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April 13, 2010
This is a difficult column to write. As a former US government official, I have taken it as part of my mission to try to explain to audiences who view the US with understandable suspicion why the US government, and the people who represent it, behave as they do.
It is not my intention to excuse or to make alibis, but rather to try to explain US behaviour as honestly as possible, and in ways which I hope will make sense to those who typically look at the world and individual events from a different perspective to that of most Americans.
In that context, explaining the Wikileaks video which appeared a few days ago is not easy.
The video captures the view from the gun-camera of a US military helicopter, as well as the voices of its pilots as they launch an attack on a number of individuals - including, as it turned out, two unarmed Reuters employees - in a Baghdad neighbourhood in July 2007.
It then records a subsequent attack by the same helicopter on a van coming to the aid of those wounded in the first, resulting in a total of 12 killings and the serious wounding of two children.
It does not make pleasant viewing.
Had I not previously understood just how negatively this might appear to others, the reaction of a friend, an experienced journalist in the Middle East, told me all I needed to know: He wondered whether the leak of this classified video might represent an instance of "operational secrecy [being] misused to cover up crimes".
To many of those who view this tape - knowing now what the pilots apparently did not - what is portrayed is nothing short of criminal.
The US military's central command, however, has indicated that it currently has "no plans to reopen investigation" into the incident, suggesting that the pilots, however mistaken they might have been, were acting in accordance with the "rules of engagement" they had been given.
How does one account for this?
I do not know the specific rules of engagement the US military was employing on that summer day in Baghdad, nor do I know what was happening in the general vicinity of the events recorded by the gun-camera, other than that they occurred at the height of the insurgent and sectarian warfare in Iraq, in the most dangerous and violent region of the country.
Rules of engagement, however, are designed to manage risk. The more they are calibrated to minimise the risk to one's own troops, the greater the potential risk to innocents. Equally, the more one takes precautions to avoid collateral casualties, the greater the potential risks to one's comrades.
A classic example is one where a helicopter gunship is pursuing fighters who have been firing on allied troops, but who have broken contact and fled into a residence compound.
Perhaps one has already seen a large number of civilians flee the building to avoid the nearby fighting; but have they all fled, or are there other innocents inside?
On the one hand, one knows that the fighters who have sought sanctuary in the building, if left unmolested, will return later to try to kill one's friends. This certainty must be weighed against the chance that if one attacks them by striking the compound, innocent civilians may - or may not - die.
Chain of command
Before the arrival of General McChrystal, the current commander of foreign troops in Afghanistan, the compound might well have been attacked under the prevailing rules of engagement.
McChrystal, aware of the importance to the overall political struggle of avoiding civilian casualties, has decreed that in such circumstances, unless those in the building pose an immediate and direct threat to deployed troops, the compound cannot be attacked.
To lessen the threat to others, McChrystal has opted to accept greater tactical risk to his own troops.
Again, I do not know what rules the Apache helicopter pilots in the Wikileaks video were operating under, but it seems clear that they were operating in an environment in which the gap between willingness to accept risk to US personnel and the corresponding willingness to accept risk to others was extremely wide - perhaps unconscionably so.
The rules, moreover, and the attitudes which underlie them, are not set by helicopter pilots: They are set much further up the chain of command, which is where real culpability may lie.
Conditioned by circumstances
I suspect that there were at least two other common factors at work in this case: The propensity of people to see what they expect, or want, to see and the inability of people who lack understanding of the environment in which they are operating to understand what they are seeing at all.
Some of the clearest examples I have witnessed of both these tendencies have come in instances where Americans were the actual, or near, victims.
I recall very well attending a memorial service for 15 Americans and five Kurds, shot down in two helicopters in northern Iraq in April 1994. They were dispatched by two US Air Force jets enforcing the "no-fly zone" over the Kurdish areas.
Despite having examined the two helicopters closely before firing, the pilots convinced themselves that two distinctively American Blackhawk helicopters - which they never would have expected to encounter - were Soviet-built Iraqi "Hinds". Such was the power of suggestion.
Having seen this, I am not so surprised that a pair of pilots, conditioned by the circumstances to strongly suspect any group of men moving together to be a band of insurgents, might convince themselves that perfectly non-threatening objects carried by a couple of journalists - cameras, in fact - were actually weapons.
Ill-prepared and impressionable
My old friend Gary Schroen, the leader of the first group of Americans to join Northern Alliance fighters operating against the Afghan Taliban shortly after the September 11 attacks, describes in his book, First In, how the operator of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) very nearly fired a missile at two of his men as they stood on a small airfield north of Bagram.
Because they were dressed in western clothing and clearly not local Afghans, the controller concluded that they must be al-Qaeda; and because one was unusually tall, he suspected he might even be Osama bin Laden himself!
Had Schroen not been there to take the call verifying the locations of his people, his two men would no doubt have been killed.
I remember another instance in March 2002, in which a drone operator spotted a group of Afghans as they dismounted from a vehicle near the Pakistani border and began to walk toward it.
Because the group had come from the general direction of a heavy battle between US troops and al-Qaeda fighters some considerable distance away, the operator assumed they must be fighters attempting to flee across the border, and prepared to fire on them.
When they disappeared behind a hill, however, the drone pilot could not locate them, and they crossed the border safely.
Intercepted later by the Pakistani military, the fighters turned out to be a 12-year-old Afghan with a bad tooth, accompanied by his father, an uncle and a grandfather who were seeking medical assistance for the boy.
That is not to suggest that such mistakes are the rule, particularly as Americans have gained experience and knowledge of conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
It does suggest, however, that if ill-prepared and impressionable personnel are armed with loose rules of engagement in a non-traditional conflict zone, where most of those on at least one side of the conflict do not wear uniforms, tragedy is likely to result - and that those responsible for allowing such circumstances to come together might well stand justly accused of criminal negligence.
Judge, jury, executioner
The pilots in the Wikileaks video may seem all the more sinister because of their seemingly clinical distance from the field of battle.
Ground troops can usually tell combatant from non-combatant because the former are shooting at them.
Aircraft pilots and drone operators who enjoy technological mastery over their enemies, however, are often asked to play judge, jury and executioner over people who cannot even see them.
For all of the technical wizardry they command, though, they themselves are every bit as prone to human foolishness, misjudgment and error as are their enemies.
One of the two Americans nearly killed by a drone in the potentially fratricidal incident described above I know as Chris. He is highly experienced in Central and South Asia, and speaks several regional languages.
He tells the story of a young targeting analyst who once rushed up to him bearing an aerial surveillance photo of a newly-discovered terrorist training camp.
It showed a large number of men, lined up in military formation, doing calisthenics, led by their commander.
Chris examined it for a moment before shaking his head and tossing the photo aside. "They’re praying," he said.
Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of CIA's counter-terrorism centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
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