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Inside America’s failed Afghan drone campaign

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An investigation by Connecting Vets reveals how a loosening of the Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan during the Trump administration designed to put pressure on the Taliban resulted in far more civilian casualties. The following article is based on over two dozen interviews with drone pilots, military lawyers, Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), as well as journal entries and footage from drones in 2019 obtained by Connecting Vets.

In the skies above Helmand, Afghanistan, an unblinking eye watched as an Afghan man wearing blue sat by a creek, propped up against a tree speaking into a two-way radio. For years, the Taliban had been destroying cell phone towers in the region, forcing locals to communicate with handheld radios.

It wasn't unusual to own one, but finding the man down by the creek with a two-way radio was considered to be a big win by the U.S. military strike cell watching from above.

Scan Eagle pilots, flying a surveillance drone from a ground control unit located at Afghanistan's Camp Dwyer, silently orbited overhead following the man with the radio for the next six hours on February 26, 2019. An open conference call connected the pilots to the Marine Corps-run strike cell at Camp Shorab where a sergeant coordinated with his commander, an Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), and a Judge Advocate General (JAG), as well as having an open line to pilots who flew the larger armed drone, known as the Gray Eagle, from their own ground control unit.

The Afghan man wearing the blue dishdasha, carrying his radio, got on a motorcycle and began driving north toward the city of Marjah. Helmand had long been considered to be an area largely under the influence, if not outright control, of the Taliban. There were virtually no American ground patrols in the province, and not many Afghan military ones either.

From the command center at Shorab, the JTAC greenlit the strike and the JAG blessed it as being lawful, in accordance with the laws of land warfare and their own Rules of Engagement. Influenced by the brutal fight against ISIS in Iraq several years prior and the need to put the Taliban under increased pressure during negotiations in Doha, the military had transitioned from intelligence-driven targeting to using a target engagement criteria.

That criteria could be met by spotting a rifle in someone's hands, but first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, that threshold could be met by as little as a person using or even touching a radio. If an Afghan carrying one of the commercially bought two-way radios stepped into a home, the entire building would sometimes be leveled by a drone strike. On this occasion, the commander back at Shorab authorized the strike.

The drone operators waited until the man in blue was on an empty stretch of road in order to minimize collateral damage. The Scan Eagle pilot rotated his camera to lead the motorcycle a bit, in order to get a good view of the strike while the Gray Eagle drone, flying at a higher elevation fired one of its specialized high altitude Hellfire missiles. As the missile fired off of the drone’s rails, there would be about a five-second delay until it struck the man on the motorcycle.

Suddenly, the man in blue hit an intersection in the road just as another motorcycle with two adult riders who were also carrying a toddler passed by coming in the other direction. The missile was already in flight, and there was nothing anyone in the strike cell or any of the drone operators could do to stop it. The missile impacted the ground at the intersection, stirring up a cloud of gray and brown dust.

The man in blue, the Afghan with the radio who they had been tracking for six hours, “like a Bond villain goes through the cloud of smoke and drives off,” said a U.S. military official involved in the operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. No one ever knew his name or who he was, or if he ever had any actual Taliban connections. “The two adults and a toddler on the other motorcycle, they were killed right off,” the official said.

Everyone on the conference call stopped talking. “It got real quiet,” the official recalled.

For the Scan Eagle pilots, their macabre duty now transitioned to watching the bodies of the Afghan civilians, including the dead child as they were loaded on a truck and hauled off. It was common practice for them to watch the bodies, see who showed up to claim them, and where they were taken.
“We killed two innocent men and a charger,” the U.S. official wrote in a personal journal that day, using the military jargon “charger,” which means child.




