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Tag: "afghanistan"

Counting Bodies (Or How To Effortlessly Minimize Civilian Casualties)

[ 69 ] April 22, 2017 |
Graffiti in Sanaa, Yemen, denouncing strikes by United States drones. Credit Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Graffiti in Sanaa, Yemen, denouncing strikes by United States drones. Credit Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Twitter compatriot and fellow foreign policy female Sarah Shoker was kind enough to join in to my discussion of civilian casualties from American airstrikes. Sarah is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at McMaster University. Her dissertation focuses on the intersection between gender, counterinsurgency, and drone warfare.

When media does not include numbers of civilian casualties, it is worth asking who is counting and who gets counted.

Sarah explains below:

The official American line is that there were no civilian casualties caused by the Mother of All Bombs, aka the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast.

The level of secrecy surrounding the blast makes this statement difficult to confirm. Recent news reports indicate that there’s some confusion about whether U.S forces have barred Afghan forces from being near the site, or if U.S forces have even been to the destroyed site at all.

A curiously cropped version of a Michael P Ramirez cartoon (link below)

A curiously cropped version of a Michael P Ramirez cartoon (link below)

In either case, before we accept that no civilians died from the bombings, we need to recall who ‘counts’ as a civilian to U.S. military strategists. By the end of his administration, Barack Obama had issued approximately 560 drone strikes. Recall that the Obama Administration kept the civilian death rate artificially low by omitting all ‘military aged males’ from the collateral damage count. What does this mean, practically speaking? If you are a boy or man who is aged sixteen or over—even if you are not armed—and you die in a conflict scenario, you were/are not included in the civilian death count. And yes, this is an utter violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and even U.S domestic law.

In IHL, a civilian is anyone who is not a combatant. Civilian status is not determined by gender, age, or race. But these factors are, increasingly, becoming central to American war fighting. The Bush Administration followed similar logic. Think of Operation Vigilant Resolve, sometimes called Fallujah 1, when the city’s civilian population was evacuated—unless you were a Military-Aged Male. This evacuation tactic happened again in Operation Al-Fajr (or Fallujah 2).

Consider the case of the CIA official who essentially said that simply being ‘near’ an insurgent meant that you were part of an insurgent network too, a claim which was used to substantiate claims that civilian deaths from drone strikes had been in the ‘single digits.’ Even senior policymakers had a hard time swallowing that one.
There are a host of these examples, which is why it’s worth taking the time to examine the claim that the MOAB caused zero civilian deaths.

  1. Who ‘counts’ as a civilian is important. How we collect data is important. The United States has repeatedly stated that it respects the ‘principle of distinction.’ But if boys and men aged 16+ are no longer counted as ‘civilians,’ then U.S data on civilian death rates has been undermined.
  2. This is precisely why we need 3rdparty groups to confirm/deny statements made by foreign policy officials. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for example, does not omit boys and men from the collateral damage count. This little definitional difference translates to a big difference in the numbers. By 2016, the Bureau’s civilian death count was 6 times higher than the number offered by the White House—even though the total number of individuals killed by drones was “remarkably similar.”  The White House, unfortunately, has a history of seeing insurgents where there may be none. There’s a joke, attributed to a senior state department official, that has now been told so often that it borders on stale: Whenever the CIA sees three guys doing jumping jacks, they think it’s a terrorist training camp.

There’s a lot that can be said about how race, gender, and religion inform what types of bodies are deemed ‘risky’ in conflict situations. But I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

Maybe the Trump Administration is right, and no civilians died as a result of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast. Given that the presence of ISIS in the area caused the majority Afghan civilians to flee their homes (Internal Displacement in Afghanistan has been a problem since the war began), these claims should be taken seriously instead of dismissed as typical Trump Administration bravado. But currently there’s not enough information to confirm whether this assessment is accurate.


  1. Full cartoon from Michael P Ramirez here:

Media and the MOAB Strike Aftermath, Updated

[ 16 ] April 20, 2017 |


A few days ago I wrote about the conspicuous absence of any news reports of the aftermath of the MOAB strike in Afghanistan. The point of my post was not to declare there had or hadn’t been civilian casualties or civilian collateral damage in the area that was bombed, but simply to say that news organizations and non-governmental organizations likely could not get that information for logistical reasons. That logistical difficulty may very well have been why that particular target was chosen. Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 11.44.46 AM

Someone at The Guardian must have known what I was writing up because that same day a piece on the devastation left by the MOAB was finally published. But let’s note that it took journalists four days to get access to and release the story, which in this day and age is quite a long time.

