An investigation by Connecting Vets reveals how a loosening of the Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan during the Trump administration designed to put pressure on the Taliban resulted in far more civilian casualties. The following article is based on over two dozen interviews with drone pilots, military lawyers, Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), as well as journal entries and footage from drones in 2019 obtained by Connecting Vets.
In the skies above Helmand, Afghanistan, an unblinking eye watched as an Afghan man wearing blue sat by a creek, propped up against a tree speaking into a two-way radio. For years, the Taliban had been destroying cell phone towers in the region, forcing locals to communicate with handheld radios.
It wasn’t unusual to own one, but finding the man down by the creek with a two-way radio was considered to be a big win by the U.S. military strike cell watching from above.
Scan Eagle pilots, flying a surveillance drone from a ground control unit located at Afghanistan’s Camp Dwyer, silently orbited overhead following the man with the radio for the next six hours on February 26, 2019. An open conference call connected the pilots to the Marine Corps-run strike cell at Camp Shorab where a sergeant coordinated with his commander, an Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), and a Judge Advocate General (JAG), as well as having an open line to pilots who flew the larger armed drone, known as the Gray Eagle, from their own ground control unit.
The Afghan man wearing the blue dishdasha, carrying his radio, got on a motorcycle and began driving north toward the city of Marjah. Helmand had long been considered to be an area largely under the influence, if not outright control, of the Taliban. There were virtually no American ground patrols in the province, and not many Afghan military ones either.
From the command center at Shorab, the JTAC greenlit the strike and the JAG blessed it as being lawful, in accordance with the laws of land warfare and their own Rules of Engagement. Influenced by the brutal fight against ISIS in Iraq several years prior and the need to put the Taliban under increased pressure during negotiations in Doha, the military had transitioned from intelligence-driven targeting to using a target engagement criteria.
That criteria could be met by spotting a rifle in someone’s hands, but first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, that threshold could be met by as little as a person using or even touching a radio. If an Afghan carrying one of the commercially bought two-way radios stepped into a home, the entire building would sometimes be leveled by a drone strike. On this occasion, the commander back at Shorab authorized the strike.
The drone operators waited until the man in blue was on an empty stretch of road in order to minimize collateral damage. The Scan Eagle pilot rotated his camera to lead the motorcycle a bit, in order to get a good view of the strike while the Gray Eagle drone, flying at a higher elevation fired one of its specialized high altitude Hellfire missiles. As the missile fired off of the drone’s rails, there would be about a five-second delay until it struck the man on the motorcycle.
Suddenly, the man in blue hit an intersection in the road just as another motorcycle with two adult riders who were also carrying a toddler passed by coming in the other direction. The missile was already in flight, and there was nothing anyone in the strike cell or any of the drone operators could do to stop it. The missile impacted the ground at the intersection, stirring up a cloud of gray and brown dust.
The man in blue, the Afghan with the radio who they had been tracking for six hours, “like a Bond villain goes through the cloud of smoke and drives off,” said a U.S. military official involved in the operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. No one ever knew his name or who he was, or if he ever had any actual Taliban connections. “The two adults and a toddler on the other motorcycle, they were killed right off,” the official said.
Everyone on the conference call stopped talking. “It got real quiet,” the official recalled.
For the Scan Eagle pilots, their macabre duty now transitioned to watching the bodies of the Afghan civilians, including the dead child as they were loaded on a truck and hauled off. It was common practice for them to watch the bodies, see who showed up to claim them, and where they were taken.
“We killed two innocent men and a charger,” the U.S. official wrote in a personal journal that day, using the military jargon “charger,” which means child.
“We were trying to kill a guy with a radio I’d found earlier in the day. He rode right through the blast and kept going. I watched a passerby load the bodies into a truck and drive them to a hospital. They are all dead.” Read more…