Obama’s Lists: A Dubious History Of Targeted Killings In Afghanistan; Over Reliance On Armed Drones Is A Strategic Mistake

Obama’s Lists: A Dubious History Of Targeted Killings In Afghanistan; Over Reliance On Armed Drones Is A Strategic Mistake


The German news magazine — Der Spiegel, notes that while “combat operations in Afghanistan may be coming to an end, a look at secret NATO documents reveals that the U.S. and the U.K. were far less scrupulous in choosing targets for killing than previously believed. Drug dealers were also on the lists.”

The magazine describes one U.S./U.K. targeted- killing/drone attack in which an Afghan, who’s codename is ‘Doody,’ a “mid-level commander” in the Taliban — according to what the magazine claims is a Secret NATO document — number 3,673 on the list and NATO has assigned him a priority-level three — on a scale of one to four. In other words,” Der Speigel notes, “he isn’t particularly important with the Taliban leadership structure. The operations center identified “Doody” at 10:17am local; but, the visibility was poor and the helicopter is forced to circle another time. Then the gunner fires a “Hellfire” missile. But then, the helicopter pilot lost sight of the Mullah during the maneuver, and the missile strikes a man and his child instead.” According to the documents, the boy is killed instantly, and the father is severely wounded. When the pilot realizes that the wrong man has been targeted, he fires 100 rounds at “Doody,” with his 30-mm gun, critically injuring the mullah.”

Der Spiegel says “the child and his father are two of the many victims of the dirty secret operations that NATO conducted for years in Afghanistan. Their fate is described in Secret documents to which Spiegel was given access,” the article said. “Some of the documents concerning the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and the GCHQ and NSA intelligence services are from the documents of whistleblower [leaker]by Edward Snowden,” the magazine said. “Included,” Der Spiegel says, “is the first, known, complete list of the Western alliance’s “targeted killings” in Afghanistan. The documents show that the deadly missions were not just viewed as a last resort to prevent attacks; but, were in fact — part of everyday life in the guerilla war in Afghanistan.”

“The list, which included 750 people at times, proves for the first time, that NATO didn’t just target the Taliban leadership; but, also eliminated mid, and lower-level members of the group on a large scale. Some Afghans were only on the list because they were drug dealers — who were reportedly supporting the insurgents,” the publication said.

Rules of War

“The 13yr. combat mission in Afghanistan, comes to an official end this week; but, the kill lists raise the legal and moral questions that extend far beyond Afghanistan,” Der Spiegel argues. “Can a democracy be allowed to kill its enemies in a targeted manner — when the objective is not to prevent an imminent threat? And, does the goal of eliminating as many Taliban as possible justify the killing of innocent bystanders?,” the publication asks.

“Different rules apply in war than in fighting crimes in times of peace. But, for years, the West tied its campaign in Afghanistan, to the promise that it was fighting for different values there. A democracy that kills its enemies on the basis of nothing but suspicion, squanders its claim to moral superiority — making itself complicit instead. This lesson from Afghanistan also applies to the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen,” Der Spiegel argues.

The material that Der Spiegel reviewed all fell within POTUS Obama’s tenure, who campaigned that Afghanistan was “the good war,” and therefore legitimate — in contrast to the Iraq War,” which candidate and POTUS Obama has called a mistake and unwarranted.

“When POTUS Obama assumed office, the U.S. opted for a new strategy in Afghanistan; and then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates installed Army Special Forces four-star, Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the new commander there. Gen. McChrystal “promoted an aggressive pursuit of the Taliban,” Der Spiegel said. POTUS Obama also sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan; but, “their deployment was tied to a demand that the military provide a binding date for withdrawal. At the same time,” Der Spiegel said, “POTUS Obama distanced himself from the grand objectives the West had proclaimed when it first marched into Kabul. The U.S. would not try to make Afghanistan “a perfect place,” POTUS Obama insisted. “It’s new main objective was to fight the insurgency.”

‘Escalate And, Exit

General McChrystal’s reign, “marked the beginning of one of the bloodiest phases of the war,” Der Spiegel claims. “Some 2,412 civilians died in Afghanistan in 2009. Two-thirds of them were killed by insurgents; and, 25 percent by NATO troops, and Afghan Security Forces. The number of operations against the Taliban rose sharply, to between 10 and 15 a night. The operations were based on a list, maintained by the CIA and NATO — Obama’s lists. The White House,” Der Spiegel notes, “dubbed the strategy “Escalate and Exit.”