The first paragraph describes an Afghan commando capturing the moment of the blast with his cell phone. Whatever he caught, we cannot see. Somebody somewhere has likely decided it would be a “security issue” if such images were allowed to be published.

While there is no mention of civilian casualties, we can see that the Nangarhar province already bore many scars of war. Whatever the US strike accomplished in removing the threat that ISIL posed to the local villagers (and let’s remember that it was the Afghans of the area who were primarily threatened by ISIL and not “American interests”) war is still there. Perhaps any assessment of the damage done by MOAB would be difficult to differentiate from the wounds already inflicted.

And yet, the images that are most likely to remain with the American public are those of the unexploded bomb and the ambiguous black and white aerial footage of its impact. They were the first images and the most palatable. Whatever victory was scored against ISIL in the strike, the scenes from Nangarhar wouldn’t inspire much celebration.

If you catch any other images being circulated on television or on digital sources like the Huffington Post, let me know.


Keeping The Mother Of All Bombs At A Distance

[ 82 ] April 17, 2017 |

“…a lovely, bloodless, corpseless war, just the sort the politicians love.”

David Hackworth (1)

Still images from Pentagon footage of MOAB strike in Afghanistan

Still images from Pentagon footage of MOAB strike in Afghanistan

If images of war set the tone for public support, then the best images are the ones that tell almost no story at all. Such seems to be the case with the recent bombing of an ISIL network in a remote area of Afghanistan, otherwise known in American foreign policy circles as the first time the Mother Of All Bombs (MOAB) GBU-43. In combing through numerous articles, videos, and commentary over the event I am certain about one thing: the weapon is the only story available to be told.

From Al Jazeera to ABC, from Reuters to Russia Today, we are more likely to see images of the weapon being tested, in a warehouse, or the silent black and white drone footage released by the Pentagon that requires an expert to explain. If this bomb is indeed as powerful as all these sources are describing, where are the images of what it has actually done to the area in question?

The news sources I mention above do include witness testimony about “feeling” the Earth shake and “seeing” fire and smoke. Some of these witnesses were indeed thrilled by the idea of ISIL taking a hit, however others in Afghanistan are less happy with both the choice of weapon and the bombing itself. But to date, we have no verified images of the immediate aftermath or the devastation that must have followed. In an age where mobile and digital tools have forever changed the way we witness war, I find this an interesting and perhaps purposeful situation.

Am I suggesting that news networks are neglecting or suppressing images of Afghan suffering or collateral damage? No. If we do not have these images it is not because these things have not occurred, although it is possible they did not. I suggest it is because the Trump administration made a decision to bomb an ISIL target far enough away from international eyes and cameras so that the only narrative that could emerge was a clean and very distant view of a continuing military operation in Afghanistan that has proven very unpopular with the public.

If you’re going to wag the dog, its probably smart to make sure its a dog that people want to see.


  1. Young, Peter R, and Peter Jesser. The Media And The Military. 1st ed. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997.

We are delighted to welcome Christa Blackmon for a stint as an LGM guest poster! Christa is a media anthropologist with critical experience in social media campaigns and opEd writing. A native of Miami, Florida she attended American University’s School of International Service from 2005 to 2008, focusing on Peace and Conflict Resolution in the Middle East. Christa was formerly the Senior Editor of Palestine Note and has frequently worked with BoomGen Studios as a social media strategist on various film and media projects, including the Oscar nominated documentary The Square. She completed her Masters program in Social Anthropology with Merit at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London . Her dissertation is, “Mediating Memory: Oral Histories of the Nakba Online”, was awarded a Distinction. A self-described “fiction junkie”, Christa has a passion for science fiction literature and media and its relation to social science. She also maintains a blog about the ethics of viewing images of suffering in Western media,

Afghanistan: Another Nation That Should Be Grateful to the West

[ 40 ] October 3, 2015 |


Cass Sunstein is right once again. The West brings nothing but gifts wherever it goes, totally eliminating any claims from those nations for justice. And what nation has received more of these gifts than Afghanistan:

A hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz was badly damaged early Saturday after being hit by what appears to have been an American airstrike. At least 19 people were killed, including 12 hospital staff members, and dozens wounded.

The United States military, in a statement, confirmed an airstrike at 2:15 a.m., saying that it had been targeting individuals “who were threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.”

The airstrike set off fires that were still burning hours later, and a nurse who managed to climb out of the debris described seeing colleagues so badly burned that they had died.