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An investigation by Connecting Vets reveals how a loosening of the Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan during the Trump administration designed to put pressure on the Taliban resulted in far more civilian casualties. The following article is based on over two dozen interviews with drone pilots, military lawyers, Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), as well as journal entries and footage from drones in 2019 obtained by Connecting Vets.
In the skies above Helmand, Afghanistan, an unblinking eye watched as an Afghan man wearing blue sat by a creek, propped up against a tree speaking into a two-way radio. For years, the Taliban had been destroying cell phone towers in the region, forcing locals to communicate with handheld radios.
It wasn't unusual to own one, but finding the man down by the creek with a two-way radio was considered to be a big win by the U.S. military strike cell watching from above.
Scan Eagle pilots, flying a surveillance drone from a ground control unit located at Afghanistan's Camp Dwyer, silently orbited overhead following the man with the radio for the next six hours on February 26, 2019. An open conference call connected the pilots to the Marine Corps-run strike cell at Camp Shorab where a sergeant coordinated with his commander, an Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), and a Judge Advocate General (JAG), as well as having an open line to pilots who flew the larger armed drone, known as the Gray Eagle, from their own ground control unit.
The Afghan man wearing the blue dishdasha, carrying his radio, got on a motorcycle and began driving north toward the city of Marjah. Helmand had long been considered to be an area largely under the influence, if not outright control, of the Taliban. There were virtually no American ground patrols in the province, and not many Afghan military ones either.
From the command center at Shorab, the JTAC greenlit the strike and the JAG blessed it as being lawful, in accordance with the laws of land warfare and their own Rules of Engagement. Influenced by the brutal fight against ISIS in Iraq several years prior and the need to put the Taliban under increased pressure during negotiations in Doha, the military had transitioned from intelligence-driven targeting to using a target engagement criteria.
That criteria could be met by spotting a rifle in someone's hands, but first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, that threshold could be met by as little as a person using or even touching a radio. If an Afghan carrying one of the commercially bought two-way radios stepped into a home, the entire building would sometimes be leveled by a drone strike. On this occasion, the commander back at Shorab authorized the strike.
The drone operators waited until the man in blue was on an empty stretch of road in order to minimize collateral damage. The Scan Eagle pilot rotated his camera to lead the motorcycle a bit, in order to get a good view of the strike while the Gray Eagle drone, flying at a higher elevation fired one of its specialized high altitude Hellfire missiles. As the missile fired off of the drone’s rails, there would be about a five-second delay until it struck the man on the motorcycle.
Suddenly, the man in blue hit an intersection in the road just as another motorcycle with two adult riders who were also carrying a toddler passed by coming in the other direction. The missile was already in flight, and there was nothing anyone in the strike cell or any of the drone operators could do to stop it. The missile impacted the ground at the intersection, stirring up a cloud of gray and brown dust.
The man in blue, the Afghan with the radio who they had been tracking for six hours, “like a Bond villain goes through the cloud of smoke and drives off,” said a U.S. military official involved in the operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. No one ever knew his name or who he was, or if he ever had any actual Taliban connections. “The two adults and a toddler on the other motorcycle, they were killed right off,” the official said.
Everyone on the conference call stopped talking. “It got real quiet,” the official recalled.
For the Scan Eagle pilots, their macabre duty now transitioned to watching the bodies of the Afghan civilians, including the dead child as they were loaded on a truck and hauled off. It was common practice for them to watch the bodies, see who showed up to claim them, and where they were taken.
“We killed two innocent men and a charger,” the U.S. official wrote in a personal journal that day, using the military jargon “charger,” which means child.
“We were trying to kill a guy with a radio I'd found earlier in the day. He rode right through the blast and kept going. I watched a passerby load the bodies into a truck and drive them to a hospital. They are all dead.”
As the United States desperately searched for an exit strategy in Afghanistan, the war itself descended into a hopelessness that strained the laws of land warfare to the breaking point with targeted killings that, on the surface, appear as the murder of civilians, but were institutionalized and deemed legal by the U.S. military.
The Department of Defense report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan for 2019 lists the date of the strike, recording one civilian death in Helmand, likely the toddler. The two adult males who just happened to be there and were killed accidentally are not recorded as civilian casualties. U.S. Central Command who had jurisdiction over military operations in the region did not reply to a detailed list of questions submitted by Connecting Vets.
This article – based on over two dozen interviews with drone pilots, military lawyers, Air Force JTACs, journal entries, and drone footage from 2019 obtained by Connecting Vets – describes how America has prosecuted lethal strike operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the waning years of the war on terror. And an emphasis is given to detailing highly complicated and technical lethal strike operations, which can be looked at through the lens of military lawyers, JTACs, drone pilots, and senior military officials who crafted strategy.
The battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria changed how drone strikes were conducted, and in Afghanistan, the thresholds for authorizing them were drastically lowered in order to put the Taliban under increased pressure during peace negotiations. While U.S. Special Operations targeted Taliban leadership, the Marines in Helmand province used their targeting authorities to strike unarmed adult men.
ISIS changes the way America fights
Air power summaries released by the Department of Defense show a marked increase in the number of airstrikes in Afghanistan in 2018 and 2019 with a six-fold increase from less than a thousand strikes in 2015 to 7,423 strikes in 2019. Even those numbers are dwarfed by the number of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq with tens of thousands taking place in 2015 and 2016, before reaching a high of 39,577 strikes in 2017.
To understand why seemingly random civilians were targeted with lethal operations in Helmand, it is important to examine how ISIS changed the way that the U.S. military fights, and how Rules of Engagement during the Obama administration were often interpreted as being overly restrictive before they were reinterpreted under President Donald Trump.
While the RoE and overall legal guidance from the White House itself did not change, the way military commanders interpreted it did.
In reaction to the CIA’s signature strikes, or patterns of life strikes in Pakistan, the Obama administration put stricter rules in place in regards to airstrikes. There had to be almost zero chances of collateral damage, and destroying buildings was difficult to get approval for.
Obama’s Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) memo states that there must be near-certainty that the individual being killed in an airstrike is a lawful target and that non-combatants will not be killed or injured. And while the PPG applied to other theaters of combat, military commanders in Afghanistan accepted it as a norm.
The way these rules were interpreted became even stricter after an American AC-130 aircraft fired upon a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz in 2015 after misidentifying the hospital as a different building that was occupied by the Taliban during the battle.
“After the Kunduz hospital strike, concerns about civilian casualties were especially high,” journalist Jessica Donati wrote in her book Eagle Down. With commanders in Afghanistan more risk-averse, the military hesitated to conduct airstrikes even when a U.S. Special Forces team was surrounded and being killed by the Taliban in 2016.
While the team leader begged for air support over the radio, commanders back at headquarters watching real-time overhead footage refused to authorize the strikes, saying they could not see muzzle flashes coming from windows and bolt holes in building walls the team leader on the ground wanted targeted. Since his unit leadership could not see it on the drone footage, they would not initially clear the strikes.
Drones flying overhead were intended to be used to gather real-time intelligence to support the troops on the ground, but now they were being used by higher headquarters to provide real-time oversight.
In desperation, the team leader wrote a narrative on the back of his map and read it over the radio saying that his entire team would soon be killed, if airstrikes were not authorized. JTAC John Campbell was monitoring the situation from the Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) in Bagram. According to Campbell, when AH-64 Apache attack helicopters came on station with a full load of weapons that they could fire, the pilots refused to do so.
“The problem is they were under the impression, I don't know where they got this from considering how long we were fighting under these Rules of Engagement, they thought that they had to PID the targets,” Campbell said, meaning that thought they had to positively identify the enemy fighters with their own eyes which simply was not true under the Rules of Engagement. The Special Forces team members on the ground could identify the targets and call in the strike.
“They couldn't see them because the targets were inside buildings. So it was essentially several hours before any munitions were dropped,” Campbell said. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces soldiers and their Afghan commandos were fighting and dying. One JTAC on the ground was injured and Sgt. 1st Class Matthew McClintock was killed in action.
From Campbell’s perspective, a lack of understanding and education about what is stated in the RoE was an issue that permeated across the entire Afghan conflict as units would rotate in and suddenly have to study hundreds if not thousands of pages of legal documents. This led the military to rely on a small group of JTACs while commanders often did not fully understand the RoE they operated under.
But this hesitancy to authorize airstrikes evaporated in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS shocked the world when they quickly swept across Syria and then Iraq to declare themselves a Caliphate in 2014, with coalition airstrikes preventing them from taking Baghdad and Erbil. The brutality of ISIS was decried in the international media with each day brought fresh reports highlighting some grisly new war crimes committed by them.
ISIS began executing U.S. citizens on camera while making political demands while ISIS cells in Europe and self-radicalized members in America launched terror attacks, leading the U.S. government to overcome its reluctance to go back to Iraq after formally pulling out just a few years prior.
This time – in spite of a government narrative that there were no boots on the ground at the time of the deaths of Navy SEAL Charles Keating and Delta Force operator Joshua Wheeler in Iraq – airstrikes would be heavily relied upon to facilitate Iraqi and Kurdish military operations on the ground.
Meanwhile, the viciousness of ISIS had a profound impact on many of the American soldiers involved, even among combat veterans who had previously fought the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“The world didn't give two fucks about Mosul,” said an intelligence official who served in Afghanistan and Iraq during this time frame, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “ISIS was selling kids like they were Pokemon cards and killing old people because they represented the old regime,” he said. The level of barbarity the Islamic State perpetrated against Mosul was dire, like nothing the intelligence official had seen during his previous deployments.
ISIS was different. It was a de facto Army that had taken and held ground, including major cities. This was no low-intensity conflict as seen during the heyday of the war on terror when small special ops teams launched counter-terrorism missions across the country. In this new war, the proportionality, and the approval process, for lethal strikes changed to compensate for a target-rich environment.
“When we started engaging ISIS we went from intel-based targeting to using an engageable criteria,” a drone pilot who flew missions in Iraq at the time said. “Three or more guys carrying around AKs, or a tactical vest, or a DShK [machine gun]. That was very effective, it was hard to screw that up,” the pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. Of course, potential ISIS members could also be targeted for strikes if they had a radio, he said.
The intel official said that in Mosul, six cars parked outside one building met the engagement criteria set at the time because of the preponderance of suicide vehicular improvised explosive devices or rather, car bombs, that would use a driver for terminal guidance.
Both manned and unmanned airstrikes in Iraq escalated sharply. “We were the business, we were the people to call,” the drone operator said, adding that their unit often went into the red on their inventory of Hellfire missiles meaning they were down to about ten. He fired over 600 missiles on that deployment, stating that the drone pilots became “gun bunnies.”
Gray Eagle

