This is the sort of thing I hate

by Joshua Foust on 3/17/2008 · 7 comments

wazirimordorThere is a fine line between sympathetic reporting and outright propaganda. I would say this post at Long War Journal crosses that line:

At 9:40 PM local time, US officials declared the group posed an imminent threat to forces inside Afghanistan and the call to strike the compound was made. After the orders were given to launch a coordinated strike, fixed-wing and rotary-wing air support along with Predator surveillance and reconnaissance began scanning likely insurgent attack positions inside Afghanistan. US military officials confirmed no women or children had been seen in the targeted North Waziristan compound or in any structures near it over the last five days.

Nearly four hours later, a salvo of indirect fire targeting the compound hit its mark, completely obliterating the building and killing an unknown number of people inside of it. Several insurgents working sentry posts around the compound were observed by aerial surveillance leaving the area on foot. Initial intelligence reports on March 12 indicated three “high-level Haqqani network commanders” were killed and that “many” Chechen fighters also died in the blast.

First off, aside from solemn official assurances they keep running under our bombs, there is no evidence for any Chechens in Afghanistan, or anywhere nearby. Military officials admit they have no idea how many people died in the attack, just that no women and children were among them. Uh huh. The Pakistani military says several women and children were killed in the strike. The LWJ insists, despite credible evidence that firing artillery into a group of houses might actually kill innocent people, that “intelligence,” which is always 100% accurate, says no innocents were killed. Who to believe?

At least they’re not blaming the women and children for being in our way, which far too many do when they’re not claiming these fatalities are “Taliban propaganda.”

There remain, however, several problems with taking the military’s statements uncritically:

  • The 82nd Airborne, which operates in Eastern Afghanistan, uses M198 155mm medium-towed Howitzers, which have a CEP of about 10 meters (i.e. there is a 50% chance the round will fall within 10 meters of its target). It’s not fair to call it inaccurate, but it also isn’t fair to brag about how it can take out a single house of baddies without harming anyone or anything nearby. You can never avoid ballistic weaponry being a rather blunt instrument. (**UPDATE** This bullet point has been called into question in the comments. When more information is available, it may change.)
  • There will always be contradictory reports from strike sites. Unfortunately, given the terrain and the history of U.S. strikes in the area, it is still highly probable women and children were killed in the attack. Not seeing any for days at a time only means if any were present they weren’t allowed outside.
  • How, one wonders, was this compound in Waziristan under constant, real-time surveillance for five days straight? Considering the acquisition demand and deployment schedule of MQ-1’s and MQ-9’s, I was unaware enough could be tasked with orbiting a single suspected compound in territory we don’t have permission to enter for five straight days. Again: not impossible, it just seems a little too miraculous.
  • NATO ISAF didn’t have any knowledge of the incident even while US officials were discussing it with reporters.

That last bit is what truly concerns me. Aside from the rest of those points, which just indicate the usual fog of war type stuff that makes immediate after-action reporting so very useless, having the U.S. and NATO in such deep variance is bad news if we are all supposed to hold hands and lead Afghanistan to a brighter, democratic future. Anyone with a bit of military fluency will tell you that coordination is essential to avoid tactical and strategic incoherence. Unfortunately, we have tactical and strategic incoherence in Afghanistan. How can NATO be expected to do its job when it’s not even told of unilateral strikes on a third country?

The problem may be even worse. VOA is reporting that yesterday yet another compound in Waziristan was struck by an unknown party. No one knows who did it, or even if the explosions were deliberate, but since it’s Wana and that’s where some bad guys hid out once, it’s not unreasonable to think that maybe the U.S. threw some more missiles that way. At least that story gets it right that news of America bombing Pakistan would fuel “anti-U.S. sentiment.”

So is the U.S. now fighting a lower-intensity war inside Laos Pakistan?

It is a sticky situation: I’m all for killing the bad guys, but when crossing borders and violating territory you’re technically not permitted to, the ethics of the situation become a bit fuzzy. How credible is the determination that some men you can’t eavesdrop on in Pakistan pose an “immediate” threat to Coalition forces in Afghanistan? How precise* can weapons fired from miles away be? These are decisions I cannot make or even very strongly question from 8,000 miles away. But I do very strongly hope those in charge, even Bomber McNeill, do… just as I hope none of you take anything official sources claim at face value.

*I’m fully aware of the great P.R. campaign about precision weapons. And the U.S. does indeed have some of the most precise weaponry on the planet. But in the real world, there are so many exogenous factors that go into targeting and execution that precise weapons, in the way Colin Powell got us to thinking about them in Gulf War I, really don’t exist.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Anonymous March 17, 2008 at 11:18 am

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Fabius Maximus March 18, 2008 at 9:20 am

There have been other articles on this topic lately, with real information — not this nonsense on the LWJ. Despite the “gallows humor” titles, both are serious journalism.

Blowing Them Away Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry“, Tom Engelhardt (16 March 2008)

The U.S. Military’s Assassination Problem“, Mother Jones (10 March 2008)

sgt. john b March 20, 2008 at 9:53 pm

See post about Chechens…

Whoops! They Caught a Chechen

This was in the same link that you implied there were no Chechens in Afghanistan. Why wouldn’t they be? Khattab was an Afghan veteran, later he lost some fingers when he fought jihad in Tajikistan….so there’s no Chechens in Tajikistan? Chechens can’t fight jihad in Afghanistan or Tajikistan? Chechens can’t leave Chechnya? What are you saying here?