What’s a little collateral damage (everyone’s favorite euphemism for state-sponsored murder of civilians during war) when we have targets in the area? A Doctors Without Borders hospital is just an acceptable price to pay I guess for our government.

Drink Up and Be Somebody

[ 58 ] September 6, 2015 |


If the writers of LGM ever got together in the same place, I believe the alcohol consumption would look something like Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan:

As it should now be clear to you, dear reader, Soviet soldiers were not that discriminating when sourcing their sauce. When I was interviewing veterans of the Soviet–Afghan War for my doctorate, many and horrifying were the accounts of parties fueled by aftershave, rosewater, and rubbing alcohol. The military hierarchy denied the enlisted men legal access to drink, yet fighting a high-stress and — in the early years, at least — officially unacknowledged war, they were nothing if not committed to the quest.

Boot polish, for example, would be spread on a hunk of bread, which was then toasted. The alcohol in the polish would soak into the bread; the polish itself would crisp on the surface of the toast. You’d scrape off as much as you could, then eat the bread. The same could be done with some ethanol-based toothpastes.

Alternatively, take that polished bread, sit it on top of a glass of water over night, and then drink it, as a certain amount of alcohol will have infused it. And then eat the bread, hoping it hasn’t gotten moldy in the meantime.

If you had the misfortune to be based in one of the so-called “eagle’s nest” observation posts up in the mountains, where supplies were heaved out of an Mi-8 helicopter precariously balancing one of its wheels on the slope, then you needed to turn to your surroundings. Some solvents used for cleaning weapons contained ethanol along with all kinds of toxic additives. Pour some into a metal pan and then leave it out for a while in the bitter Afghan winter; the belief was that the ethanol would stay liquid, atop a frozen layer of everything else. Fortunately, such solvents were often in scarce supply.

The soldiers would also — despite official warnings not to, as much to avoid poisoning as anything else — buy drinks from Afghan traders. Ranging from the internationally renowned brandies of the Afghan-Clemd distillery to rotgut brewed in backstreet stills, the drinks on sale, especially at venues dotting Kabul’s Chicken Street bazaar, were numerous. The Soviet Commandant’s Service military police patrols meant to prevent off-duty soldiers from stocking up on drink would, instead, “tax” their victims a share of their purchases. As one soldier reminisced, “it’s the only time in my military career I actually didn’t mind wearing the red armband” of a patroller.

The field expedients the Soviets poured into their hapless bodies may have brought a degree of oblivion to their wartime misadventures. These noxious and innovative drinks were competing with the opium that was so readily available and also with such alternatives as chifir’, a punishingly strong tea that was actually used in the Gulags to induce a mild high or stave off pain and exhaustion. They also contributed to as much as 20 percent of the cases addressed by the Military-Medical Service in Afghanistan. One army doctor recounted to me a tale of having to operate on a soldier hit by shrapnel from a rebel mortar, whose innards still smelled of cheap cologne.

Speaking of such things, I just finished On the Bowery, the amazing 1956 early cinema verité film about drunks on the Bowery. This might also look like the LGM writing crew on any given night.


Soviet Soldier in Afghanistan

[ 6 ] March 6, 2013 |

I went on HuffPo live to talk about this story:

A former Soviet soldier has been discovered hiding in Afghanistan under an assumed identity 33 years after going missing.
Bakhretdin Khakimov disappeared during the first months of the nine-year war that was sparked when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in late 1979.

The ethnic Uzbek, originally from Samarkand, was wounded in battle in 1980 and rescued by nearby villagers, according to the BBC. He later adopted the local name Sheikh Abdullah and has lived by practicing herbal medicine learnt from his saviors.

Khakimov was found two weeks ago by members of the Warriors-Internationalists Affairs Committee, or WIAC, a nonprofit, Moscow-based organization, who spent an entire year retracing his steps, reports Russia’s RIA news agency.

Anyway, remarks below go something like this; events like this aren’t so unusual, as American defectors from Vietnam and Korean wars remained in both countries post-war (as well as third states such as Sweden); it’s hard to know how many more former Soviet soldiers might still be in Afghanistan; we don’t know if this gentleman’s story is true (some Soviet defectors, especially from Central Asia, joined the mujahideen for ideological reasons); and we’ll likely never get the full story. Enjoy…

Airpower in Afghanistan

[ 5 ] February 20, 2013 |

My latest at the Diplomat concerns Karzai’s limitations on the use of coalition airpower in support of ANA operations:

Given that Afghan Army ground forces have yet to demonstrate a clear advantage over their Taliban counterparts, airpower really is the Afghan government’s“asymmetric advantage.” Whatever the Taliban may have, it lacks the tools that airpower provides, including reconnaissance, strike, and mobility.

