On the night of March 2, 2002, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs flew onto a mountaintop along the Shahikot Valley in eastern Afghanistan. They were an advance force for a large American contingent targeting Taliban leader Saifur Rahman Mansoor and his fighters occupying fortifications along the valley.
The planned assault on Mansoor was part of the Pentagon’s evolving “High Value Target” strategy, which assumes that armies, insurgencies and criminal networks depend on a small number of key leaders for their existence — and that killing these leaders will collapse an organization.
The High Value Target concept is the product of — and justification for — a sprawling yet secretive complex of armed drones, CIA operatives, National Security Agency eavesdroppers and military Special Operations Forces that grew out of the twin crises of the War on Drugs and War on Terror … and which today costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars annually while making America less safe.
And it’s the subject of an important book. Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, by Harper’s journalist Andrew Cockburn, should be required reading alongside Robert Grenier’s CIA memoir 88 Days to Kandahar.
As Cockburn’s captivating, terrifying book explains, the SEALs in Shahikot were assassins, following orders to preemptively kill a man that U.S. policymakers had decided might somehow eventually pose a threat to the United States.
It was a faulty assumption. Mansoor was actually trying to make peace with the U.S.-backed regime in Kabul when the Pentagon and CIA targeted him. But then, High Value Target operations often proceed from bad intelligence, as Cockburn repeatedly illustrates in Kill Chain.
And that’s in part because targeted killing relies heavily on drones — those ostensibly precise, remote, robotic spies and killers that, in fact, are manpower-intensive and mechanically unreliable … and whose sensors are sometimes so imprecise that their operators cannot readily distinguish innocent civilians from insurgents and terrorists.
Indeed, Kill Chain opens with a detailed recounting of a 2011 incident in Afghanistan in which a U.S. Air Force drone crew, in its eagerness to strike insurgents, accidentally killed 23 civilians including two young boys. Every murder of a civilian and every clumsy, pointless targeted killing fuels the fire of resistance that guarantees the United States will always be at war.
America isn’t supposed to assassinate people — Pres. Ronald Reagan had banned the practice. But after the 9/11 attacks, Washington started doing a lot of things it isn’t supposed to do. Assassination — “targeted killing,” in government parlance — was already standard practice in America’s disastrous campaign against Latin American drug kingpins when it also began driving post-9/11 counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies.
But as Cockburn spells out, assassinating enemy leaders usually backfires even when the targets are legitimately bad dudes. If it had been paying attention, the U.S. government would have noticed that targeting drug kingpins in the 1990s actually increased narcotics supply by making room for younger, crueler drug lords — and more of them. The same principle applies to terrorists and insurgents.
Still, drones have made assassination easier — and easier for the government to defend. Question a government official about some robotic strike, as Cockburn did several times, and the official might show you a blurry drone video that “proves” the killing was legal and necessary.
But drones can’t see very well. Shoddy robot intel was one reason that, on that Afghan night 13 years ago, the U.S. assassins became the targets. Hundreds of Taliban fighters — far more than the Americans had expected — opened fire on the SEALs and a follow-on force of Army Rangers.
The hills blocked long-range radios and senior commanders all over the globe issued competing, fragmentary orders. From such a great distance, no one could coordinate the warplanes orbiting over the valley.
The SEALs and Rangers survived Shahikot — well, most of them did, anyway — thanks in part to timely intervention by a pair of Air Force pilots in low- and slow-flying A-10 Warthog attack jets. The flyboys in their ugly warplanes coordinated the air support that helped save the men on the ground.
A-10 flyer Capt. Scott Campbell and his wingman didn’t depend on some drone operator thousands of miles away to describe the world and the enemy to them. “They became a two-man air traffic control center, relaying frantic calls for help from the ground to the circling planes while warning bombers off strikes that might hit friendly positions,” Cockburns writes.
Staring out the canopy of their heavily-armored planes, the pilots had their own “fingertip feel” of the battlefield.
And in so doing, Campbell and his wingman embodied an older, more moral and far more effective mode of warfare — one that Cockburn casts as the opposite of the High Value Target strategy with its bad assumptions, poor intel and worse results.
It’s worth noting that today the Air Force is desperately trying to retire many of its roughly 300 A-10s over Congress’s repeated objections. But the drones and SEALs are going strong. And nobody dares touch the CIA’s funding.
Time was, America gathered intelligence firsthand without depending overmuch on expensive technology that rarely works. Time was, America sent highly-trained warriors into battle to confront, and defeat, our enemies only after looking them in the eye, proverbially speaking.
Time was, America didn’t kill people with the push of a button merely because some flimsy theory proposes that a few murders — followed by a few more, and a few more after that, ad infinitum -- can somehow negate ideology, rewrite human nature and eliminate uncertainty from the world.
Cockburn mourns that time’s passing — and expertly describes the era we’ve made, the one we’re stuck with until we change our ways. The era of high-tech, self-defeating assassins.