Licensed to kill

Below is a portion of the detailed transcript of the 2010 drone strike that killed 23 civilians, including women and children, in Afghanistan. The drones were operated out of Creech base in Nevada and this was re-enacted in the documentary National Bird that I reviewed two days ago. You can stream the film for free until May 15.

This portion of the transcript is taken from the May 2017 issue of Harper’s magazine. You can read the full transcript here. In the transcript, ‘Pilot’ refers to the drone controller; ‘Sensor’ to the camera operator; ‘M.C.’ is the mission intelligence coordinator; ‘Safety Observer’ is an additional pilot; ‘Jag25’ is the special operations soldier on the ground; and ‘Bam Bam41’ is the attack helicopter team. You can sense how eager the Pilot is to find a reason, any reason, to fire and relishes the opportunity to kill people. From the transcript, it seems like the missiles were fired before any explicit authorization was given, while the discussion on whether this was a legitimate target was still going on.

PILOT: Is that a rifle?
SENSOR: Can’t really tell right now.
PILOT: I was hoping we could make a rifle out. See if anybody else has anything interesting. What about the guy under the north arrow? Does it look like he’s holding something across his chest?
SENSOR: Yeah, it’s kind of weird how they all have a cold spot on their chest.
PILOT: They wrap their shit up in their man-dresses so you can’t identify it.
SENSOR: That truck would make a beautiful target. That’s a Chevy Suburban.
M.C.: Screener said at least one child near SUV.
SENSOR: Bullshit. Where? Send me a fucking still. I don’t think they have kids out at this hour. I know they’re shady, but come on.
M.C.: They’re reviewing.
PILOT: Yeah, review that shit. Why didn’t he say “possible child”? Why are they so quick to call kids but not to call a rifle?
M.C.: Two children were at the rear of the SUV. . . . I haven’t seen two children.
JAG 25: We’d like to keep tracking them. We want to take out the whole lot.
PILOT: I don’t think he’s going to let us shoot.
M.C.: That truck’s got everyone in the open, so a Hellfire would do dandy.
SENSOR: A gas tank makes for a good secondary, too. I hit a vehicle once before and it was a big black cloud.
PILOT: All three vehicles have just stopped. Everybody is dismounting. We have eighteen military-aged males dismounted and spreading out.
M.C.: Looks like blankets.
SENSOR: They’re praying, they are praying. . . . This is definitely it. This is their force.
M.C.: They’re going to do something nefarious. Maybe headquarters will let us have one vehicle since we tracked them for so long. . . . Adolescent near the rear of the SUV.
SENSOR: Well, teenagers can fight.
M.C.: Pick up a weapon and you’re a combatant: it’s how that works.
SENSOR: One guy praying at the front of the truck. . . . Sweet target. I’d try to go through the bed of the truck, put it right dead center.
M.C.: That’d be perfect.
PILOT: Can’t wait till this actually happens.
M.C.: Looks like they’re about to be coming up to a little town.
PILOT: Our screeners are currently calling twenty-one military-aged males, no females, and two possible children.
JAG 25: When we say children, are we talking teenagers or toddlers?
SENSOR: Not toddlers. Something more toward adolescents or teens.
JAG 25: Like I said, twelve to thirteen years old with a weapon is just as dangerous.
SENSOR: Oh, we agree, yeah.
PILOT: We understand and agree.
UNKNOWN VOICE: What’s the master plan, fellas?
PILOT: Hope we get to shoot the truck with all the dudes in it.
SENSOR: Tell you what. They could have had a whole fleet of Predator drones up here.
PILOT: It would have been awesome.
SENSOR: That would be badass. But . . . we’re not killers.
PILOT: Don’t worry about any guidance from me or Jaguar, just follow what makes the most sense to you. Stay with whomever you think gives us the best chance to shoot.
M.C.: They’re trying to confirm which vehicle has the kids in it — oh, the adolescents in it.
SENSOR: Roger. Oh . . . and there it goes!

[Drone strike takes place.]

