America’s Lethal Profiling of Afghan Men
A Persistent Problem
The killing of innocent military-age males by US and coalition forces has been a feature of the war from the earliest days. In February 2002, for example, the CIA carried out what is believed to be its first lethal attack by a remotely piloted drone, killing three men near Zhawar Kili, in Paktia Province. Details are scarce and still shrouded in secrecy, but some reports suggest that the height of one of the men caused the Americans to suspect that he might be Osama bin Laden. After the strike, however, a Pentagon spokesperson admitted, “We do not know yet exactly who it was.” Another spokesperson later said there were “no initial indications that these were innocent locals,” but reports in the years since suggest that the three men were civilians collecting scrap metal.
Most killings of military-age males have not resulted from strikes on high-value targets. In fact, a 2012 analysis by Spencer Ackerman at Wired’s Danger Room found that despite regular claims of killing and capturing insurgent leaders, ISAF “doesn’t have any clear idea what ‘leader’ means. Any insurgent who commands another person apparently qualifies.” It’s highly questionable whether many of those killed were even insurgents. According to Thomas Mahnken, a former deputy assistant defense secretary under Presidents Bush and Obama who now teaches at the US Naval War College, body count statistics proffered by the United States and NATO indicate that the Taliban have been destroyed several times over.
A 2011 analysis by Gareth Porter was especially damning: he found that more than 80 percent of so-called Taliban fighters captured in Special Operations Forces raids “were released within days of having been picked up, because they were found to have been innocent civilians, according to official U.S. military data.” Still more were released after their files were reviewed, pushing the total to about 90 percent. Whether a similar percentage of noncombatants has been killed in home raids remains unknown, but ISAF’s propensity for confusing combatants and civilians raises questions about how often coalition forces have killed innocent men—but without drawing increased scrutiny by also killing women, as was the case in the 2010 raid by Special Operations Forces in Paktia. “They have a tendency to assume that anyone old enough to hold a gun is a combatant,” Rachel Reid, who has followed civilian casualty issues for the BBC and Human Rights Watch, told The Nation. “In night raids, people often take up weapons to defend themselves.”
Civilians have been killed for even less. Documents released by WikiLeaks, for example, detail an incident on November 29, 2009, in which ISAF forces entered a compound and encountered an Afghan man. According to a raw internal report, the man “made a quick, aggressive movement towards the FF [friendly forces] with something in his hand, which was perceived to be offensive in nature.” The man was shot and killed, after which it was found that the object in his hand was a flashlight. (A January 2012 request for more details filed by The Nation under the Freedom of Information Act is still unresolved.) A 2011 study on night raids by the Open Society Foundations and the Liaison Office, an Afghan peace and reconstruction NGO established in 2003, found that noncombatants have been killed during night raids for such innocuous acts as sleeping near a weapon, running away from raiders or simply “stepping out” of a compound while a raid was in progress. During one raid, an 81-year-old man was fatally shot after exhibiting “hostile intent.” The act that got him killed? Picking up his cellphone while in bed.
Last year in Kapisa Province, ISAF forces “identified several groups of adult-sized Afghan males that were leaving the village at different times and in different directions,” according to US Brig. Gen. Lewis Boone. “One of these groups, consisting of eight persons, appeared to be carrying weapons and heading for the nearby mountains. Their purposeful movements and the weapons they were seen to be carrying led the ground commander to believe this group was getting ready to attack and were an imminent threat to the Afghan National Police and coalition forces in the valley.” An airstrike was called in and two bombs dropped, but the suspected insurgents turned out to be Afghan children, according to press reports. “Despite all tactical directives being followed precisely, we now know the unfortunate results of this engagement,” Boone said. “In the end, eight young Afghans lost their lives in this very sad event.” When asked recently by The Nation about investigations or other actions taken in the wake of the deaths, ISAF spokeswoman Maj. Lori Hodge stated, “The investigation was completed and concluded that the CIVCAS [civilian casualty] allegations were unfounded.”
Following the Commander in Chief’s Lead
The fact that young male civilians repeatedly die at the hands of coalition forces, despite claims that “all tactical directives” are being followed, indicates a serious failure on the part of ISAF. But the mindset behind this failure can be traced to the commander in chief of the US military.
In May 2012, The New York Times detailed President Obama’s lead role in a top-secret process for targeting suspected terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. Under this system, the president approves “nominations” to a “kill list,” selects the targets and then gives final orders (for airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia, as well as “more complex” attacks in Pakistan). According to administration officials cited by the Times, all military-age males in a strike zone are counted as combatants, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” While John Brennan, then the president’s counterterrorism adviser, insisted in a 2011 speech that not one civilian had been killed in drone strikes that year, and while other counter-terrorism officials are equally insistent that innocents rarely if ever die in these attacks, a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggests otherwise. That British nonprofit news group found that between 407 and 926 civilians were killed in drone attacks in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013, with the majority of these strikes having taken place during the Obama administration. In its investigation, the Times found three former senior intelligence officials who did not believe the claim that few or no civilians had been killed in the attacks. One administration official even said the White House was operating on the premise of “guilt by association” in its targeting methods. “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official told the Times. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
While the majority of CIA drone strikes have been carried out in Pakistan, the guilt-by-association and guilty-until-proven-innocent mindset in the Oval Office appears to differ little from the attitudes of the military personnel involved in the February 2010 airstrike in Uruzgan Province and other attacks.
When asked whether President Obama considers all military-age males in a strike zone to be legitimate targets, then–National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor refused to comment specifically. “President Obama made clear from the outset that we were going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the American people from harm, and particularly from a terrorist attack,” he told The Nation. “But at the same time, the president also made clear from the outset of his administration that we were at all times going to act in a manner that was both lawful and consistent with our values.” Vietor went on to state that Obama “is determined to be absolutely relentless in going after those terrorist groups and individuals who are directly threatening to US interests, while also taking extraordinary care to ensure that our actions would not have unintended consequences or somehow leave us less safe.”
The evidence suggests that US and coalition forces have not been taking “extraordinary care” in Afghanistan and that, as a result, civilian men and boys have paid a grave price. Hard numbers are impossible to come by, and even anecdotal reports are generally limited to cases in which women and children—who can less readily be cast as dead insurgents—were killed alongside males. “We were always disagreeing with ISAF on the number of civilians killed,” a former UN human rights official told The Nation. “There was the whole question of adult males—for [ISAF], they were always insurgents. And we were getting testimony from the families that they were farmers.”
From the president of the United States to the troops on the ground in Afghanistan, to the military personnel conducting drone strikes from bases in America, a mindset that equates military-age males with insurgents seems to prevail, making the killing of innocents all but inevitable. Nor is there any evidence that this situation will abate so long as US-led coalition forces remain in the country.
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE
“America’s Afghan Victims,” by Bob Dreyfuss and Nick Turse
“Afghanistan’s Casualty Data Black Market,” by Nick Turse
“How the US War in Afghanistan Fueled the Taliban Insurgency,” by Bob Dreyfuss
“Marla Ruzicka’s Heroism,” by Sarah Holewinski
and also online:
“Blood Money: Afghanistan’s Reparations Files,” by Nick Turse
“Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War,” by Bob Dreyfuss