Gray Eagle drone in flight Photo credit Sgt. William Begley
The deployment prior, the drone operators bragged that they dropped so many bombs that they had outpaced the Army's logistical tail. They were firing more missiles than could be manufactured and transported to Iraq.
These strikes were cleared by the commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) in Baghdad at an operations center that looked like a NASA mission control center according to those who worked there.
Drones would be flying all over the battlespace and if any of them found anything that looked like it met the engagement criteria, the feed would then be brought over to a larger screen in the center of the room. Each desk in the operations center, occupied by JAGs, JTACs, and others who needed to approve the strike would hold up a ping pong paddle that was green on one side and red on the other. Once they were all green, the commander would authorize the strike. “Sometimes it took seconds,” a military official who worked there said.
When President Trump came into office in 2017, a new Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) memo was issued specifically mentioning the need for new policy directives due to the rise of ISIS. The new PPG continued the Obama administration policy of requiring a near certainty that civilians would not be harmed, however, it also opened up the door for reinterpretations by military leaders.
With tens of thousands of airstrikes raining down and Iraqi and Kurdish forces advancing on the ground, ISIS was defeated in Iraq and cloistered into small battlefield enclaves in Syria. While the Caliphate was finished as a major threat in the minds of the Western world, the tactics, techniques, and procedures developed during these new battles migrated from the cities of Iraq to the open countryside of Helmand in Afghanistan.
Pushing the laws of land warfare to the breaking point
“In 2017, by that point, our strike cell ops were so successful that they had migrated over to Afghanistan,” said former JTAC Wes Bryant, who saw it first hand.
At Bagram Airfield, Task Force Odin was staffed by drone operators and their crew who had many different types of unmanned aerial vehicles at their disposal for surveillance, strike operations, collecting signals intelligence, and even drones equipped with ground-penetrating radar.
Regionally focused task forces around the country could request these assets as needed. Rules of Engagement fluctuated not only from region-to-region but, from task force to task force, Special Operations troops operated under one set of Rules of Engagement, while conventional forces worked under another.
Helmand Province was serviced by Task Force South West, which was run by Marines in 2019 from Golf 2/25 and Lima 3/4 and was later replaced by Fox 2/25 and Bravo 1/7.
“At Task Force South West it got even faster,” said a drone operator who worked for the task force in regards to the strike approval process. “By 2019 it got a whole lot quicker.”
When this drone operator had been there years earlier, the approval process took much longer and many times targets were missed entirely because of the slow bureaucratic system. This was because each strike had to be approved by a four-star general, and if he was unavailable, the strike simply could not get approval.
Over conference calls, JTACs would take down a 9-line fire mission, approvals would be secured with the final decision made by the Task Force commander. During the Trump administration, strike approval authorities had been pushed down to the level of battalion or brigade commanders.
The legalities surrounding these killings were opaque at best. The United States operates under international laws that govern armed conflicts such as the laws of land warfare and the Geneva Conventions. Additionally, the Department of Defense writes its own Rules of Engagement which add its own restrictions, but can never violate international law.
Groups like the Taliban fall into a gray area within international and American law since they are not part of a formal military.
“They're an organized armed group and they're organized for the purpose of conducting hostilities against armed forces,” explains former JAG officer Eric Jensen. “They're clearly conducting military operations against us and allied and Afghan forces all the time. So the U.S. view is, if you are a member of the Taliban then we can declare you as an organized armed group or an armed force that we can engage on sight.”
However, there is no such thing as a free-fire zone in U.S. military operations. Strikes have to meet certain criteria, but if the Taliban were being treated as a hostile armed group by the Rules of Engagement, that would mean that they could be targeted for lethal strikes at any time.
At that point, the question becomes how does one define who is and who is not a member of the Taliban? Or more specifically, what set of behaviors meets the target engagement criteria the military interprets to be the activities of a Taliban member?
“That becomes a bit of a gray area and it's harder now that you're leaving it more up to human judgment, as the targeters decide, do they meet the Rules of Engagement criteria to be targeted?” Jensen said. According to three military sources involved in such operations, merely holding a radio in Helmand province was enough of a reason to warrant a drone strike in 2019.
“There would have to be some intelligence-based assumptions that would support that kind of an attack and one would be in an ideal world, it would be that the only people in the province who were carrying radios or walkie-talkies were Taliban,” Jensen said.
While such strikes against – what appears in the drone footage – as unarmed civilians may appear completely illegal, it is important to note the U.S. military deemed them to be legal.
The Taliban had been dismantling Roshan cellular towers in Helmand for years, so using two-way radios was the only way many people had to communicate in an environment where Task Force South West was targeting people for such behavior.




