Tag Archives: bugsplats

How to Break the Rules without Breaking the Law

In 2009,  coalition casualties in Afghanistan had as much as doubled in the space of a year. Civilian casualties climbed to 2412. It was 2009. Coalition forces had been there since 2001 with no end and, to this point, no real campaign plan in sight…

Chris Masters, who was the only journalist to have been embedded with Australian special forces soldiers (SASR) in Afghanistan, believes a desensitisation occurred within the forces that allegedly allowed a “kill count mentality to develop”…SASR’s sabre squadrons are the tips of a trident of land, air and water operators, with the “wateries” an elite within an elite. And like their US counterparts, the Navy SEALs, unquestionable ability can come tinged with arrogance. In SASR, their rock-star persona did not sit easily with everyone when modesty was supposed to be a core value…

The most prominent allegation is traced to an assault on a compound codenamed Whiskey 108 at Kakarak in Oruzgan on Easter Sunday 2009…As shooting erupted, one operator remembers thinking: “I am going to die today.” Instead, methodically, they closed in on the remaining enemy, killing them one by one.  At this time Australian weapons were again heard firing and soldiers entering the compound saw something hurled from a window. It was an older man with a prosthetic leg, shot and now lying dead. The prosthetic leg was souvenired and returned to Perth to be fashioned into a drinking vessel.  What troubled a range of witnesses was not so much the killing of the men, who whether armed or unarmed were considered Taliban. It was more that the grim task of pulling the trigger had been pushed onto a “rookie”. As one operator told me: “If s— needs to be done, do it yourself.”

In rotations to come, the concept of blooding became well known. What became more disturbing was a suspicion the practise was not only about a first kill but also executing prisoners. ..What was not thought through was how many of the “blooded rookies” would be haunted well into the future by what was done…Soldiers began to refer to some of their members having gone “up the Congo”, into the moral wilderness of novelist Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Numerous witnesses have spoken of one SASR team posting a kill board on their door. The patrol commander was heard talking about needing more kills and subsequently of the goal being met….

As the mission wore on, further alleged breaches of the rules of armed conflict began to emerge, conspicuously contained to Special Forces and most particularly to SASR. The “Who Dares Wins” ethos of the regiment encourages the testing of boundaries. As they often tell themselves, “you break the rules but not the law”.

Exceprts from Chris Masters, Australia’s ugly turn in Afghanistan, Sydney Morning Herald, June 8, 2018

Killing them like Flies: the Enduring Myth of Precise Airstrikes

Inside a B-52. Image from wikipedia

The American-led war against the Islamic State began in August 2014. …In the effort to expel ISIS from Iraq and Syria, the coalition has conducted more than 27,500 strikes to date [Nov. 2017], deploying everything from Vietnam-era B-52 bombers to modern Predator drones. That overwhelming air power has made it possible for local ground troops to overcome heavy resistance and retake cities throughout the region. “U.S. and coalition forces work very hard to be precise in airstrikes,” Maj. Shane Huff, a spokesman for the Central Command, told us, and as a result “are conducting one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.”

The US military planners describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.

The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.

NY Times reporting…found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes, people like…remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.

Excerpts from A The Uncounted, New York Times, Nov. 16, 2017

Spreading the War Bug

Foreign Policy reported recently that key officials within the Trump administration are “pushing to broaden the war in Syria, viewing it as an opportunity to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground there”. The strategy was being advocated over objections from the Pentagon, but it doesn’t seem to be deterring the White House.  As the Washington Post made clear just a few days ago, Iranian and US forces have already been directly clashing in the region, and officials are busy planning the “next stage” of the Syria war once Isis is defeated – a plan that centers around directly attacking the Iranians….

Just this weekend, Politico quoted key Republican senator Tom Cotton saying: “The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran.” The CIA has already expanded its Iranian covert operations, while the main White House liaison to intelligence agencies, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, has reportedly“told other administration officials that he wants to use American spies to help oust the Iranian government”. And US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, in little noticed comments to Congress last week, called for “regime change” in Iran as well (albeit a “peaceful” one – whatever that means)…

The Trump administration’s plans may not stop in Syria either. Some officials have allegedly also been pushing for the Pentagon to step up its support of Saudi Arabia’s appalling war in Yemen, which has left 20 million people on the verge of starvation – all to go after Iranian-backed forces in the region as well.