“General McChrystal’s successor, General David Petraeus, documented the strategy in “Field Manual 3-24,” on fighting insurgencies — which remains a standard work today,” Der Spiegel said. “Petraeus outlined three strategies in fighting guerrilla organizations like the Taliban: The First Phase was a the ‘Cleansing Phase,’ in which the enemy leadership is weakened. After that,[Second Phase] local forces were to regain control of the captured areas. The Third Phase was to focus on reconstruction. Behind closed doors,” Der Spiegel asserts that Gen. Petraeus and his staff explained exactly what was meant by “cleansing.” German politicians recall something that Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the Head of ISAF Intelligence in Afghanistan once said, “The only good Talib, is a dead Talib.”

“Under Petraeus, “a merciless campaign began to hunt down the so-called shadow governors, and local supporters aligned with the Islamists. For Americans, the fact that the operations often ended in killings was seen as a success. In August 2010, Petraeus proudly told diplomats in Kabul that he had noticed a shifting trend,” Der Spiegel noted. “The evidence he presented, made some of the ambassadors feel uneasy. At least 365 insurgent commanders, Petraeus explained, had been neutralized in the last three months, for an average of four killings a day.”

“The existence of the documents related to the so-called Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL) has only been described in vague terms until now,” Der Spiegel noted. “The missions by U.S Special Forces units are mentioned, but not discussed in detail in the U.S. Army Afghanistan war logs, published by WikiLeaks in 2010, together with the New York Times, London’s – The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. The documents that have now become accessible, provide, for the first time, a systematic view of the targeted killings,” Der Spiegel contends. “They outline the criteria used to determine who was placed on the list, and why.”

Adding A Name

Der Spiegel highlights the case of an Afghan soldier named Hussein, “number 3,341 on the list, who was suspected of involvement in an attack on ISAF forces in Helmand Province. A corporal in the Afghan Army, he had allegedly deserted, and was now on the run, presumably to join the Taliban. NATO officials placed him [Hussein] on the [targeted kill] list in the summer of 2010, as one of 669 individuals at the time. He was given the code name — “Rumble,” — and assigned a Priority Level Number Two.”

Coalition soldiers discussed the pros/cons of putting him on the targeted kill list, Der Spiegel wrote. “The removal of Hussein will eradicate a rouge ANA SNCO from the ranks; and, prevent his recruitment into the [insurgency], the assessment states. “It will also send a clear message to any other potential ‘sleepers,’ Der Spiegel added. His killing would serve primarily as a deterrent to others, the documents revealed. But, the internal assessment also notes that a disadvantage of killing the deserter [Hussein], was that any information he might have would be lost.”

“Adding his name to the list,” Der Spiegel wrote, “was preceded by a month’s long process, in which evidence was gathered, included bugged phone conversations, as well as reports by informants, and photos. In the end,” Der Spiegel notes, “the respective ISAF regional commander decided whether a suspect would be added to the list. Some JPEL were only listed as being under observation, or to be taken into custody. According to current documents, in 2010, NATO even added Atta Mohammad Noor, a governor in northern Afghanistan, to the list. Noor, an ethnic Tajik, and former warlord, had become wealthy through smuggling in the turmoil of war, and he was seen as someone who ruthlessly eliminated his enemies. He was listed as number 1, 722 on the NATO list; and, given a priority level three; but, NATO merely collected information about Noor, rather than placing him on the kill list.”

“When an operation could potentially result in civilian casualties, ISAF headquarters in Kabul had to be involved,” Der Spiegel noted. “The rule of thumb was that when there was estimated collateral damage of up to 10 civilians, the ISAF commander in Kabul was to decide whether the risk was justifiable,” says an ISAF officer who worked with the list for years. If more potential civilian casualties were anticipated, the decision was left up to the relevant NATO headquarters office. Bodyguards, drivers, and male attendants were viewed as enemy combatants, whether or not they actually were. Only women, children, and the elderly were treated as civilians,” Der Spiegel contends.

“Even officers involved in the program admit that these guidelines were cynical,” Der Spiegel noted. “If a Taliban fighter was repeatedly involved in deadly attacks, a “weighing of interests,” was performed. The military officials would then calculate how many human lives could be saved by the “kill,” and how many civilians would be potentially be killed in an airstrike.”

Switching On The iPhones

“The documents suggest that sometimes locating a mobile phone was all it took to set the military machine in motion. The search for the Taliban phone signals was “central to the success of operations,” states a British report from October 2010.”