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Looser rules, more civilian deaths, a Taliban takeover: Inside America’s failed Afghan drone campaign

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By Jack Murphy

August 24, 20215:00 pm
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An investigation by Connecting Vets reveals how a loosening of the Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan during the Trump administration designed to put pressure on the Taliban resulted in far more civilian casualties. The following article is based on over two dozen interviews with drone pilots, military lawyers, Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), as well as journal entries and footage from drones in 2019 obtained by Connecting Vets.
In the skies above Helmand, Afghanistan, an unblinking eye watched as an Afghan man wearing blue sat by a creek, propped up against a tree speaking into a two-way radio. For years, the Taliban had been destroying cell phone towers in the region, forcing locals to communicate with handheld radios.
It wasn't unusual to own one, but finding the man down by the creek with a two-way radio was considered to be a big win by the U.S. military strike cell watching from above.
Scan Eagle pilots, flying a surveillance drone from a ground control unit located at Afghanistan's Camp Dwyer, silently orbited overhead following the man with the radio for the next six hours on February 26, 2019. An open conference call connected the pilots to the Marine Corps-run strike cell at Camp Shorab where a sergeant coordinated with his commander, an Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), and a Judge Advocate General (JAG), as well as having an open line to pilots who flew the larger armed drone, known as the Gray Eagle, from their own ground control unit.
The Afghan man wearing the blue dishdasha, carrying his radio, got on a motorcycle and began driving north toward the city of Marjah. Helmand had long been considered to be an area largely under the influence, if not outright control, of the Taliban. There were virtually no American ground patrols in the province, and not many Afghan military ones either.
From the command center at Shorab, the JTAC greenlit the strike and the JAG blessed it as being lawful, in accordance with the laws of land warfare and their own Rules of Engagement. Influenced by the brutal fight against ISIS in Iraq several years prior and the need to put the Taliban under increased pressure during negotiations in Doha, the military had transitioned from intelligence-driven targeting to using a target engagement criteria.
That criteria could be met by spotting a rifle in someone's hands, but first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, that threshold could be met by as little as a person using or even touching a radio. If an Afghan carrying one of the commercially bought two-way radios stepped into a home, the entire building would sometimes be leveled by a drone strike. On this occasion, the commander back at Shorab authorized the strike.
The drone operators waited until the man in blue was on an empty stretch of road in order to minimize collateral damage. The Scan Eagle pilot rotated his camera to lead the motorcycle a bit, in order to get a good view of the strike while the Gray Eagle drone, flying at a higher elevation fired one of its specialized high altitude Hellfire missiles. As the missile fired off of the drone’s rails, there would be about a five-second delay until it struck the man on the motorcycle.
Suddenly, the man in blue hit an intersection in the road just as another motorcycle with two adult riders who were also carrying a toddler passed by coming in the other direction. The missile was already in flight, and there was nothing anyone in the strike cell or any of the drone operators could do to stop it. The missile impacted the ground at the intersection, stirring up a cloud of gray and brown dust.
The man in blue, the Afghan with the radio who they had been tracking for six hours, “like a Bond villain goes through the cloud of smoke and drives off,” said a U.S. military official involved in the operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. No one ever knew his name or who he was, or if he ever had any actual Taliban connections. “The two adults and a toddler on the other motorcycle, they were killed right off,” the official said.
Everyone on the conference call stopped talking. “It got real quiet,” the official recalled.
For the Scan Eagle pilots, their macabre duty now transitioned to watching the bodies of the Afghan civilians, including the dead child as they were loaded on a truck and hauled off. It was common practice for them to watch the bodies, see who showed up to claim them, and where they were taken.
“We killed two innocent men and a charger,” the U.S. official wrote in a personal journal that day, using the military jargon “charger,” which means child.
“We were trying to kill a guy with a radio I'd found earlier in the day. He rode right through the blast and kept going. I watched a passerby load the bodies into a truck and drive them to a hospital. They are all dead.”
As the United States desperately searched for an exit strategy in Afghanistan, the war itself descended into a hopelessness that strained the laws of land warfare to the breaking point with targeted killings that, on the surface, appear as the murder of civilians, but were institutionalized and deemed legal by the U.S. military.
The Department of Defense report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan for 2019 lists the date of the strike, recording one civilian death in Helmand, likely the toddler. The two adult males who just happened to be there and were killed accidentally are not recorded as civilian casualties. U.S. Central Command who had jurisdiction over military operations in the region did not reply to a detailed list of questions submitted by Connecting Vets.
This article – based on over two dozen interviews with drone pilots, military lawyers, Air Force JTACs, journal entries, and drone footage from 2019 obtained by Connecting Vets – describes how America has prosecuted lethal strike operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the waning years of the war on terror. And an emphasis is given to detailing highly complicated and technical lethal strike operations, which can be looked at through the lens of military lawyers, JTACs, drone pilots, and senior military officials who crafted strategy.
The battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria changed how drone strikes were conducted, and in Afghanistan, the thresholds for authorizing them were drastically lowered in order to put the Taliban under increased pressure during peace negotiations. While U.S. Special Operations targeted Taliban leadership, the Marines in Helmand province used their targeting authorities to strike unarmed adult men.
ISIS changes the way America fights
Air power summaries released by the Department of Defense show a marked increase in the number of airstrikes in Afghanistan in 2018 and 2019 with a six-fold increase from less than a thousand strikes in 2015 to 7,423 strikes in 2019. Even those numbers are dwarfed by the number of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq with tens of thousands taking place in 2015 and 2016, before reaching a high of 39,577 strikes in 2017.
