America’s Lethal Profiling of Afghan Men
“Does he have a weapon?” asked the Predator pilot sitting at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. “Can’t tell yet,” replied the sensor operator, the man controlling the drone’s camera, seated near him. Despite being unable to positively identify weapons, the drone crew began preparing themselves for an attack. “Be ready for a lot of [expletive deleted by government censors] squirters, dude,” said the pilot, using slang for people who run for cover during an air attack. “Is that a [expletive] rifle?” he asked, but when the sensor operator said he couldn’t tell, the pilot expressed resignation and, minutes later, exasperation. “It’s what they’ve been doing here lately, they wrap their [expletive] up in their man dresses so you can’t PID it.”
The sensor operator responded by recalling a recent attack in which, despite the failure to identify weapons, a group of men were apparently targeted and killed. “There was a shot a couple weeks ago they were on those guys for hours and never saw them like sling a rifle but pictures we got of them blown up on the ground had all sorts of [expletive].” It’s anyone’s guess if those who were “blown up” were, in fact, insurgents. Possessing small arms in Afghanistan is not illegal and does not necessarily mean that a person is a Taliban fighter. After more than three decades of war, Afghanistan is awash in weapons, thanks in large part to the United States. During the 1980s, billions of US dollars were funneled into training and arming the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation forces, leaving the country overflowing with everything from rifles to machine guns to Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Since 2001, the United States has flooded the country with hundreds of thousands of weapons earmarked for the Afghan National Security Forces, but at least one-third of these, according to a 2009 US government investigation, have gone missing. Some find their way into the hands of insurgents; others wind up in the hands of those hoping to defend themselves in clan and tribal disputes, or from criminal gangs and other armed groups.
Col. Roger Turner, who until last year commanded a Marine regiment in Helmand Province, explained to The Nation: “With respect to Afghan males carrying weapons, they can’t be engaged unless they demonstrate that they are hostile. We have 8,000 Afghan forces in southern Helmand. Sometimes these men will be out of uniform after their duty day is done or on holidays, so being a male with a gun certainly is not viewed as hostile by the Marines.”
To the Air Force personnel in the United States monitoring the situation in Uruzgan, however, military-age men were likely insurgents, and it was their job to figure out a way to strike them. Just after the sensor operator and pilot had mentioned a “possible weapon on the MAM” in the back of the pickup truck, a screener in Florida reported seeing a child near one of the SUVs when the convoy had stopped. “Bull [expletive]… where!?” the sensor operator yelled. “Really? Assisting the MAM, uh, that means he’s guilty,” the pilot replied. “Why didn’t he say possible child, why are they so quick to call [expletive] kids but not to call [expletive] a rifle?”
The sensor operator carried on in the same vein. “I really doubt that children call, man I really [expletive] hate that,” he said, before constructing a scenario by which a strike would be permissible under the rules of engagement. The Americans would need the insurgents to fire first, “cause then it essentially puts any possible civilian casualties on the enemy.” The sensor operator had even picked out the vehicle he hoped to target, saying, “I want this pickup truck full of dudes.” When he announced that a third vehicle had joined the convoy, the mission intelligence coordinator responded, “Guilty by association.”
According to the transcripts, the Americans filled in more details as they continued to monitor the vehicles: “Well, they certainly have…2 SUVs and a pickup truck with at least 5 dudes in the back, maybe 6. If the 4 door pickup truck is full, we’re talking about maybe 10 guys in the pickup truck, probably 6-7 in each SUV, upwards of 25 guys possibly.” Soon after, the convoy halted, as it periodically did that morning. The pilot said eighteen people had left the vehicles and were “spreading out.” “They’re praying, they are praying,” the sensor operator replied. “This is definitely…their force. Praying? I mean seriously, that’s what they do.”
“They’re gonna do something nefarious,” the mission intelligence coordinator offered, before adding that there was an “adolescent near the rear of the SUV.”
“Well, teenagers can fight,” said the sensor operator.
“Pick up a weapon and you’re a combatant, it’s how that works,” the intelligence coordinator agreed. The pilot then asked him to pass on this erroneous information to the screener; he didn’t want the screener to “freak out” if US aircraft strafed the convoy.
“Oh sweet target. I’d try to go through the bed, put it right dead center of the bed,” the sensor operator mused as men piled into the back of the pickup. “Oh, that’d be perfect,” the intelligence coordinator responded. A minute later, the sensor operator called out: “MAM near SUV appear[s] to be holding a weapon.”
As the minutes ticked off, the pilot and sensor operator war-gamed the scenarios. “Squirters; I’ll try and stay with the largest group,” said the latter, expressing a fear that, if attacked, the men might drop their weapons and cease to be legitimate targets. His partner replied that he would back him whatever he did: “Just follow whoever gives you the best opportunity to do something and ends with us shooting.” The sensor operator answered, “If they are still declared hostile we may get a chance.” As the morning progressed, the pilot would reiterate the point. “Hope we get to shoot the truck with all the dudes in it,” he said, adding later: “Stay with whoever you think gives us the best chance to shoot um at them.”