Revisiting the Takhar Raid

by Joshua Foust on 5/11/2011 · 15 comments

Last September I noted that ISAF probably killed a member of the IMU, inflated his resume to make him “senior,” and also killed several civilians. In the absence of other evidence, I reluctantly concluded that ISAF’s description of him as an IMU figure was probably right, since there was no other information to suggest he might not be.

Well, last night Frontline ran a segment about this raid, and they raised serious questions about the incident. It is based, in part, on an extensive report by AAN’s Kate Clark about the raid. Her conclusion—that JSOC operators had confused a legitimate IMU target with an innocent local man—is very strongly argued.

This investigation has demonstrated the danger of relying on signals intelligence and social network analysis, particularly when it is used as a basis for targeted killings, without cross‐checking and in the virtual absence of human intelligence and, indeed in this case, without even the ordinary common knowledge to be had from watching election coverage on television. The findings of this investigation indicate that the most basic enquiries were not made about a target the military had been tracking for months. This suggests grave flaws in intelligence collection and evaluation. The magnitude of these omissions may rise to the level of a violation of the precautionary principle, one of the basic principles of the laws of war aimed at protecting civilians during conflict.

It’s not airtight, but this is very damning of ISAF intelligence handling (a topic I’ve visited countless times, for example during the Shindand bombing incident in 2008, or the Kunduz strike the following year). I’ve also complained that who we trust for news on this stuff depends to a great degree on our politics, which probably means that this report won’t make much headway on the neoconservative OMGCOINKILL side of things. Even so, it’s good to have this information out there—we should all be asking very hard questions about how and when ISAF chooses to summarily execute people.

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– 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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Eli Wurth May 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm

If our assassination program didn’t raise much ire pre-5/1, it surely isn’t going to now. If anything, the OBL assassination only reinforces its efficacy in the minds of the opinion shapers and military/political/media elites in this country.

Johny Matrix May 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm

So once again, because you (and AAN) has an audience, your / their word will be taken as truth. I usually relish Frontline’s coverage on the AfPak region due to its non-biase appraoch on all topics (moreover I respect and invite most all intelligent oposition to the war (including Registan’s!) I’ve spent so much time within mainly because of America’s overall passive oposition to the conflict)…not in this case. Last night’s broadcast was a piss poor, one-sided reductionist story, in part due to the secrecy of JSOC’s confidentiality in terms of OPSEC, but mostly because of the producer’s obvious personal opinion on the war. In a country rampant with corruption and controversy (and I say that lovingly, South Asia FTW!), I can find anyone who can change the actualy events of a story to support an agenda. The show ended with anti-US commentary from an obviously entoxicated / high sub-commander with very iffy credentials…and they fade out like his word is truth.

Even if the story is true, which it may well be, the ratio of unsuccessful SOF raids to successful we never hear about is overwhelming. This kill/capture program is also the primary tenent of our exit strategy from Afghanistan (in terms of the great majority of coalition soldiers). I have seen the REAL results from these kill/capture missions…sub-commanders killing villagers / other fighters / their own family for suspicion of spying, some go completey insane due to the suspense created from such missions, but most are simply killed and replaced (maybe, not even all the time) by a sub-par wannabe. As much as I hate it when cocky SEAL’s came into my valley and messed with my little platoon-level COIN strategy, the end-result of watching AAF eat themselves up was more than worth it.

And please don’t get me started on Frontline’s choice of sourcing for this episode…that unbelievably corrupt Karzai official should not be allowed near anything resembling an avenue of mass media. Last night really surprised me because last week’s episode was awesome. I hope this is not an attempt at snowballing UBL’s death to a irresponsible exit from AFG.

carl May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm

The Frontline segment reported that the convoy of vehicles in which the target of the airstrike was riding had earlier been escorted by some Afghan police. It also said he was living openly and not in hiding. If that was the case why didn’t they just walk up to him and arrest him? Why did they launch a missile and kill apparently innocent people too? They must have know that would happen. I don’t get it. Why not just pick him up and avoid the disaster of innocent people being knowingly killed by Americans?

Metin Turcan wrote the following and I think it may relate to Ms. Clark’s comment.

“If the numbers of the COIN soldiers who are watching the war from their screens are more than the numbers of soldiers who see the pupils of the insurgents with their own eyes, COIN cannot disrupt this insurgency.”

Johny Matrix May 11, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Watching the program again, the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of a case of mistaken intelligence…but the point still stands that if we want out of Afg, targeting is a necessary part of the plan.

anan May 12, 2011 at 1:26 am

Matrix, agree that very likely faulty evidence is involved here. Will take Petraeus at his words that at least one of the killed was double dealing with the Taliban. Why wasn’t he arrested and tried. These all seem to have been public figures that could easily be arrested.

Count me confused.

Could there be two Mohammed Amins? If not, shouldn’t ISAF acknowledge that they didn’t get Mohammed Amin but got another Taliban collaborator?

carl, worry that the FOB centric [computer screen addicted] ISAF isn’t as positive a role model for the ANSF as they need to be, and that this will cause more long term damage to Afghanistan than any other ISAF activity. Obviously acknowledge that some ISAF units do much better than others.

