicles and a pickup truck heading along a dirt road in a remote region 200 miles southwest of Kabul was a group of insurgents, deploy Kiowa helicopters onto the convoy, and carry out a lethal assault on the vehicles.

It is a tale of a disastrous lack of cultural awareness: when the convoy stopped at dawn for the participants to disembark for prayer, this was taken as a key indicator that the members were Taliban. It is also, to mind, a tale of a desperate desire for this to be a Taliban convoy, born perhaps of the sheer boredom of driving a surveillance drone day after day, looking for something out of the ordinary that might be a legitimate target.

After some preliminary observations the story begins:

At 6:22 a.m., the drone pilot radioed an update: "All … are finishing up praying and rallying up near all three vehicles at this time."

The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles.

"Oh, sweet target," he said.


None of those Afghans was an insurgent. They were men, women and children going about their business, unaware that a unit of U.S. soldiers was just a few miles away, and that teams of U.S. military pilots, camera operators and video screeners had taken them for a group of Taliban fighters.

The Americans were using some of the most sophisticated tools in the history of war, technological marvels of surveillance and intelligence gathering that allowed them to see into once-inaccessible corners of the battlefield. But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

This is the story of that episode. It is based on hundreds of pages of previously unreleased military documents, including transcripts of cockpit and radio conversations obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the results of two Pentagon investigations and interviews with the officers involved as well as Afghans who were on the ground that day.

The Afghan travelers had set out early on the cold morning of Feb. 21, 2010, from three mountain villages in southern Daikundi province, a remote central region 200 miles southwest of Kabul.

More than two dozen people were wedged into the three vehicles. Many were Hazaras, an ethnic minority that for years has been treated harshly by the Taliban. They included shopkeepers going for supplies, students returning to school, people seeking medical treatment and families with children off to visit relatives. There were several women and as many as four children younger than 6.

They had agreed to meet before dawn for the long drive to Highway 1, the country's main paved road. From there, some planned to go north to Kabul while others were headed south. To reach the highway, they had to drive through Oruzgan province, an insurgent stronghold.

"We traveled together, so that if one vehicle broke down the others would help," said Sayed Qudratullah, 30, who was bound for Kabul in hope of obtaining a license to open a pharmacy.

Another passenger, Nasim, an auto mechanic who like many Afghans uses one name, said that he was going to buy tools and parts.

"We weren't worried when we set out. We were a little scared of the Taliban, but not of government forces," he said referring to the Afghan national army and its U.S. allies. "Why would they attack us?"  

Why indeed?  The US Air Force and the Army conducted their own investigations into the disaster, in which the US estimates that 16 were killed and 12 wounded, and village elders say 23 were killed, including two boys, Daoud, 3, and Murtaza, 4.

The Army said evidence that the convoy was not a hostile force was "ignored or downplayed by the Predator crew," and the A-Team captain's decision to authorize an airstrike was based on a misreading of the threat when, in fact, "there was no urgent need to engage the vehicles."

The Air Force concluded that confusion over whether children were present was a "causal factor" in the decision to attack and, in an internal document last year, said drone crews had not been trained to notice the subtle differences between combatants and suspicious persons who may appear to be combatants.

The episode ended with General Stanley McChrystal, then the top US commander in Afghanistan, apologizing to President Hamid Karzai and issuing letters of reprimand to four senior and two junior officers in Afghanistan, and the Air Force visiting undisclosed punishment on the Predator crew.

None of that brings the dead back to life, of course, and tragedies like this seriously undermine the chances of the US achieving whatever objectives it might have in Afghanistan.  Perhaps the key lesson is that over-reliance on technology is counter-productive when success depends upon winning the hearts and minds of the people.

Read the full Los Angeles Times account here.

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