To understand why seemingly random civilians were targeted with lethal operations in Helmand, it is important to examine how ISIS changed the way that the U.S. military fights, and how Rules of Engagement during the Obama administration were often interpreted as being overly restrictive before they were reinterpreted under President Donald Trump.
While the RoE and overall legal guidance from the White House itself did not change, the way military commanders interpreted it did.
In reaction to the CIA’s signature strikes, or patterns of life strikes in Pakistan, the Obama administration put stricter rules in place in regards to airstrikes. There had to be almost zero chances of collateral damage, and destroying buildings was difficult to get approval for.
Obama’s Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) memo states that there must be near-certainty that the individual being killed in an airstrike is a lawful target and that non-combatants will not be killed or injured. And while the PPG applied to other theaters of combat, military commanders in Afghanistan accepted it as a norm.
The way these rules were interpreted became even stricter after an American AC-130 aircraft fired upon a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz in 2015 after misidentifying the hospital as a different building that was occupied by the Taliban during the battle.
“After the Kunduz hospital strike, concerns about civilian casualties were especially high,” journalist Jessica Donati wrote in her book Eagle Down. With commanders in Afghanistan more risk-averse, the military hesitated to conduct airstrikes even when a U.S. Special Forces team was surrounded and being killed by the Taliban in 2016.
While the team leader begged for air support over the radio, commanders back at headquarters watching real-time overhead footage refused to authorize the strikes, saying they could not see muzzle flashes coming from windows and bolt holes in building walls the team leader on the ground wanted targeted. Since his unit leadership could not see it on the drone footage, they would not initially clear the strikes.
Drones flying overhead were intended to be used to gather real-time intelligence to support the troops on the ground, but now they were being used by higher headquarters to provide real-time oversight.
In desperation, the team leader wrote a narrative on the back of his map and read it over the radio saying that his entire team would soon be killed, if airstrikes were not authorized. JTAC John Campbell was monitoring the situation from the Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) in Bagram. According to Campbell, when AH-64 Apache attack helicopters came on station with a full load of weapons that they could fire, the pilots refused to do so.
“The problem is they were under the impression, I don't know where they got this from considering how long we were fighting under these Rules of Engagement, they thought that they had to PID the targets,” Campbell said, meaning that thought they had to positively identify the enemy fighters with their own eyes which simply was not true under the Rules of Engagement. The Special Forces team members on the ground could identify the targets and call in the strike.
“They couldn't see them because the targets were inside buildings. So it was essentially several hours before any munitions were dropped,” Campbell said. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces soldiers and their Afghan commandos were fighting and dying. One JTAC on the ground was injured and Sgt. 1st Class Matthew McClintock was killed in action.
From Campbell’s perspective, a lack of understanding and education about what is stated in the RoE was an issue that permeated across the entire Afghan conflict as units would rotate in and suddenly have to study hundreds if not thousands of pages of legal documents. This led the military to rely on a small group of JTACs while commanders often did not fully understand the RoE they operated under.
But this hesitancy to authorize airstrikes evaporated in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS shocked the world when they quickly swept across Syria and then Iraq to declare themselves a Caliphate in 2014, with coalition airstrikes preventing them from taking Baghdad and Erbil. The brutality of ISIS was decried in the international media with each day brought fresh reports highlighting some grisly new war crimes committed by them.
ISIS began executing U.S. citizens on camera while making political demands while ISIS cells in Europe and self-radicalized members in America launched terror attacks, leading the U.S. government to overcome its reluctance to go back to Iraq after formally pulling out just a few years prior.
This time – in spite of a government narrative that there were no boots on the ground at the time of the deaths of Navy SEAL Charles Keating and Delta Force operator Joshua Wheeler in Iraq – airstrikes would be heavily relied upon to facilitate Iraqi and Kurdish military operations on the ground.
Meanwhile, the viciousness of ISIS had a profound impact on many of the American soldiers involved, even among combat veterans who had previously fought the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“The world didn't give two fucks about Mosul,” said an intelligence official who served in Afghanistan and Iraq during this time frame, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “ISIS was selling kids like they were Pokemon cards and killing old people because they represented the old regime,” he said. The level of barbarity the Islamic State perpetrated against Mosul was dire, like nothing the intelligence official had seen during his previous deployments.
ISIS was different. It was a de facto Army that had taken and held ground, including major cities. This was no low-intensity conflict as seen during the heyday of the war on terror when small special ops teams launched counter-terrorism missions across the country. In this new war, the proportionality, and the approval process, for lethal strikes changed to compensate for a target-rich environment.
“When we started engaging ISIS we went from intel-based targeting to using an engageable criteria,” a drone pilot who flew missions in Iraq at the time said. “Three or more guys carrying around AKs, or a tactical vest, or a DShK [machine gun]. That was very effective, it was hard to screw that up,” the pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. Of course, potential ISIS members could also be targeted for strikes if they had a radio, he said.
The intel official said that in Mosul, six cars parked outside one building met the engagement criteria set at the time because of the preponderance of suicide vehicular improvised explosive devices or rather, car bombs, that would use a driver for terminal guidance.
Both manned and unmanned airstrikes in Iraq escalated sharply. “We were the business, we were the people to call,” the drone operator said, adding that their unit often went into the red on their inventory of Hellfire missiles meaning they were down to about ten. He fired over 600 missiles on that deployment, stating that the drone pilots became “gun bunnies.”
Gray Eagle

