Since the Afghan War has ended, I have been surprised about how little reflection there has been about that war. There has been the usual blame game of the Republicans blaming Biden and the Democrats blaming Trump but there has been relatively little commentary about the war.
It was amazing to watch Afghanistan fall in like a week or two in spite of the huge investment made by the United States in dollars and lives over a period of 20 years. I would suggest that we need a more profound analysis of what went wrong if we are going to avoid repetition of this type of experience.
Americans were so far removed from the battlefield that we had little sense of the war. We heard about the use of drone technology but we have neglected grappling with the ethical issues around it. Drones were central to the War on Terror. They were our way of eliminating mortal risk on one side of the equation.
They allowed 24-hour surveillance of people of interest in combat zones including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Supposedly it was a way we could keep track of bad guys and at the same time minimize American casualties. Back during the Obama presidency, we started hearing about the use of kill lists. Targeted killings by drones became normalized.
The United States has carried out thousands of these drone strikes. They typically happen in remote areas far away from any media camera.
Right at the time that the United States forces were leaving Afghanistan, we did hear about a Kabul drone strike where American officials claimed they destroyed a car packed with multiple suicide bombers who were members of the Islamic State. It turned out a hellfire missile killed ten members of a family including several children. One of the dead was a former Afghan military officer who had served as a contractor for the U.S. forces.
When the true circumstances were revealed, official denials turned into a suggestion of possible investigation followed by mouthing of regret. In the Kabul incident, the military said that no discipline would be taken against anyone who was part of the attack that killed the family of ten.
That is the norm. This is a killing program conducted under tight secrecy with virtually no transparency or accountability.
Investigative journalists have tried to piece together a picture of the drone casualties. The U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated the total number of deaths from drone and other covert killing operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia as between 8,858 and 16,901 since drone strikes began in 2004. Of those killed, as many as 2,200 are believed to have been civilians.
Drone strikes have hit wedding parties, families traveling in cars, hospitals filled with patients and groups of farmers working in fields. The false promise was that drone strikes would demand absolute precision without harm to civilians.
The little-known case of Daniel Hale spotlights the use of assassination by drone. Hale served in the Air Force from 2009 to 2013 and he arrived in Afghanistan in 2012. From Bagram Air Base it was Hale’s job as a signals intelligence analyst to watch screens and direct drones to the location of a cell phone number in which the military had an interest.
When Hale successfully located the number, he would adjust settings and lock on the target. Then he would communicate by chat to a co-worker who focused the camera. An imagery analyst in the U.S., in coordination with a drone pilot and camera operator, would take over, using the information Hale provided.
Hale has written that partly this effort was about documenting the day-to-day life of suspected militants. Sometimes this could lead to an attempt at capture or other times, a decision to kill.
Watching and participating in the drone attacks proved traumatic and filled Hale with unease. He wrote, “Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions…how could it be considered honorable for me to continuously have laid in wait for the next opportunity to kill unsuspecting persons, who, more often than not, are posing no danger to me or any other person at the time.”
Months into his deployment in Afghanistan, Hale had a harrowing experience. He had been tracking the movements of a ring of car bomb manufacturers living around Jalalabad. One of the suspects took off, driving at a high rate of speed. Hale’s superiors thought he might be escaping to Pakistan. A drone strike was ordered though it was a cloudy and windy day and visibility was poor through the clouds.
It appeared the single payload MQ-1 barely failed to hit the target but the vehicle was damaged although still drivable. Surprisingly, the passenger in the front seat turned out to be a woman.
A few days later, Hale attended a briefing by his commanding officer. It provided more details. In the attacked car was the suspect’s wife with their two young daughters, ages 5 and 3. Afghan soldiers were sent to investigate where the car had been seen to stop. They found the two girls placed in a dumpster nearby. The eldest was found dead due to unspecified wounds caused by shrapnel that pierced her body. The younger sister was still alive but levelly dehydrated.
About that experience, Hale wrote, “…whenever I encounter an individual who thinks that drone warfare is justified and reliably keeps America safe, I remember that time and ask myself how could I possibly continue to believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness.”
After Hale left the Air Force in 2013, he went to work for a defense contractor where he retained a security clearance and access to top-secret information. Hale took classified information about the drone program and gave it to journalist Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept. Hale believed the public had a right to understand the process by which people were placed on kill lists and assassinated on orders from high up in the government.
The information Hale provided led to a series of articles in The Intercept on the drone program. The articles showed how often in Afghanistan those killed were not the intended target.
The Trump Administration ultimately prosecuted Hale under the Espionage Act, seeking a 14-year sentence. The judge, Liam O’Grady, surprised many by sentencing Hale to 45 months. Hale had pled guilty to one count without any promise of a plea bargain. In his sentencing remarks, Judge O’Grady noted that many people believed Hale was courageous as a whistleblower. He recommended that Hale be sent to a low-security prison where he could get counseling for his post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Instead, the Bureau of Prisons sent Hale to the notorious Communications Management Unit at U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, a maximum-security prison. Hale has been suicidal. He gets two showers per week and one phone call per month but only to his attorney. He is allowed to exercise two or three times a week. He is led into a six-by-ten-foot outdoor cage where he can walk in circles for an hour.
You might think an Espionage Act would be about spies who steal information for hostile foreign governments. This is a situation where a whistleblower who suffered a crisis of conscience shared information of great public interest with the public. I think it is very much like Daniel Ellsberg’s situation with the Pentagon Papers.
The drone assassination program has been hidden from the public. Both Democratic and Republican administrations maintained the secrecy. Hiding the truth about drones is just part of the package of lies the American people have been told for 20 years about our wars. Reckless and mistaken killings by drones are one reason the American side was hated by masses of people in Afghanistan and contributed to the war’s outcome.
In a letter Hale wrote to Judge O’Grady he quoted U.S. Navy Admiral Gene LaRocque, “We now kill people without ever seeing them. Now you push a button thousands of miles away…Since it’s all done by remote control, there’s no remorse…and then we come home in triumph.”
Drone assassinations are an example of runaway technology trumping ethics. It is a travesty that a person of conscience like Daniel Hale is behind bars.
(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.)