All this comes as the Trump administration ramps up war across the Middle East. They are conducting drone strikes at a rate almost four times that of the Obama administration; civilian deaths from US forces in Syria have skyrocketed; special operations in Somalia have been ramping up; and the Pentagon is sending thousands of more troops to Afghanistan.

Excerpt from: Trevor Timm, Trump administration Donald Trump’s bloodlust for war in the Middle East risks chaos, Guardian, June 27, 2017

How to Hide Drones, CIA, Pakistan, and the bugsplats

One day in March an American drone circled above Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area, zeroed in on a gathering of village men, some of whom were armed, and unleashed three missiles in quick succession. It turned out to be a meeting to settle a dispute over a chromite mine. Most of the 40 or so killed were civilians, according to accounts, though a dozen Taliban also died in the attack, including a local commander, Sherabat Khan. The Taliban nowadays often adjudicate quarrels in the tribal areas, a wild buffer zone that runs along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

The attack illustrated two problems with the drone war in the tribal regions: the risk of civilian casualties, and Pakistan’s ambiguous attitude towards America’s use of drones. Pakistan’s army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, called the strike a “complete violation of human rights”. For Pakistan, the difficulty went beyond civilian casualties. Khan was a lieutenant of a notable warlord, Gul Bahadur. But Pakistan considers Mr Bahadur to be a “good Taliban”, ie, one who has agreed to fight only in Afghanistan, not on Pakistani soil. After the strike, he threatened to tear up the deal.

Relations between the governments in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, and Washington, DC, are deeply troubled by the issue of drones. Though it publicly denounces the drone strikes, Pakistan certainly does not want all of them stopped. Indeed, the co-operation of Pakistani intelligence is crucial to employing the drones. But the army wants the number of strikes reduced, concentrating on targets both countries can agree on. America has told Pakistan bluntly it must either flush the Taliban and other jihadists out of their safe havens in North Waziristan, or it will continue with what amounts to an assassination campaign there. Pakistan says it cannot launch a ground offensive in North Waziristan because its armed forces are already stretched.

The drone attacks, a supposedly “secret” programme started by the CIA in 2004, have been ramped up over the past three years, with a record 118 strikes last year and 50 so far in 2011. The drones started under President Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler. There were just nine strikes from 2004 to the end of 2007. According to Pakistani officials, it was supposed to be a highly selective programme for eliminating terrorist leaders in the tribal areas, under an understanding that gave the Americans the use of at least one remote Pakistani air base for the drones. The drones also take off from Afghanistan, but are operated thousands of miles away by a “pilot” at a desk in America, watching a video feed from the aircraft. A successful hit is known in the CIA as a “bugsplat”. It is all horribly like a video game.

The New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank, found that up to 2,551 people have been killed in the strikes since 2004. Based on press reports, it estimates that 80% of them were militants, rising to a pretty astonishing 95% in 2010. In recent months, there has been a move away from blowing up compounds to targeting vehicles, where militants can more easily be hit without killing civilians. Even for compounds, smaller missiles are used to try to limit the damage to the separate male living quarters. Perceptions on the ground, however, are often different. The foundation’s own poll in the tribal areas last year found only 16% believe the drones accurately target militants. But many locals privately support the strikes against extremists who have overrun their homeland.

Accepting the figure for the success rate in killing militants nevertheless means that fully 500 or so Pakistani civilians have been killed since 2004. Unlike, say, in the war in Afghanistan, there is no investigation of civilian casualties, and no compensation paid. Transparency and accountability are absent, and some question the legal basis of the attacks. The programme is a charade because the CIA never admits to it and Pakistan pretends that it does not co-operate. A legal action launched this month, initially in Pakistan, with the backing of Reprieve, a campaigning group, seeks the arrest of a former CIA lawyer, John Rizzo, who boasted in a magazine interview this year that he used to approve a monthly list of some 30 individuals to be targeted by the drones.

Whatever the outcome of that case, a debate will grind on about whether the strikes are harming al-Qaeda and related groups, or spurring on Afghanistan’s powerful insurgency. According to the New America Foundation, out of the 2,600-odd deaths, 35 were recognised militant chiefs, or just 1.3% of the total. Among the successes was the fearsome leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, who was the country’s number one public enemy. Still, the vast majority of targets have been low-level fighters. All the while, the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan, many launched from Pakistan, has soared over the past year or more.

Drones in Pakistan, Out of the blue, Economist, July 30, 2011. at 36-37