Gray Eagle drone in flight Photo credit Sgt. William Begley
The deployment prior, the drone operators bragged that they dropped so many bombs that they had outpaced the Army's logistical tail. They were firing more missiles than could be manufactured and transported to Iraq.
These strikes were cleared by the commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) in Baghdad at an operations center that looked like a NASA mission control center according to those who worked there.
Drones would be flying all over the battlespace and if any of them found anything that looked like it met the engagement criteria, the feed would then be brought over to a larger screen in the center of the room. Each desk in the operations center, occupied by JAGs, JTACs, and others who needed to approve the strike would hold up a ping pong paddle that was green on one side and red on the other. Once they were all green, the commander would authorize the strike. “Sometimes it took seconds,” a military official who worked there said.
When President Trump came into office in 2017, a new Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) memo was issued specifically mentioning the need for new policy directives due to the rise of ISIS. The new PPG continued the Obama administration policy of requiring a near certainty that civilians would not be harmed, however, it also opened up the door for reinterpretations by military leaders.
With tens of thousands of airstrikes raining down and Iraqi and Kurdish forces advancing on the ground, ISIS was defeated in Iraq and cloistered into small battlefield enclaves in Syria. While the Caliphate was finished as a major threat in the minds of the Western world, the tactics, techniques, and procedures developed during these new battles migrated from the cities of Iraq to the open countryside of Helmand in Afghanistan.
Pushing the laws of land warfare to the breaking point
“In 2017, by that point, our strike cell ops were so successful that they had migrated over to Afghanistan,” said former JTAC Wes Bryant, who saw it first hand.
At Bagram Airfield, Task Force Odin was staffed by drone operators and their crew who had many different types of unmanned aerial vehicles at their disposal for surveillance, strike operations, collecting signals intelligence, and even drones equipped with ground-penetrating radar.
Regionally focused task forces around the country could request these assets as needed. Rules of Engagement fluctuated not only from region-to-region but, from task force to task force, Special Operations troops operated under one set of Rules of Engagement, while conventional forces worked under another.
Helmand Province was serviced by Task Force South West, which was run by Marines in 2019 from Golf 2/25 and Lima 3/4 and was later replaced by Fox 2/25 and Bravo 1/7.
“At Task Force South West it got even faster,” said a drone operator who worked for the task force in regards to the strike approval process. “By 2019 it got a whole lot quicker.”
When this drone operator had been there years earlier, the approval process took much longer and many times targets were missed entirely because of the slow bureaucratic system. This was because each strike had to be approved by a four-star general, and if he was unavailable, the strike simply could not get approval.
Over conference calls, JTACs would take down a 9-line fire mission, approvals would be secured with the final decision made by the Task Force commander. During the Trump administration, strike approval authorities had been pushed down to the level of battalion or brigade commanders.
The legalities surrounding these killings were opaque at best. The United States operates under international laws that govern armed conflicts such as the laws of land warfare and the Geneva Conventions. Additionally, the Department of Defense writes its own Rules of Engagement which add its own restrictions, but can never violate international law.
Groups like the Taliban fall into a gray area within international and American law since they are not part of a formal military.
“They're an organized armed group and they're organized for the purpose of conducting hostilities against armed forces,” explains former JAG officer Eric Jensen. “They're clearly conducting military operations against us and allied and Afghan forces all the time. So the U.S. view is, if you are a member of the Taliban then we can declare you as an organized armed group or an armed force that we can engage on sight.”
However, there is no such thing as a free-fire zone in U.S. military operations. Strikes have to meet certain criteria, but if the Taliban were being treated as a hostile armed group by the Rules of Engagement, that would mean that they could be targeted for lethal strikes at any time.
At that point, the question becomes how does one define who is and who is not a member of the Taliban? Or more specifically, what set of behaviors meets the target engagement criteria the military interprets to be the activities of a Taliban member?
“That becomes a bit of a gray area and it's harder now that you're leaving it more up to human judgment, as the targeters decide, do they meet the Rules of Engagement criteria to be targeted?” Jensen said. According to three military sources involved in such operations, merely holding a radio in Helmand province was enough of a reason to warrant a drone strike in 2019.
“There would have to be some intelligence-based assumptions that would support that kind of an attack and one would be in an ideal world, it would be that the only people in the province who were carrying radios or walkie-talkies were Taliban,” Jensen said.
While such strikes against – what appears in the drone footage – as unarmed civilians may appear completely illegal, it is important to note the U.S. military deemed them to be legal.
The Taliban had been dismantling Roshan cellular towers in Helmand for years, so using two-way radios was the only way many people had to communicate in an environment where Task Force South West was targeting people for such behavior.
Some of these strikes were theoretically double sourced via signals intelligence, using other specialized drones that had the ability to intercept radio communications on the ground. However, multiple sources who spoke to Connecting Vets said that this probably meant very little, especially in Helmand. According to them, the Taliban is such a deeply embedded facet of Afghan culture in Helmand that virtually everyone there has some tangential link to them.
Because of that, doing a link chart analysis to see who an Afghan on the ground speaks to on his radio, and finding that one of them belongs to the Taliban does not really mean anything in and of itself, but in this manner, the strike cell can claim that their information is double sourced: they see a radio, which in their opinion implies Taliban affiliation, and if they have intercepts, they'll likely show he once spoke to someone known to be in the Taliban.
“Waiting for them to **** up”
Each day in Helmand, Scan Eagle drones were flown into grid squares searching for what Task Force South West deemed as nefarious activities such as operating a radio. The grids flown into could contain a market, a village, or some other landmark with pilots scanning and watching civilians, “waiting for them to **** up,” as one of the drone pilots put it.
The strike criteria could also be met if an Afghan was spotted wearing a tactical vest, the type that holds Kalashnikov magazines and other war materials. In one instance, a drone pilot thought he caught a split-second glimpse of a tactical vest underneath an Afghan’s civilian attire. The person was immediately targeted with a lethal strike.
Other strikes certainly had no secondary confirmation from signal intercepts, with Afghan men targeted with Hellfire missile strikes for as little as touching a radio. Drone operators would joke amongst one another, saying that if the Afghans would just, “touch the tip, just to see how it feels,” they could be targeted for death with a lethal strike.
Scan Eagle