“As one document states, Predator drones and Eurofighter jets, equipped with sensors, were constantly searching for radio signals from known telephone numbers associated tied to the Taliban. The hunt began as soon as the phone was switched on,” Der Spiegel noted.

“Britain’s GCHQ, and the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) maintained long lists of Afghan and Pakistani mobile phone numbers, belonging to Taliban officials. A sophisticated mechanism was activated whenever a number was detected,” operating Der Spiegel wrote. If there was already a recording of the enemy combatant’s voice in the archives, it was used to identification purposes. if the pattern matched, preparations for an operation could begin. The attacks were so devastating for the Taliban, that they instructed their fighters to stop using their mobile phones.”

“The documents also reveals how vague the basis for deadly operations apparently was. In the voice recognition procedure, it was insufficient if a suspect identified himself by name once during the monitored conversation. Within the next 24 hours, this voice recognition was treated as “positive target identification,” and therefore, as legitimate grounds for an airstrike. This greatly increased the risk of civilian casualties,” Der Spiegel argued.

“Probably one of the most controversial decisions by NATO in Afghanistan,” the publication contends, “is the expansion of these [targeted kill] operations to drug dealers. “According to an NSA document,” it says, “the United Nations estimated that the Taliban was earning $300M a year through the drug trade. The insurgents, the document continues, “could not be defeated without disrupting the drug trade.” According to an October 2008 NSA document, “the NATO defense ministers made the momentous decision to that drug networks would now be “legitimate targets,” for ISAF troops. “Narcotics traffickers were added to the Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL) for the first time,” the report reads.

Targeting The Drug Trade

“In early 2009, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, General John Craddock, “issued an order to expand the targeted killings of Taliban officials to drug producers. This led to heated discussions within NATO,” Der Spiegel said, with German NATO General Egon Ramms declaring the order “illegal,” and a violation of international law. The power struggle within NATO finally led to a modification of Craddock’s directive: Targets related to the drug production at least had to be investigated as individual cases.”

“The Top Secret dossier could be highly 0damaging to the German government,” Der Spiegel claims. “Foe years, German authorities have turned over the mobile phone numbers of German extremists in Afghanistan — to the United States. At the same time,” the publication notes, “German officials claimed that homing in on mobile phone signal was far too imprecise for targeted killings,” the publication noted.

“This is apparently an untenable argument,” der Spiegel claims. “According to a 2010 document, Eurofighters and drones had the “ability to geo-locate a known GSM handset.” In other words, active mobile phones could serve as tracking devices for the special units.”

“In Afghanistan, Germany is a member of “14 Eyes” intelligence-sharing group. In addition, to the Anglo-Saxon countries, the group includes Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Sweden, and Norway. These countries operate their own technical platform in Afghanistan — code named — “Center Ice,” which is used to monitor and exchange data. According to a 2009 NSA presentation, Center Ice was not just used to share intelligence about mobile phone conversations; but, also information about targets,” Der Spiegel claims.

When contacted [by Der Spiegel], the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, admitted that Center Ice was had been used to share mobile phone numbers, but denied that they were suitable for use in drone target acquisition. Moreover, data was not shared if a given “individuals interests worthy of protection, outweighed the general interest in sharing intelligence.” In addition, the Germans say they have not supplied any information that could be used to develop profiles for targeted killings since 2005.”

Legal Repercussions

“This restrictive approach has led to numerous disagreements with the Americans,” der Spiegel notes. When Regional Command North, which was run by the German military, wanted to nominate a suspect for the JPEL, a detailed file containing evidence first had to be sent to the Joint Operations Command in Potsdam, outside Berlin, and then to the German Defense Ministry. For the Germans, a target could only be added to the list — if the individual had ordered, prepared, or participated in attacks. The Germans repeatedly urged the allies to remove suspects from the list. In September 2010, only 11 of 744 targets were associated with northern Afghanistan, which the Germans controlled. “We Germans ran a stabilization mission, while the Americans conducted a war,” said retired General Ramms.

“The classified documents could now have legal repercussions,” Der Spiegel writes, as the human rights organization Reprieve — is weighing legal action against the British government.