SENSOR: Looks like they’re surrendering. They’re not running.
SAFETY OBSERVER: Dude, this is weird.
SENSOR: They’re just walking away. I don’t know about this. This is weird. They just got thrown from the vehicle.
PILOT: Three good hits on all three vehicles.
SENSOR: It looks like there’s a bunch of people just hanging out. Weapons? I don’t see any.
PILOT: Can’t tell what the fuck they’re doing.
SENSOR: Probably wondering what happened.
SAFETY OBSERVER: Are they wearing burkas?
PILOT: They were all I.D.’d as males, though.
SENSOR: That guy looks like he’s wearing jewelry. If he’s a girl, he’s a big one. . . . Looks like they’re trying to see what’s left of the vehicles.
SAFETY OBSERVER: You can see some blood right there . . .
SENSOR: It looks like those lumps are probably all people.
SENSOR: They’re all lying underneath tarps.
M.C.: Is that one guy tending to the other guy?
SAFETY OBSERVER: Looks like it. How do you treat a sucking gut wound?
SENSOR: Don’t push it back in. Wrap it in a towel. What are those?
M.C.: Women and children.
SENSOR: Looks like a kid.
SAFETY OBSERVER: Yeah. The one waving the flag.
PILOT: They said twenty-one males, no females.
SENSOR: Now they’re calling three females and one child. One possible child.
M.C.: Called him an adolescent earlier.
SENSOR: At this point I personally wouldn’t be comfortable shooting at these people.
PILOT: That lady is carrying a kid, huh?
M.C.: No.
SENSOR: Uh, yeah.
M.C.: The baby, I think on the right. Yeah.
M.C.: Yeah.
SENSOR: Right there in the crosshairs.
BAM BAM41: Just did a low pass and have three individuals in a brighter dress garb, supposedly females.
PILOT: It looks like one of those in the bright garb may be carrying a child as well.
SENSOR: Younger than an adolescent to me.
SAFETY OBSERVER: Well . . . no way to tell, man.
SENSOR: No way to tell from here.

Yeah, no way to tell, man, after you’ve blown them to smithereens. Before you were certain, or at least desperately wanted to be certain, that the targets were terrorists, and you were eagerly hoping to see anything that looked even remotely like a rifle or other weapon to justify firing on people.

As Norman Solomon points out the ratio of civilians to militants killed is much larger than the US government concedes. “From January 2012 to February 2013, those drone attacks in northeast Afghanistan killed more than 200 people, but only about one-sixth of them were the intended targets.” Of course, the US military routinely classifies many dead people as enemy combatants after the fact, as it is now doing with the massive 11-ton GBU-43/B Moab (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) bomb that was dropped on Afghanistan that they say killed 94 ISIS militants and no civilians, a claim that is being met with incredulity, especially since outside investigators are not being allowed into the area.

Using satellite imagery, ground footage and 3D visualisation, Alcis, an institute for geographical analysis, surveyed the targeted area in Nangarhar province.

It found 38 buildings and 69 trees destroyed within a 150-metre radius, challenging statements from locals who told reporters the bomb had damaged houses up to two miles away.

The imagery also shows no 300-metre crater, as had been expected prior to the strike. Alcis believes damage done further away is a result of ground fighting.

Alcis was also sceptical of the Afghan government’s assessment that the bomb killed 94 Isis militants. “I’m staggered by that,” said Richard Brittan, the institute’s managing director. “I simply don’t understand where they can get that number from.”

Government officials say they have pulled 94 Isis corpses out of the targeted tunnels.

Meanwhile, as the Guardian reported on a visit to Asadhkel village, 650 metres from the bomb site, other officials complained that the US military restricted or denied them access to the bomb site, where fighting continues.

The US has yet to put out a casualty estimate. The US military spokesman in Kabul, Capt William Salvin, would not comment on the Afghan numbers but said: “We have not been able to go in and do that assessment, and we’re probably not going to.”

He said it was “too dangerous” and that the military had “better things to do with our time”.

Alcis called the claim of no civilian casualties “anomalous”. The strike happened less than a month before harvest. Although many farmers had fled earlier fighting the valley, many would have returned to camp out near their crops, Brittan said.

“It’s the only place to be if you want to tend to those fields,” he said. “It is entirely possible that working-age male farmers could be counted as militants”.

Salvin said he was confident there had been no civilian casualties because the US had conducted persistent surveillance over the site for over a week before the strike.

And we know how infallible their surveillance system is.

I wonder if the images that the drone operators see are deliberately designed to be not too high of a resolution because if you can see clearly that faces of people and their expressions, it surely must become harder to murder them in cold blood. But if what you see are blurry blobs moving around, then one can treat them like video game targets, not real live human beings who have parents, spouses, siblings, and children.


  1. says

    if you can see clearly that faces of people and their expressions, it surely must become harder to murder them in cold blood.

    The data links are pretty low bandwidth.

    You can tell from the transcript that they’re eager to kill someone. I don’t see any reason to think that better visuals would dissuade then -- on the contrary, it might make them happier to make explosions out of people.

    I remember watching the collateral murder video, and I’ve read a few of these sorts of transcripts. They’re one reason I’m not very sympathetic when we’re expected to feel the pilots are wracked with regrets and didn’t know what they were getting into. Granted, they’re different people but it doesn’t seem hard at all for the government to find remote executioners who are excited by the opportunity and eager to kill.

  2. says

    Tabby Lavalamp@#1:
    Damn straight. Did you see today that the Russians proposed a no fly/safe zone in Syria and the US announced that we’re going to ignore it?
    Got high explosive to drop on people! STFU and don’t get in our way! Here comes another load of democracy!!

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tabby Lavalamp @ # 1: The United States is a rogue nation that needs to be isolated from civilized countries …

    Which ones are those?

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