A sailor training to use the Scan Eagle drone Photo credit Seaman Richard Millar
One day a member of a drone team left to go pick up his laundry during a lull in operations when nothing was happening and, “when I came back my buddy was like, ‘we killed a guy.’” He had been gone less than 15 minutes.
The Trump administration had loosened up the approval process by pushing strike authorization authority down from the commanding general for Afghanistan to field grade officers, normally at the task force or battalion level.
It was part of a process designed by the National Security Council, particularly by H.R. McMaster, to use a pressure campaign to force the Taliban to negotiate America’s exit from Afghanistan in Doha, and in doing so the military abandoned any notion of an intelligence-driven counter-insurgency campaign. Now the new metric for success was racking up a body count.
“I think there were two major factors that really drove that change in Afghanistan,” Dr. Jonathan Schroden, Afghanistan and counter-terrorism analyst, told Connecting Vets. “It became increasingly clear that the Afghan security forces were not going to be capable enough to operate independently in a counterinsurgency type campaign anytime soon and it's arguable whether they would even ever get to that point on timelines that would be relevant.”
The second factor was the “Trump administration decision to set aside the precondition that had existed before of insisting that the Afghan government be involved in any negotiations with the Taliban, and accepting the Taliban's condition for talks, which was that the U.S. would engage the Taliban directly,” he said.
“That shift in policy, and the subsequent direct engagement in negotiations with the Taliban, led to this idea that the U.S. needed to generate leverage in those talks," Schroden explained. "Part of the way to do that or so that theory went was to increase military pressure on the Taliban."
The intent was to speed up the pace of the strikes, in order to force the Taliban to the table in Doha, and ostensibly force them to negotiate in good faith because they were being so heavily targeted in Afghanistan.
“Countries striving for stability and equilibrium should do everything within their power to achieve their basic peace terms while still at war,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in his seminal book Diplomacy.
“As long as the enemy is in the field, his strength indirectly enhances that of the more peaceful side,” he continued, “if this principle is neglected and the key issues are left unresolved until the peace conference, the most determined power ends up in possession of the prizes and can be dislodged only by a major confrontation.”
With that in mind, negotiating after a ceasefire would have greatly reduced the relative bargaining power of the United States because further violence could not be used as leverage. According to Schroden, the way to design such a campaign would be to ensure that the tactical combat operations align with the strategic intent by creating a network map of Taliban leadership and identifying which of them are hardliners and which can be swayed by negotiation, then eliminate the ones that will not work with the U.S.
“The other way you could think about it is blunt force trauma, right? Are we just trying to literally make the Taliban bleed as much as we can, and make them want that bleeding to stop?” Schroden said.
Both approaches were used simultaneously. While conventional forces like the Marines at Task Force South West pursued the blunt force trauma solution, Joint Special Operations Command pursued an intelligence-driven personality-based approach that targeted Taliban leaders with far more precision.
At Camp Dwyer, a platoon of Rangers worked with the Afghan Special Forces unit Ktah Khas (KKA) out of a smaller compound on the base where a team from SEAL Team Six was also stationed. The KKA was two platoons strong, and even included several Afghan women who served in an intel capacity. Their main task was conducting vehicle interdictions in the area, searching for high-value targets.
MH-47