Troubling Consequences: Over Reliance On Armed Drones Is A Strategic Mistake

Whether the leaked Snowden documents are authentic or not, makes little difference at this point, as those who want to find fault with wartime decisions have already made up their minds anyway — and, would likely choose to believe almost anything critical of the military, the coalition, and the targeted killing campaign — and the veracity of the source of the documents be dammed. Having said that, disclosures like this, while hailed by the left and those opposed to combat or military engagement in almost any circumstance or scenario — remember Neville Chamberlain — does serve as a wedge to those who also want to see a weaker German intelligence relationship with their American counterparts. At a very crucial time, when the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the potential for Islamic militant ‘lone wolf’s’ are plotting to inflict damage on the United States and the West.

There will be those who accuse me of being an armchair general –so be it. But, I have always been troubled by the increasing use of drones to inflict lethal damage against individuals and facilities/infrastructure in faraway places. It was General Grant who once said, “It is good that war is such a terrible thing, otherwise men would grow too fond of it.” There is no doubt a time and a place for targeted killing; and, there is little doubt that such strikes have — to some degree, made Americans safer — both here and abroad; and, prevented American military casualties that would have inevitably occurred — had we had to put boots on the ground.

But, that safety has come with a high price. As Mark Mazzetti wrote in the June 26, 2014 New York Times, “the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones, — risks putting the United States on a “slippery slope” into ‘perpetual war;’ and, sets a dangerous precedent,” for similar kinds of lethal operations that other countries may soon adopt.” This summer, The Stimson Center published a study on America’s use and employment of armed drones. The Panel, headed by former USCENTCOM commander, Gen. (ret.) John Abizaid, examined three key issues revolving around the use of unmanned, armed aerial vehicles: 1) defense utility, national security, and economics; 2) ethics and law; and, 3) export controls and regulatory challenges. The nearly year-long study concluded in part, “As technology advances, U.S. policy-makers will be increasingly faced with the vexing question of robotic autonomy in wartime theaters. They will need to tighten down export controls, — without undermining innovation. Perhaps most significantly, they will be increasingly tempted to use UAV’s as an instrument of force as they get easier and easier to employ — without [directly] risking American lives.”

Additionally, the Panel concluded: “Targeted killings remain a questionable pillar of overall U.S. counterterrorism strategy. The strategic utility is often unclear, while frequent cross-border strikes erode local national sovereignty; [and,] might even be counterproductive in the long-term. This is to say nothing of the terrible blowback incurred by strikes with collateral damage.”

And, with respect to legal and moral issues, the Panel found: “The lack of governmental transparency in UAV employment remains a deeply troubling phenomena, including even basic information as to why individuals are targeted. The United States’ wide-ranging use of targeted killings, also flies in the face of international law; and, sets a precedent other nations might one day follow (and, not to our benefit).”

As Drone Technology And Proliferation Accelerates — Nation States Without Armed Drones Will Be The Exception

As autonomous system technology and proliferation 0accelerates within the next ten years — nation-states, militant groups, others, — without armed drones — will be the exception.

And, If you have read my previous articles when referring to the use of armed drones and autonomous systems on the battlefield, you are likely aware of my deep concerns about the potential for overreliance as well as ease of use. Making a decision to use military force should always be hard. The increased use of drones and robots on the “battlefield” has made the decision for military intervention — such as in Libya during Qadaffi’s fall — as well as in the war on terror — easier in my judgment. Autonomous warfare is. to a large degree antiseptic, distant, and provides a false sense of security, as well as disguises the true ” ” (emotional, financial, human, etc.) war imposes. It erodes the warrior ethos; and, makes us strategically lazy. A decision to engage militarily is easier to reach — if the calculation is that the cost in “men” is virtually zero.

As Linda Palermo wrote in First Post, “The Danger of Drones – And A War Without Risk,” as with the concept of moral hazard in financial markets,(i.e., if you know you are going to be bailed-out, your choice of investments will be impaired) knowing that your tactics will have an actual effect on your soldiers will change your military decisions.”

Ms. Palermo asks, “If we remove risk of loss from the decision-makers’ calculations when considering crisis management options,” do we make use military intervention ‘easier,’ and more attractive? Will decision-makers resort to war as a policy option far sooner than in the past? Rick Fisher, a Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in London suggests it might. “Perhaps in the future, China might be tempted to shoot down a U.S. Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft flying over the disputes island chain in the South China Sea, because it might calculate that Washington would not escalate a response over an armed drone.”

If Moore’s Law is applied to the current state of “warrior robots,” these machines will be 1B times more powerful twenty-five years from now.

