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America’s Lethal Profiling of Afghan Men | The Nation

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America’s Lethal Profiling of Afghan Men

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At 7:38 am, the Predator pilot reported “21 MAMs, no females, and 2 possible children.” The joint terminal attack controller, whose “A-Team” had received intelligence containing cellphone chatter that suggested an impending Taliban attack on US forces in the area, asked if “children” meant teenagers or toddlers. The sensor operator piped in, saying the youths were “adolescents or teens,” to which his partner agreed. “12-13 years old with a weapon is just as dangerous,” said the A-Team member. It would later be determined that the voices on the cellphones were unconnected to the people in the convoy. In fact, they weren’t even speaking the same language: those on the cellphones were speaking Pashto, and those in the convoy were speaking Dari. 

This special issue was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Alleen Brown contributed research.

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Nick Turse
Nick Turse is the managing editor of Tomdispatch.com and an Investigative Fund Fellow at The Nation Institute. He is...

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An hour later, the Kiowa helicopters were called in for the attack. The Predator pilot gave them a briefing on their targets: “Those are your three vehicles be advised we have about twenty-one MAMs, about three rifles so far PIDed in the group.”

The transcripts of the Kiowas’ radio traffic tells what happened next: 

Yep engaging. Good Hit we are turning out right.  Good Hit
Good Hit second missile….
Dudes are squirting.
Shoot the other hell fire and then we will deal with the individuals….
Got 5 guys heading on the right side of the road we are going to come in with 2 rockets I would like you to follow with 3 if our hits need a second….
Go back up to that trail vehicle you can see fucking dudes right there. 

The helicopters halted their attack only when they noticed some “squirters” were wearing brightly colored clothing associated with women. No weapons were found during a post-strike assessment by US troops. 

An officer interviewed as part of Army General McHale’s investigation said that Predator crews exhibited a “Top Gun” mentality. McHale concurred. General Otto’s later Air Force investigation, however, concluded that there was “no resemblance to a ‘Top Gun’ mentality” among his service’s personnel. But both generals agreed that the failure to spot women in the convoy, as well as a willingness to see adolescents “transformed into military aged males,” as Otto put it, played an outsize role in the attack. 

McHale’s report states unequivocally that “throughout the encounter, all parties involved assumed that all adult males were legitimate targets and even teenagers old enough to fight were legitimate targets.” This mindset can have dire effects in Afghanistan, where there are an estimated 8.7 million men between 15 and 64—roughly 28 percent of the population. (The average life expectancy of Afghan men is 49, only four years beyond military age.) 

Shortly after the Uruzgan incident, Gen. Stanley McChrystal banned the use of the term “military-age male,” noting that it implied every adult man was a combatant. But a review by The Nation of official military documents produced since then indicates that the phrase—and the mindset behind it—lives on. 

Making and Breaking the Rules of Engagement

Under both the ISAF rules of engagement (ROE) and the US military’s standing rules of engagement (SROE), troops have the “inherent right and obligation” to defend themselves in the face of not only a hostile act but also hostile intent. Under both sets of rules, hostile intent includes “the threat of imminent use of force.” The US SROE, however, claims the word does not “necessarily mean immediate or instantaneous.” Despite this caveat, a 2009 tactical directive states that airstrikes and indirect-fire weapons, like mortars and artillery, cannot be used against Afghan compounds unless units receive “immediate, effective fires from positively identified forces.” And an ISAF fragmentary order from the same year explicitly declares that airstrikes to protect troops “in contact” with enemy forces can be called for only in the case of “imminent” threat, explicitly noting that the standard definition of the word—i.e., “immediate”—applies. 

ROE Vignettes Handbook, a 2011 manual for US combat troops, small-unit commanders and military legal officers, presents dozens of detailed scenarios designed to teach troops how to apply the rules. Whenever circumstances permit, according to the handbook, even those displaying hostile intent “should be warned and given opportunity to withdraw or cease threatening actions.” In fact, as another Army manual states, “In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.” 

This guidance echoes a 2008 Marine Corps manual, with vignettes set in Iraq, that offers a scenario in which men are pulled from a car filled with weapons in the wake of an IED attack that seriously injures US troops. The men start to run and ignore orders to halt. Are US troops justified in shooting them? The rules are clear: “MAMs fleeing Marine apprehension are not evidence of a hostile act or evidence of hostile intent. Employment of deadly force is not justified.” 

Despite such admonitions, US troops have bent, evaded or ignored them. As General McHale found in his investigation of the killings in Uruzgan, “the Commands had sufficient information to conclude that the vehicles were not demonstrating a hostile intent and did not represent an imminent threat.” This was not an isolated case. For example, just eleven days before the Uruzgan airstrike, according to a 2010 US military study of civilian casualties obtained by The Nation, a coalition patrol spotted “several individuals and vehicles with a machine gun and multiple AK-47s in a suspected improvised explosive device (IED) emplacement site.” The men engaged in no hostile acts, but a “sniper shot four of the individuals and the rest of the unit moved in to cut off the potential route of egress.” As the troops neared the suspected insurgents, they noticed some of the men were wearing uniforms and later determined they were part of a US Marine–sponsored security detail protecting construction workers repairing IED-damaged roads. 

Just two days after that incident, US Special Operations Forces joined with Afghan police to conduct a night raid on a home in Paktia Province, looking for Taliban suspects. When two of the compound’s residents, a local police chief and a district prosecutor, emerged with AK-47s, they were gunned down, as were three women who came to their aid, according to Afghan witnesses. (For two months, ISAF claimed it was not accountable for the deaths of these five civilians, before finally taking responsibility.) This was no anomaly. An investigation by Gareth Porter of Inter-Press Service suggests that night raids may have killed more than 1,500 civilians in a ten-month period during 2010 and 2011. The bulk of these noncombatants, he suggests, were military-age males who were counted as insurgents in ISAF press releases and official data. Since almost every adult Pashtun male in Afghanistan has a personal weapon and is bound, under the ancient code of Pashtunwali, to defend his home, family and friends against attackers, Porter notes, “the non-targeted civilians killed in night raids have invariably been either close relatives or neighbors who have come out to assist against an armed assault.” 

On July 7, 2010, in Ghazni Province, Afghan soldiers were conducting an early-morning ambush aimed at insurgent forces when NATO aircraft began firing on them, according to Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi. “We were obviously not absolutely clear whether there were Afghan national security forces in the area,” NATO spokesman Josef Blotz said afterward. “The reason for this is perhaps a coordination issue.” Another key reason left unstated, it appears, was the fact that the men were Afghans, of military age and armed. 

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