Special Operations Forces awaiting uplift in a MH-47 helicopter to strike a Taliban target in Helmand in 2014 Photo credit Photo by Spc. Michael Herrero
The KKA would conduct the interdictions themselves, being flown in by American pilots on Black Hawk helicopters while the Rangers would circle overhead in a Chinook prepared to back up their Afghan partners if they got into trouble. Knowing the Taliban cared little for the foot soldiers targeted by conventional forces, the Special Operations community targeted senior leaders, timing the strikes with negotiations in Doha.
While sitting in conference rooms in Doha, American officials would sometimes glance down at their watch, knowing precisely what was about to happen back in Afghanistan while they sat across the table from the Taliban. When that round of talks ended, the Taliban leaders would retrieve their cell phones and find them ringing off the hook as reports came in from Afghanistan about their comrades being killed.
But in ratcheting up military pressure, the conventional military took a template designed to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria to fight a war of attrition in Afghanistan; a place and enemy where this template simply did not work, according to a number of officials involved in such operations.
Individuals who helped devise this campaign told Connecting Vets they were surprised to learn how the Marines at Task Force South West interpreted its intention.
Task Force South West had a risk-averse approach that emphasized remaining on their base and not conducting patrols. While other task forces in-country conducted fly to assist missions where U.S. soldiers would fly out to Afghan military positions being attacked by the Taliban to advise them. The Marines in Helmand would not conduct patrols or even fire their field artillery, according to one source who served with them. Instead, they launched a significant number of drone strikes.
Official DoD reports on civilian casualties in Afghanistan list 108 civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2019 by coalition strikes, contrasted with 76 in 2018 and 20 in 2020. The statistics in these reports have been refuted by sources Connecting Vets spoke to as well as other independent reporting.
A military source that worked with Task Force South West told Connecting Vets they felt their drone strikes served little purpose when the Marines had essentially given up on Helmand, feeling that this would be their last deployment before the province, if not the country, was abandoned to the Taliban. At that point, “the drone strikes were punitive. Killing for the sake of killing,” he said.
“It’s nihilistic, there is no point,” a second source, one of the drone operators supporting Task Force South West described. “It was clear that we were not making a difference.” For some of those involved in these operations, they saw it as the return of Vietnam War-era body counts used as a metric for success.
The Pentagon referred Connecting Vets to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) for official comments. CENTCOM did not respond to a detailed list of questions prior to publication.
“That theory of victory leads you naturally to body counts as a metric,” Schroden points out. “The danger there when it comes to any metric is that if people know what it is that you're assessing, oftentimes they will behave in ways to try and maximize the results with respect to whatever the metrics are.”
“The only plan was to stack bodies,” an intelligence official working with the Special Operations Task Force said. “Task Force ODIN used metrics of how many targets were hit. There was no real measure for success that intersected with strategic level goals. How does Afghan stabilization intersect with 300 strikes this week? They are not the same thing."
Schroden notes that if you are incentivizing body counts as a metric then at some point the veracity of the data being reported by units conducting lethal operations becomes questionable.
“If people start making this up, then it kind of undermines your ability to really assess the theory of success that you've laid forward," he said. It also limits the ability for oversight and peer review if units decide that, “if we see somebody, even if there's any question as to whether that person might be a combatant, we're still going to try to kill them, in order to get the body count, statistics higher," Schroden said.
“There are commanders who want those OPSTATs [operational statistics] to look good, bombs and KIAs that they can claim,” said former JTAC Wes Bryant. “I have been under commands where that is their main focus and they have a dry erase board with their kill counts. When you judge your operational success by that you will not be successful."
Blunt force trauma
When it comes to the Trump administration’s pressure campaign, there are differing opinions, expressed both publicly and privately, about its effectiveness.
The problem arises from using a military pressure campaign emphasizing body counts as a metric, while also utilizing a target engagement criteria with very liberal definitions of what constitutes an enemy combatant as opposed to JSOC’s intelligence-driven campaign that targeted specific personalities in the Taliban network.
Such a strategy, “shifts to 'I want to see ten raids a night,' 'I want to see a sustained level of activity against the network,'” Schroden said. “Normally, you just get more shooters and door kickers and so you outstrip your ability to do intel-driven targeting pretty quickly so you're just servicing whatever targets you can find.”
In doing this, the military begins hitting targets with extremely dubious intelligence, with questionable efficacy, by taking out what amounts to foot soldiers and sentries instead of so-called high-value targets. “It becomes really questionable as to what the strategic impact of that type of activity really is,” he said.
“My gut tells me history is going to come down on the side of it making some contributions to the negotiations, but it was not as perhaps decisive or influential as the U.S. military may have wanted it to be or believed that it may have been,” Schroden said.
Some of those involved in drone operations in Afghanistan during 2019 were so disgusted that they quit their jobs and now want nothing to do with the military or aviation. They struggle with the moral injury of being involved in targeting and killing unarmed Afghans.
Some Afghanistan experts in the U.S. have argued that America’s commitment to the country was low cost, with only one U.S. soldier being killed there per month, and the financial burden was relatively small to maintain a security presence and occupying Afghanistan aided American geostrategic ambitions in Central Asia. According to this line of thought, the U.S. military in Afghanistan had arrived at a tactical stalemate with the Taliban which was sustainable over a long period of time.
However, none of this proved to be accurate as a dozen provincial capitals were surrounded before the American withdrawal, and as U.S. troops left the entire country rapidly collapsed and gave way to Taliban control as the Afghan Army surrendered, defected, or just plain disappeared as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani quietly fled the country.
The situation in Afghanistan was not sustainable. The decision was either to withdraw as planned or to surge troops and go back to fighting the Taliban in the spring, something already tried many times in the past, President Biden explained in a speech.
For American military veterans, the war in Afghanistan is burned into their memory as something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
One of the drone pilots described a scene seared into his memory from 2019, in which he spotted an Afghan man under a tree speaking into a radio. As the man was walking towards his home, a Hellfire missile rained down on him, leaving behind a ragged corpse.
“An old lady comes running out of the compound. She comes down on her hands and knees next to this dude and you can see the despair, she is pounding on the ground, hitting herself,” he described. “She was on her knees next to this guy with balled fists out at the sky, shaking her fists at me.”
This month, as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan military veterans who served there watched twenty years of history, their history, washed away seemingly overnight. “I guess it is official now,” the drone pilot commented as the country was overrun.
“That none of it mattered?” Connecting Vets asked.
“Yep.”
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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.
 

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