Peter Singer, author of “Wired For War,” recently wrote, “when historians look back on this period, they may conclude that we are today at the start of the greatest revolution that warfare has seen since the introduction of the atomic bomb. Our new unmanned systems just don’t just affect how of warfighting is done; but, it also affects the who of the fighting at the most fundamental level. That is, every previous revolution in war was about weapons that could shoot quicker or, had a bigger boom.’ “Humankind,” he says, “is starting to lose its 5,000-year-old monopoly of the fighting war.”

If Moore’s Law is applied to the current state of “warrior robots,” these machines will be 1B times more powerful twenty-five years from now, argues Mr. Singer.

And, the idea that we will always have the monopoly on having the technological advantage in this area is fatuous. Mr. Singer warns that it was the British and the French who invented the battlefield tank; but, it was the Germans who understood how to employ it more lethally and, strategically. He adds, It was “the Chinese and the Turks who first used gunpowder,” but, it was the Europeans who revolutionized its battlefield (land and sea) use. A Jihadi website now offers instructions on how to detonate an IED in Afghanistan from one’s home computer. As Albert Einstein once said, imagination is more powerful than knowledge. Technical and/or capability surprise are more often than not, — not the most important game-hangers on the battlefield. Rather, we are much more vulnerable to missing clever and creative ways technologies — we understand very well — can be use in ways we don’t understand very well, and/or, failed to anticipate/visualize. Remember the adversary gets a vote.

Robots and autonomous systems certainly have their place in modern warfare. But, we must be wary of fighting from the “comforts” of a military base in Nevada. As Mr. Singer is fond of saying, “we are watching more; but, experiencing less.”

Mr. Singer cites the late, great, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark’s story of “Superiority,’ which is set in the distant future, as an example of how our embracement of robots and technology on the battlefield can end in defeat. In Superiority, a much more, technologically advanced opponent, was defeated by an opponent that was technologically-challenged. As a military officer from the more technologically advanced force sits in a prison cell contemplating his country’s impending defeat, he remarks, “we were defeated by one thing only — by the inferior science of our enemies.” The soldier goes on to explain “our side was seduced by the possibilities of new technology. We planned for how we wanted war to be, rather than how it turned out.” A fatal violation of one of Clausewitz’s key principals of war.

Mr. Singer presciently concludes, “the robotics trend is revolutionary, but it also doesn’t change the underlying fundamentals of war. The fog of war remains. While you may have Moore’s Law, you can’t get rid of Murphy’s Law.

Over-Reliance On Armed Drones And Autonomous Systems Is A Significant Strategic Mistake

Budgetary constraints, coupled with a strategic and measurable shift towards armed drones and autonomous systems is coming at the expense of manned aircraft as well as ground forces — a significant strategic mistake. Too many of our defense leaders and others mistakenly believe that advancements in drone technology and autonomous systems; coupled with use of Special Operations forces and good intelligence — will be enough to defeat most adversaries in the “battlefield” of the future. Indeed, the use of drones is an elixir to an antiseptic engagement — with limited collateral damage, limited casualties, and limited duration. But, the adversary gets a vote.

By elevating armed drones and autonomous systems at the apparent expense of our ground forces — we are undermining our ability; and, flexibility to respond to future unexpected and unanticipated types of military engagement. It is what cognitive scientists call “motivated errors.” Our defense leadership, members of Congress, our national security establishment become bonded by their common, intense desires that particular military approach to a gnarly problem (countering terrorism) — be proven to be effective. As a result, there is a great danger of highly unrealistic planning and assumptions; and, an unwillingness to learn from counterexamples — and, an avoidance of developing any “Plan B,” should “Plan A,” fail.

There are no doubt, powerful, converging political and defense motivations among some in the senior (U.S.) civilian and military leadership — to prepare for future conflicts by embracing a swift, technologically-advanced, ground-force light conflict/combat strategy. The Intelligence Community can warn the senior leadership when it thinks some of that faulty thinking may be diverging from what our intelligence is telling us; but, fundamentally, the Intelligence Community cannot do anything when powerfully motivated senior leaders become wedded to a certain genre of technology (UAVs and autonomous systems); and, find these distortions more attractive than dealing with reality.

The Romans used to say if you want peace — prepare for war. It seems we’re preparing for best case scenarios and the war “we want,” as opposed to the one we’re more likely to get. It was Plato who said that “the only men whom have seen the last war are those who are already dead.” And, as Stephen King, the great horror-thriller fiction writer once wrote, “God Punishes Us For What We Cannot Imagine. V/R, RCP

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