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.”