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Gareth Porter: US used cell phones to track targets, but knowingly killed and captured civilians

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. One of the great success stories of a rather otherwise dismal Afghan war, dismal both for Afghans and for NATO and American forces, has been the great success of the campaign to use predator drones and cell phone technology to–with amazing accuracy–pinpoint Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders and to assassinate them without touching civilians–at least that’s what we’ve been told. Further investigation shows perhaps this hasn’t been such a great success story as we have been led to understand, at least for Afghan civilians. Now joining us to talk about all of this is Gareth Porter. Gareth is an investigative journalist and often-contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.


JAY: So tell us a bit more about this story. What has investigation really found in terms of how civilians are being affected by this?

PORTER: My investigation of this question of just how precise the targeting has been in Afghanistan by the US Special Forces in their so-called night raids has really focused on the way in which McChrystal, General Stanley McChrystal, began the whole process of building a system for targeting the people that they wanted to kill or capture. It began in Iraq in 2006, and it was there that, really, McChrystal built his reputation, both with Washington and with the news media. And he was credited quite widely for having been remarkably successful in killing and capturing–particularly killing–al-Qaeda officials, and then the insurgents associated with the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. This is 2006 and 2007. And, in fact, Bob Woodward even credited McChrystal and his Special Forces outfit, the JSOC, the Joint Command for Special Forces that operated there, with essentially winning the war in Iraq, or at least defeating the insurgents in 2007 and 2008. In fact, we now know that that was really a vast exaggeration and that the Sunni and Shia insurgencies both either collapsed or drew down for political reasons, not because of the success of the killings. But what I found interesting about the beginnings of this system was just how completely dependent the intelligence for the targeting was on cell phone calls, cell phone records. What do–we find out now is that what he was really doing was tracking cell phone calls to anyone who is already a target, and widening the net by adding these people who were in touch, through their cell phones, with the people that they’d already targeted. And so you would go from one target to the next, sometimes within a matter of hours. And that was okay in terms of not targeting civilians and killing or imprisoning large numbers of civilians in Iraq, but when they transferred that system then into Afghanistan in 2009, this is when the trouble really began. And that’s where my story really, I think, drills down to ascertain just how bad the system has worked in terms of targeting civilians either wrongly or deliberately.

JAY: Well, what was different about what happened in Afghanistan versus Iraq? And how did it operate in Afghanistan?

PORTER: What was different was that in Afghanistan you have a society, particularly in the Pashtun south and east, where virtually everyone has in their cell phone the numbers of a few Taliban commanders, or at least one Taliban commander, who they can call up when they’re in trouble, when they need help. And this is just the nature of the south and eastern Afghanistan society, where the Taliban is deeply embedded in the society and everybody knows people in the insurgency–they’re friends, they’re family of insurgents. And so what has happened very clearly with regard to the McChrystal night raids in Afghanistan is that what they were doing was they would establish a place, a particular location, a home or a compound, as a target because something had happened to draw their attention to it, and then any cell phone call that went into that location or anybody who visited that location was a suspect. And if you did it more than once, you became extremely suspicious, and you probably ended up on their target list, the JPEL, the joint priorities effects list, which was the targeting–I mean, the target list for people who were to be killed or captured.

JAY: Now, one of the things you point out in your article is that when they would go after targets that had been located over this cell phone technology, they would do kind of a sweep. And it wasn’t like they inadvertently would sweep up civilians; it was actually part of the strategy, to sweep up civilians. What’s that about?

PORTER: Well, there are two things going on here. On one side of the ledger, we know that when they went into a compound to target one person who was on their list and they found four or five or ten people, if they weren’t women or children, basically they were packed up and sent off to the nearest US military base, where the interrogators would have their way with them and they would try to get some intelligence from these people about people they knew in the insurgency, even if they weren’t insurgents themselves. So they were sort of targets of opportunity as the night raiders arrived on the scene and found them on the premises. But then another thing that was happening was that at some point–and we can’t really nail down exactly when this started happening–the night raiders decided that they might as well target individuals who were not believed to be insurgents themselves but who they thought were in touch with insurgents. And again this brings in the cell phone traffic. If they saw that there were cell phone calls from an individual to somebody who was an insurgent suspect, they didn’t bother to find out if the cell phone calls were from somebody who was really a suspect as being an insurgent. If it was a friend or a family member, they would simply decide to put them on the list to pick them up so that they could interrogate them and hopefully get intelligence. So they constantly widened the net through this, basically, targeting of people who they knew were innocent civilians.

JAY: Now, some of this is not just about capturing people for interrogation. A lot of these night missions were about assassinations, and a lot of civilians are getting killed. What do we know about civilian deaths in the course of these night raids?

PORTER: Well, again, I mean, there are two ways in which civilians are getting killed. One of them is that they make mistakes. They target somebody who they think is a prominent mid-level or high-level Taliban official, and they get it wrong because they’re so totally relying on cell phone data, cell phone intelligence, that they don’t even know who this person is. And, of course, the primary example, the best example of this is this case last September when the night raiders targeted somebody who they thought was the shadow Taliban governor of Takhar province, when in fact he was a former Taliban commander who had left the movement in 2001, had never gone back, and had become a human rights activist working with the EU, in fact. He was vouched for by Michael Semple, the former deputy EU representative in Afghanistan, as somebody who definitely was not working for the Taliban. But because his–he called this shadow governor, like, once a month, he knew him personally because he called him, somehow or other they got mixed up, and they decided that in fact this guy who was making the calls was the shadow governor, and they targeted him for assassination, and in the process they killed nine people who were campaigning for this guy’s nephew for the Afghanistan Parliament in the same helicopter raid. Then the other thing that happens is that they go in to capture or kill somebody on their list, and a family member comes out of a room, not knowing what’s going on, with a weapon, or even something that they think might be a weapon, and they shoot him to death, or somebody comes from a neighboring home to see what the commotion’s all about, and that neighbor gets killed. So, I mean, we know that both of these things are happening at a pretty wide scale.

JAY: So from a military point of view, their argument might be, okay, mistakes happen, yes, there’s what–you know, collateral damage (that’s the term they like), but on the whole, this whole night campaign thing has been effective. Is that true?

PORTER: Well, that’s certainly the argument that they’re making, no question about it. They’re making it very vociferously. And, of course, they’re not bringing up or allowing to be stated the other side of the picture, which is that in the process they’re whacking a lot of innocent civilians and they’re imprisoning, or at least incarcerating briefly, thousands and thousands of civilians and disrupting family life for even a larger number of civilians, in the south and east, particularly, of Afghanistan. And so, really, it is the political effect of the night raids that is the issue here, apart from the unethical, immoral, and probably illegal nature of the targeting that they’re actually carrying out. I mean, there’s absolutely no argument here that–about the question of the hatred that these night raids and both civilian casualties and the disruption of the privacy of the home life of so many thousands of people is causing among the civilian population of Afghanistan. This is the biggest single cause of hatred of US and foreign troops in the country, and, indeed, hatred of the United States. And in some cases we know that people decide to become full-time jihadists to get back at the United States because of the revenge factor. And this is, again, a tribal society in which Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of conduct, reigns, and in which, if you kill someone in a person’s family unjustly, that person is obliged by that code of conduct to get back, to take revenge against the people who are the killers. And we have to face the fact that this is going to go on for a generation or two.

JAY: So much for winning the hearts and minds. Thanks very much for joining us, Gareth.

PORTER: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.