The languorous U.S. efforts to develop Afghan airpower further complicate the problem. Embroiled in an internal contracting dispute, the USAF has yet to acquire the kind of light, counterinsurgency-oriented aircraft that would be ideal for the Afghan Air Force, such as the Brazilian Super Tucano. A different contracting dispute has slowed the delivery of Russian transport and attack helicopters.

The Afghan Air Force is hardly doomed to ineptitude and ineffectiveness; the Soviets rated the Air Force as the most capable Afghan armed forces branch during the occupation, and parts of the organization survived through the Taliban period. Nevertheless, prospects of the Afghan Air Force operating advanced jet aircraft in the near future aren’t particularly good, and in any case shouldn’t be the priority. Simple, low maintenance platforms that perform a variety of roles could help the Afghan armed forces maintain its edge.

While I generally hate being pushed into advocacy for airpower, the ANA will find it very tough going without access to either intrinsic or coalition air assets. As I suggest in the article, the wording of the ban make it unclear whether it applies to pre-planned offensive operations, defense engagements, or both. My guess is that it will be interpreted in exceedingly minimalist fashion by ANA commanders and their coalition counterparts. In other airpower news, the UNAMA report on civilian casualties came out a few days ago and has been making the rounds. Some points of note:

  • Civilian casualties are down, civilian casualties from coalition activities are down, and civilian casualties from airstrikes are down.
  • Total number of airstrikes fell from 5411 in 2011 to 4092 in 2012.
  • Drone strikes (in Afghanistan proper) increased from 294 to 506 (12.3% of total), and civilian casualties from drone strikes increased from 1 to 16 (12.6% of total).

In sum, the Coalition appears to be reducing its commitment, drones are pushing out manned aircraft, and drones have yet to demonstrate that they’re much better at minimizing civilian casualties than manned aircraft (although our numbers on that last remain very small). Again, I hasten to note that this analysis is confined to Afghanistan, and does not touch on the very different campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Exercises and Borders

[ 2 ] August 8, 2012 |

I have two largely unrelated pieces that both involve China. First, in the Diplomat:

As a regularly scheduled biennial exercise, RIMPAC happens regardless of the extant political situation in the Pacific. However, the absence of the People’s Liberation Army Navy – and the participation of Russia and India for the first time – combined with new tensions in the South China Sea, leaves the unavoidable impression that these exercises are geared towards managing the increasing naval power of China.

This year’s RIMPAC exercise took place against the backdrop of an unusually open debate about the future of U.S. maritime strategy in East Asia. The Obama administration’s “pivot” pledges a redistribution of U.S. military effort to the Western Pacific. The development of AirSea Battle, at least at tactical and operational levels, promises to enhance the ability of assets from different organizations to cooperate. China has viewed these debates with considerable concern.

And then in the Global Times:

The broader problem is that sponsorship of militant networks can have wide-ranging, unpredictable outcomes. Elements of the US supported mujahedeen eventually came to constitute part of the Taliban, giving harbor to enemies of the US. Pakistani support of the Taliban as well as other militant networks has led to many terrorist attacks in Pakistan and India. In the future, jihadist networks may undertake major attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China.

Whether or not elements of the Pakistani Taliban are using Afghanistan as a safe haven, border conflicts will continue to create problems between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the US…. Heavily armed bands of young, enthusiastic men undercut state power and authority, however attractive such networks may appear in the short term. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India should take note, just as China and the US should closely monitor the development of new militant groups along the Durand Line.

F-35 and What Not

[ 19 ] April 19, 2012 |

I talked Afghanistan and naval procurement policy with Alyona last night. The latter starts around 5:35.

And if you listen closely around the 4:30 mark you can hear my daughters screaming at each other.

Statebuilding and its Discontents

[ 1 ] March 14, 2012 |

Josh Foust and I discuss the recent massacre in Afghanistan:

Close Air Support and Drones

[ 19 ] February 10, 2012 |

Yesterday, Marcy Wheeler wrote a post pointing out that two of the six Americans confirmed killed by drone strikes were servicemen, a pair of Marines killed during a close air support mission (the other four are Anwar al Awlaki, targeted directly for assassination in a drone strike, and three other suspected Al Qaeda militants killed as “collateral” in drone attacks). There’s obviously some conflation here; the Marines died in a CAS mission during a firefight in Afghanistan, while the others were targeted more or less directly in the strategic drone campaign against Al Qaeda.  Nevertheless, Marcy argues that the death of the Marines reveals a larger problem about drone targeting; drone strikes are launched using insufficient information, thus leading to lots of accidental deaths (whether American military or foreign civilian.)

