Afghans protesting killing of civilians in raid by US/ISAF forces, Kabul, December 2009. Reuters/Ahmad Masood

Severe facial trauma and right-leg fracture. Right-leg amputation, lower left-leg fracture and pulmonary embolism. Lower left-leg amputation and multiple shrapnel wounds. Twelve injured in all. 

And they were the lucky ones. 

On February 21, 2010, Hellfire missiles from US helicopters streamed down on a convoy filled with militants—military-age males armed with rifles—near Shahidi Hassas, in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan Province. The band of insurgents was preparing to attack a small US force that was conducting a village raid with Afghan security forces. But the Americans had monitored their cellphone calls and knew all about their plans. A Predator drone had been surveilling their every move for hours and sending video feed to a base in Nevada. Air Force personnel there and at other facilities viewed the footage and helped coordinate the helicopter assault that blasted the caravan before it could attack the Americans. 

As many as twenty-seven Taliban were killed in the strike, in addition to the twelve injured. Except they weren’t Taliban—or insurgents of any kind. There was no evidence they had been talking on the phone about attacking the Americans, and they weren’t converging on the site of the US operation. They weren’t all military age, and they weren’t even all men. 

After separate investigations, a US Army general and a US Air Force general came to independent conclusions about what led to the attack. “The Predator crew’s faulty communications clouded the picture on adolescents and allowed them to be transformed into military aged males,” wrote Air Force Gen. Robert Otto. According to Army Gen. Timothy McHale, “The strike occurred because the ground force commander lacked a clear understanding of who was in the vehicles…. The crew of the unmanned Predator aircraft…led [the US troops conducting the village raid] to believe that the vehicles contained only armed military aged males.” Both generals blamed US personnel for failing to see that a number of women and children were riding in the convoy. 

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) claims that it has never targeted and killed a military-age male who was later found not to be an insurgent. When asked for clarification—and excepting instances of so-called collateral damage—the command offered further explanation: “ISAF forces have not and do not engage individuals because they are of military age,” a spokesperson told The Nation. “ISAF forces do not engage individuals unless they demonstrate hostile intent or commit a hostile act.” However, a review by The Nation of hundreds of pages of investigative documents relating to the Uruzgan attack indicates that civilians were targeted and killed because US military personnel did in fact believe that any military-age male carrying a weapon should be considered a combatant.   

The Afghanistan Civilian Casualty Prevention handbook, published last year by the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL), suggests this was far from an isolated case, noting: “A number of incidents have illustrated the danger of using ‘leading language’ or selective facts that might unintentionally suggest hostile intent. One such commonly used term is MAM (military-age male), which implies that the individuals are armed forces and therefore legitimate targets.” 

Further analysis by The Nation indicates that despite rules of engagement to the contrary, an anti-MAM mindset has pervaded the entire chain of command, from the rural backlands of Afghanistan to military bases in America to the Oval Office in Washington. This lethal form of profiling has led to countless deaths over the course of the war. 

Interactive Database: America's Afghan Victims

The Uruzgan Massacre

From almost the first moment americans started watching the trucks driving through rural Uruzgan, the language they used conveyed a desire to attack, according to transcripts of radio transmissions and electronic chat communications released to the Los Angeles Times under the Freedom of Information Act. “Yeah, those vehicles are bad we’re gonna have to get [to] work on trying to get enough to engage,” the joint terminal attack controller, one of the Americans on the ground, told the crew of an AC-130 gunship flying in the skies above. “Roger that,” was the response of a crew member on the aircraft, who noted that there appeared to be “unlawful personnel in the back” of the vehicles, despite a lack of evidence of weapons or hostile intent. 

The Americans immediately set to work on “trying to get enough to engage,” straining to “PID” (positively identify) weapons in the two SUVs and one pickup as they rambled down a dirt road on that early February morning. The pilot and the sensor operator for a drone conducting surveillance discussed what they were seeing with screeners (video analysts) at another US base, their mission intelligence coordinator and a safety observer, in addition to troops in Afghanistan—including the crew of the AC-130 and the Kiowa light attack helicopters that later arrived on the scene. 

“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.” 

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. 

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. 

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.


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

Take Action: Demand the US Military Prioritize Civilian Lives