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The US drone assassinations

The Intercept has obtained a cache of secret documents detailing the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The documents, provided by a whistleblower, offer an unprecedented glimpse into Obama’s drone wars.

Manhunting in the Hindu Kush

Key points:

  • ... the Haymaker campaign was in many respects a failure. The vast majority of those killed in airstrikes were not the direct targets. Nor did the campaign succeed in significantly degrading al Qaeda’s operations in the region.

  • The documents show that during a five-month stretch of the campaign, nearly nine out of 10 people who died in airstrikes were not the Americans’ direct targets. By February 2013, Haymaker airstrikes had resulted in no more than 35 “jackpots,” a term used to signal the neutralization of a specific targeted individual, while more than 200 people were declared EKIA — “enemy killed in action.”

  • If there is no evidence that proves a person killed in a strike was either not a MAM [military-age male], or was a MAM but not an unlawful enemy combatant, then there is no question,” he said. “They label them EKIA.” In the case of airstrikes in a campaign like Haymaker, the source added, missiles could be fired from a variety of aircraft. “But nine times out of 10 it’s a drone strike.

  • Firing a missile at a target in a group of people, the source said, requires “an even greater leap of faith” — a leap that he believes often treats physical proximity as evidence.

  • Every mission that’s triggered begins as an objective to find one person for whatever reason,” the source said, adding, “Every jackpot is one person off the list.

  • He [Larry Lewis, formerly a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses] found that drone strikes in Afghanistan were 10 times more likely to kill civilians than conventional aircraft. “We assume that they’re surgical but they’re not,” Lewis said in an interview. “Certainly in Afghanistan, in the time frame I looked at, the rate of civilian casualties was significantly higher for unmanned vehicles than it was for manned aircraft airstrikes. And that was a lot higher than raids.

  • ... the U.S. conducted more than 1,800 “night ops” at a time when President Hamid Karzai was calling for an end to American involvement in controversial night raids. Of those operations — which resulted in 1,239 targets captured or killed and 709 “associates” of targets captured or killed — the military reported “shots fired” in less than 9 percent of its missions, with a total of 14 civilian casualty “events” for the year.

  • One of the Salafists pictured was Haji Matin, a timber trader from the Korengal Valley. In the early years of the war, one of Matin’s business rivals wrongly fingered him as a militant to the Americans. U.S. forces responded by bombing Matin’s home. While Matin survived, several members of his family were killed. The Americans then appropriated one of his lumberyards as an outpost, thus turning one of the most powerful men in the area into a formidable insurgent leader. The transformation of men like Matin and the Salafists, once locally minded powerbrokers, into anti-U.S. fighters, was hardly unique.

  • After nearly a decade of war, thousands of operations, and thousands of deaths, some within the special operations community began to question the quality of the United States’ targets in Afghanistan. “By 2010, guys were going after street thugs,” a former SEAL Team 6 officer told the New York Times recently. “The most highly trained force in the world, chasing after street thugs.” Concerns that the U.S. was devoting tremendous resources to kill off a never-ending stream of nobodies did little to halt the momentum.

  • The hunting and killing operations relied on advanced technology to zero in on targets, including the cellphone geolocation system known as GILGAMESH. As The Intercept reported in 2014, the GILGAMESH system employs a simulated cellphone tower to identify and locate targeted SIM cards.

  • The documents indicate that U.S. forces launched just one airstrike as part of the Haymaker campaign in the early months of 2012, killing two people. In May 2012, however, the tempo of operations picked up dramatically, an increase that coincided with a strategic shift in Afghanistan emanating from the White House. As the military’s focus shifted to hunting down specific targets from 2011 to 2012, drone strikes in Afghanistan increased by 72 percent.

  • The scores of unnamed people killed in the hunt for jackpots, and the intelligence opportunities lost by failing to capture targets alive, do not appear to factor into the calculation. The apparent success rate, in other words, depends solely on killing jackpots, and ignores the strategic — and human — consequences of killing large numbers of bystanders.

  • The deaths of just over half the individuals were noted in NATO’s press releases or media reports.

  • Kinetic strikes, the slide reported, “successfully killed one [al Qaeda] target per year,” allowing the organization to “easily” reconstitute. [...] Haymaker’s impact on al Qaeda and Taliban enablers in Kunar and Nuristan was “considered temporary without a long-term, persistent campaign.”

  • ... Afghan military forces were barred from calling in U.S. airstrikes for support on missions. The order followed an operation in Kunar in which NATO and Afghan forces were blamed for the deaths of 10 civilians — including one man, four women, and five children. In 2012, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan had documented a number of other incidents involving civilian deaths resulting from U.S. operations, including a raid that left seven civilians dead, an “aerial attack” that killed seven children and one adult, and a drone strike targeting “two insurgents” that killed a teenage girl.

  • ... Haymaker coincided with an increase in drone strikes and civilian casualties across Afghanistan. By the end of 2013, the U.N. reported the number of civilian casualties from drone strikes in Afghanistan had tripled from 2012, with “almost one-third of the civilian deaths from aerial operations” reported in Kunar, the heart of the Haymaker campaign.

  • Records of condolence payments disbursed by the U.S. military, obtained by The Intercept, show more than $118,000 distributed in 45 disbursements to Kunar in fiscal years 2011 through 2013. In addition to numerous injuries, the payments also cover the deaths of 27 people, including at least four children. The records do not indicate whether the incidents were linked to the Haymaker campaign or whether they were the result of mistaken ground raids or airstrikes.

  • Unleashed in the early morning hours of October 3, in the province of Kunduz, the U.S. attack killed at least a dozen members of the humanitarian group’s medical staff and 10 patients, including three children. A nurse on the scene recalled seeing six victims in the intensive care unit ablaze in their beds. “There are no words for how terrible it was,” the nurse said. MSF denounced the strike as a war crime and demanded an independent investigation.

  • After nearly a decade and a half of war, more than 2,300 American lives lost, and an estimated 26,000 Afghan civilians killed, the nature of combat in Afghanistan is entering a new, potentially bloodier, phase. In August, the United Nations reported that civilian casualties in Afghanistan “are projected to equal or exceed the record high numbers documented last year.” While most civilian casualties in the first half of 2015 were attributed to “anti-government” forces, 27 deaths and 22 injuries were attributed to airstrikes “by international military forces,” a 23 percent increase over last year, most of them, unlike the air raid in Kunduz, carried out by drones.

  • Despite the rise in civilian casualties and the well-documented failure of drone strikes to achieve the military’s broader objectives, there is every indication that unmanned airstrikes will play an increasing role in U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, as they have in war zones across the world.

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