I think that this is mostly wrong, with a few elements that may be right.  The first problem is, I think, a misunderstanding of what modern close air support looks like.  On twitter yesterday, Marcy expressed the view that if an F-16 had launched the airstrike, there would have been an additional layer of intelligence and accountability. But, from the point of view of modern CAS, this is simply wrong.  Much CAS in Afghanistan is delivered from medium altitude by fighter-bombers such as the F-16 and the F/A-18.  These aircraft spend very little time over the target, and have very little ability to determine with any precision the events on the ground.  The weapons they release (often 2000# bombs) are targeted based on information from ground troops and (if available) live footage taken from drones. Close air support of this nature has, however, been part of the Afghanistan War since 2001, when special forces operators directed most of the targeting in support of Northern Alliance forces.

CAS is also delivered by aircraft such as the A-10 and the AC-130, which fly lower, slower, and have more time over the target.  However, a A-10 pilot still has less information about the course of a firefight than virtually any drone operator; drone pilots fly slower and can stay on station longer, and are less concerned about the possibility of getting shot down.  An AC-130 is a different story, because orbiting the battlefield is part of its job, but AC-130s are relatively few and don’t deliver much of the CAS in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the ordnance carried by a Predator drone does a lot less damage than the ordnance carried by an F-16 or an A-10. This isn’t always good; sometimes a 2000# bomb is an effective way to suppress or destroy an enemy position, or to kill a concentration of enemy fighters.  In friendly fire terms, however, the small weapons payload of the Predator is a distinct plus; NATO soldiers only die when they’re directly targeted by the Predator, as opposed to simply being near an F-16 strike.

The ideal CAS platform would be something like a Super Tucano, which has numerous weapon hardpoints, gunfire capability, and a low enough speed to loiter over the battlefield until the pilot figures out what’s going on.  For a variety of reasons (few of them relating to the question at hand), the Air Force has nary an interest in buying the Super Tucano or an aircraft like it.

The future of close air support is, as Drunken Predator suggests, fighter-bombers layered upon drones.  This isn’t ideal; there are some cases when having an A-10 would be of great help, and many cases in which a Super Tucano could handle CAS very effectively.  However, this is almost certainly a better situation than held at the beginning of the Afghan War, when fighter-bombers (and sometimes strategic bombers, such as the B-52 and the B-1B) delivered weapons without the assistance of near-ubiquitous drone footage.  In this system, drones collect intel, combined with ground troops, and deliver some of the weapons to targets, with the manned aircraft launching heavy ordnance based on drone and ground intel.

It should go without saying that friendly fire incidents happen in all of these scenarios. Close air support is necessary because enemy forces sometimes have positions which are either hard to attack directly from the ground, or from which they can pin down friendly troops.  In the latter situation especially, decisions on where to target bombs and missiles often have to be made in a very short amount of time with limited amounts of intel. Marcy quotes a report indicating that the spatial separation of different parts of the CAS team played a role in mistaken killing of the Marines, but doesn’t put this in any comparative context.  The history of CAS in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, and the wars of the War on Terror is replete with instances of CAS gone horribly awry, including low altitude strafing of friendly infantry and vehicles.  Pilots, SOF operators, and infantrymen all make dreadful errors about the precise location of friendly and enemy forces; in previous conflicts, the lack of communication between ground and air forces has been a tremendous problem.  The deaths of two Marines in a drone CAS strike in Afghanistan doesn’t tell us very much about the proclivity of the current system to create friendly fire casualties; for that, we’d need much more robust data comparing the frequency of such casualties in situations with and without drones. I don’t have that data handy, but I think there’s very good reason to think (based on the immediate availability of intel and the size of ordnance fired by drones) that the presence of drones tends to cut down on friendly fire casualties.

As should be obvious, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the legitimacy, legality, accuracy, or good sense of the campaign to target suspected terrorists with drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, et al.  The issues raised by the use of drones in support of conventional military operations as opposed to the use of drones in what amounts to a strategic bombing campaign-light aren’t completly separable, but they’re distinct enough that great care should be taken before conflating the two.

If You Love Someone, Set Them Free…

[ 5 ] February 3, 2012 |

Yesterday Alyona and I chatted about Afghanistan:

The technical difficulties 6 minutes in threw me off a bit…

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