Egyptians, Saudis and Algerians can fight global jihad…but not Chechens. That is retarded dude- How naive are you? Stick with what you know.

M-777’s are now deployed to eastern Afghanistan, including Khost, and fire Excalibur GPS guided munitions, 40-km maximum range.

Too many holes to poke, way to naive to waste my time.

Joshua Foust March 20, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Easy, tiger. If you’re gonna quote Afghanistanica, quote it in full:

This is all so sad. I attempted to find out about this incident and fought some interesting facts about this Chechen:

A Russian man, disguised as a woman, was arrested during a search in the restive southeastern province of Paktia Saturday afternoon. Governor Rehmatullah Rehmat produced the detainee – named Andrei – before tribal elders at the governor’s house here.

Hmmm. “Andrei” doesn’t seem like a proper name for a Chechen. What else did Pajhwok news say?:

The suspect insisted he had arrived in Afghanistan to return to his country, and that he did not want to support militants or perpetrate violence against anyone. However, he would not say what prompted him to put on women’s clothes.

I won’t judge this man based on how he dresses. But I’m still curious (added by editor: not a freudian slip. I swear). Why was he in the area?:

Initially, he went to Egypt for receiving religious education. Later on, the young man moved to Iran for higher Islamic studies. Prior to his entry into Afghanistan, he was studying in a Pakistani seminary. Andrei continued he spent some time in the southern port city of Karachi before shifting to Mir Ali town of Waziristan, lying close to the Pak-Afghan border. He lived in Pakistan’s troubled northwestern tribal region for six months. From Mir Ali, he managed to enter Khost in an effort to reach Kabul. The detainee planned to go from the Afghan capital to Tajikistan and then to Russia.

Aaaaw! He wants to go home. He hates Pakistan. It’s so sad. (But what’s the deal with hanging out in Iran? They’re like, so munafiqeen and stuff). Anyways, this is the gist of it:

The lanky man, in an exclusive chat with Pajhwok Afghan News, said he was a resident of Siberia. Sporting a long beard, the 28-year-old added he had embraced Islam.

Pffft! He’s not even a Chechen. He’s likely an ethnic Russian or the member of some ethnic minority in Siberia who thinks that naming your kid “Andrei” is cool (and who can grow a beard).

So, that guy wasn’t a Chechen. He continues, “My point is, other than that US troops and Afghan security officers are mistakenly using “Chechen” in the place of “Russian” and “not Chechen at all,” is that I’m right. Oh, and there are no Chechens in Afghanistan or nearby. Sorry for being so unbearable about the whole thing.”

This has nothing to do with “the global jihad.” Chechens care about Chechnya and Russia. They’re not radicals the same way Zawahiri is.

Good grief man. You may think I’m naive but I can at least read the sources I use as evidence.

And fine, Excaliburs have a CEP of between 5 and 10 meters. How again does that matter when trying to hit a single house or room in a mud compound? The blast damage, even at 5 meters, would cause tremendous damage to the surrounding structures. Remember: they’re shooting at structures like this:

And the M-777 isn’t in widespread use yet, the best news sources I could find actually have the Canadians fielding it, not the Americans. The Canadians are in Kandahar — nowhere near Khost. FOB Salerno has hosted some live-fire exercises, but there aren’t yet press accounts of it being used in action… unless this counts (the bit about range? So what? Artillery could shoot a whole 2 miles decades ago).

You got some sources you’re not too damned superior to share?

sgt. john b March 21, 2008 at 5:50 am

M-777 is in Khost already in Khost, dumb ass.

Chechens are in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Plain and simple, you’re a fucking retard and your website blows-

Joshua Foust March 21, 2008 at 6:12 am

Right, so that’s the story I linked to. Again, using our reading skills, we learn that this was a live fire exercise, not combat. To the best of my knowledge, the M-777 hasn’t been used in combat in Khost or anywhere else in RC-East… which would mean I was right in discussing the capabilities of the M-198. Again, unless you can point to some sources that say otherwise.

From the Pajhwak story:

Three Chechen militants of the dreaded Al-Qaeda organization were killed and six including four Afghan militants were wounded during a joint operation of Afghan and US-led coalition troops in the southern province of Zabul, officials said on Thursday.

Dai Chopan district chief Fazal Bari told Pajhwok Afghan News the Chechen were killed in the district on Wednesday night.

He added on a tip off the operation was held in Kotaly village of the district where three Chechens were perished another two including four Afghan militants were wounded…

However in a statement emailed to this news agency from Bagram Airbase the US-led coalition troops have said the operation was held in Surkh-i-Sang area of the district.

Militants had attacked on the Afghan and US-led coalition troops and were escaping the scene when the air forces arrived and attacked the militants, said 1st Lt. Jim Wilt in the statement.

She added there were no causalities to the US-led coalition troops and they had no information about the exact number of those killed. However Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi rejected the claims and phoned this news agency that they have no foreign militants in the named area.

So they don’t know where the battle took place, or how many died, but they DO know there were three Chechens among them? Riiiiight.

Also, no need for cursing here.

péter wagner March 22, 2008 at 9:22 pm

Khattab was born in Jordan. He was Circassian by origin, his family emigrated from Caucasus after 1862, probably settled first somewhere in Asia Minor, then resettled later in Transjordan.

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