Afghanistan. The Remote Control and Sanitized War.

When the history books are written about the past fifty years in Afghanistan, the major competition will be between the former superpower, the Soviet Union, and the current remaining super power state, The United States (but who knows for how much longer at the rate we are destroying ourselves).

The competition will be for which state committed the most atrocities and did the greatest evil in Afghanistan during their respective occupations of that nation.

The use of unmanned drone attack planes removes the operators from the field to safety. Tragically, it also repeatedly leads to high levels of collateral damage to non-combatants. This has been seen again and again in the reports on attacks using these devices in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The morale dilemma is what is not being confronted by this nation in its rush to make this a 50 billion dollar a year industry for production of these remote control vehicles. The morale dilemma consists of this. What do we do to our soldiers when we turn war into a sanitary video game, where all actions are so removed from the violence being committed against other human beings? This sanitized form of warfare will only lead to more willingness to use these remote vehicles at every opportunity.

The tragic result will be even more innocent civilians killed. But more than that, the repeated deaths of large numbers of civilians continues to contribute to the hatred of America and its military by the people in the countries in which we are using these devices so frequently, with such devastating results.

That has been the greatest tragic and ironic consequence of the wars that were launched into Afghanistan and Iraq. Here we are over a decade later, not safer, but having convinced the majority of people in that region that we are indeed the Great Satan. Our actions have done more to drive recruitment to Al Qaeda and other militant, radical Islamic groups, than anything those groups could have done themselves. It has been totally counterproductive.

On Feb. 21, 2010, a convoy of vehicles carrying civilians headed down a mountain in central Afghanistan. American eyes were watching. For more than four hours, the U.S. military — including a Predator drone crew in Nevada, video screeners in Florida, an AC-130 airplane crew in the sky and an American special operations unit on the ground nearby — tracked the convoy, trying to decide whether it was friend or foe.

Transcripts of U.S. drone attack

“We have 18 pax [passengers] dismounted and spreading out at this time,” an Air Force pilot said from a cramped control room at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 7,000 miles away. He was flying a Predator drone remotely using a joystick, watching its live video transmissions from the Afghan sky and radioing his crew and the unit on the ground.

The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. “They’re praying. They are praying,” said the Predator’s camera operator, seated near the pilot.

By now, the Predator crew was sure that the men were Taliban. “This is definitely it, this is their force,” the cameraman said. “Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do.”

“They’re gonna do something nefarious,” the crew’s intelligence coordinator chimed in.

At 6:22 a.m., the drone pilot radioed an update: “All … are finishing up praying and rallying up near all three vehicles at this time.”

The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles.

“Oh, sweet target,” he said.

None of those Afghans was an insurgent. They were men, women and children going about their business, unaware that a unit of U.S. soldiers was just a few miles away, and that teams of U.S. military pilots, camera operators and video screeners had taken them for a group of Taliban fighters.

The Americans were using some of the most sophisticated tools in the history of war, technological marvels of surveillance and intelligence gathering that allowed them to see into once-inaccessible corners of the battlefield. But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

This is the story of that episode. It is based on hundreds of pages of previously unreleased military documents, including transcripts of cockpit and radio conversations obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the results of two Pentagon investigations and interviews with the officers involved as well as Afghans who were on the ground that day.

Technology can occasionally give you a false sense of security that you can see everything, that you can hear everything, that you know everything,” said Air Force Major Gen. James O. Poss, who oversaw the Air Force investigation. “I really do think we have learned from this.”

McChrystal issued letters of reprimand to four senior and two junior officers in Afghanistan. The Air Force said the Predator crew was also disciplined, but it did not specify the punishment. No one faced court-martial, the Pentagon said.

Several weeks after the attack, American officers travelled to the villages to apologize to survivors and the victims’ families.

They gave each survivor 140,000 afghanis, or about $2,900.

Families of the dead received $4,800.

Combat by camera.
Anatomy of an Afghan war tragedy

The use of remote control aircraft for intelligence purposes has become such a staple that the army has an ad specifically targeting attracting recruits to run them. These recruits must qualify for intelligence security status, as well.

US ARMY: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Operator (15W)

Questions about the moral dilemmas are not new to observers of this technology trend. Here are some comments in The Economist from a year ago.

WHAT the helicopter was to the Vietnam war, the drone is becoming to the Afghan conflict: both a crucial weapon in the American armoury and a symbol of technological might pitted against stubborn resistance. Pilotless aircraft such as the Predator and the Reaper, armed with Hellfire missiles, can hit targets without placing a pilot in harm’s way. They have proved particularly useful for assassinations. On February 17th, for example, Sheikh Mansoor, an al-Qaeda leader in the Pakistani district of North Waziristan, was killed by a drone-borne Hellfire. In consequence of this and actions like it, America wants to increase drone operations.

Assassinating “high value targets”, such as Mr Mansoor, often involves a moral quandary. A certain amount of collateral damage has always been accepted in the rough-and-tumble of the battlefield, but direct attacks on civilian sites, even if they have been commandeered for military use, causes queasiness in thoughtful soldiers. If they have not been so commandeered, attacks on such sites may constitute war crimes. And drone attacks often kill civilians. On June 23rd 2009, for example, an attack on a funeral in South Waziristan killed 80 non-combatants.

Such errors are not only tragic, but also counterproductive. Sympathetic local politicians will be embarrassed and previously neutral non-combatants may take the enemy’s side. Moreover, the operators of drones, often on the other side of the world, are far removed from the sight, sound and smell of the battlefield. They may make decisions to attack that a commander on the ground might not, treating warfare as a video game.

Droning on. How to build ethical understanding into pilotless war planes


Author: Ron