Johnny Matrix May 12, 2011 at 8:51 am

True…and even if the story is not true and he was a shadow governor…to me he would be better alive than dead and moreover, wasn’t the North a heavily Northern Alliance controlled territory pre/during/post 9-11?

I am also perplexed…but Frontline definitely couldve cleared some things up by not being so biased. If the producer had even a little Afg experience he would’ve gone after the most probable scenario where HUMINT could’ve been collected from and shaped by a possible political / tribal enemy of Amin’s, which is the case in terms of Afg intel more often than not.

Joshua Foust May 12, 2011 at 8:55 am

The allegation that the Frontline producers didn’t have Afghanistan experience is ridiculous. Kate Clarke, who wrote the report on the Takhar raid, has lived in Afghanistan—outside the fobbit bubble—since 2002. Najibullah Quraishi actually lives there. Stephen Grey has been covering Afghanistan since 2005. This is the latest in a very long series of reports on Afghanistan that Frontline have run, asking very difficult questions no one else will.

You can quibble with their conclusions all you want, but accusing them of inexperience just doesn’t fly. Does your experience in-country match theirs? How much have you spent away from the SECFOR trying to talk to people?

Johny Matrix May 12, 2011 at 7:44 pm

I can submit to spouting off about their experience…I do that a low but the broadcast presented Tuesday seems to prove otherwise. My ‘minimal’ experience has seen the spectrum of reporting on the war from burried hatchets to glory seeking and Frontline’s show stunk of a hurried response to UBL’s raid. What we should be seeing from Frontline is a special on the ANSF and/or what groups that wish us harm will fill the security gaps…not that war is hell, that is old news.

turan saheb May 12, 2011 at 11:19 am

Well, actually they did go after the ‘most probable scenario’ (page 35, FN 187) – quotation from the AAN report:
“Many Afghans, as well as some international observers, assumed that malicious intelligence must have been passed on to the US military and suspected Qazi Kabir, who has extensive networks in the Afghan security services. However, the US military was insistent that they received no such human intelligence; they said they had been tracking the target for months, they had learned to be wary of false allegations and tip offs and besides, they had not even heard of a Qazi Kabir (author’s interviews, December 2010). Qazi Kabir himself also denied the accusation (author’s interview, April 2011).”
Christian Bleuers classical guide to Faulty HumInt ( still stands, but the seemingly objective SigInt (quotation of a SigIntOfficer: ‘We deliver facts, Humint only rumours’) can be as misleading, making it possibly even more dangerous. I someday had a long, long discussion with a SigIntOfficer, who put a local power broker into the chart of our local “Insurgent network” based on monitored phone calls to guys who had phone calls to other guys who were known as hardcore INS. Actually, I had quite a lot of phone calls with this specific local power broker, too. However, this SigInt guy steadfastly refused to put me into his chart as part of the INS network, which by his own logic he should have done…

Steve Magribi May 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm

This Phoenix Assassination Program is the key issue of the war. There is nothing else really going on. ISAFs main program is Assassination, not country building, not training, not even counter insurgent operations. There is nothing else going on. Assassination is ISAF.

Frontline is dealing directly with the main theme of this war.

Regardless of the current glory from the Bin Laden compound assault, and the glorification of “dead or alive, better dead though,” there are definite questions to be asked.

It goes beyond, did they kill the right guy? or what does this do the enemy structure? It goes down to ” By doing this, did we win or lose the war?” Since we have not stopped the insurgent expansion does assassination work? and is that all we can do anymore?.

The results are really up in air. Afghans just assume we kill the wrong guys. Because we kill at night and leave without ever explaining what we do- even the guilty look innocent.

No one is impressed. It could happen to anyone, so getting raided by ISAF is nothing special. You do not even have to be guilty to get killed. It is a death sentence which could be issued to anyone at any time.

So aside from the glory in Abottabad the whole program leaves most with a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach of something not done well and that could be easily wrong at the same time. Needless to say it has done us no favors here in Afghanistan

ISAF==Assassination. It is that simple now.

The last issuance of the Vietnam Phoenix Program has left us out of country and distanced for over thirty years. What will Petraeus’s Phoenix Program bring?

anan May 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Love ya Steve and you are mostly right, although you exxagerate your case. 😉 There is also a lot else going on other than targetted capture/kill missions.

“the whole program leaves most with a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach of something not done well and that could be easily wrong at the same time. Needless to say it has done us no favors here in Afghanistan” Have feared the same thing for years and have argued that these were a bigger problem than air strike civilian casualties, even back in 2007/2008.

“Afghans just assume we kill the wrong guys. Because we kill at night and leave without ever explaining what we do- even the guilty look innocent.” Bingo. Even the most kinetic minded ISAF soldiers say the same thing.

“It could happen to anyone, so getting raided by ISAF is nothing special. You do not even have to be guilty to get killed. It is a death sentence which could be issued to anyone at any time.” Flows from the sense that this is uncoordinted with the MoI legal system.

Regarding South Vietnam, the ARVN won the war. The war was lost after the US congress refused to give South Vietnam economic and military aid.

carl May 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm

The thing in the program that bothered me the most is something Mr. Foust noted in his Sept. 4, 2010 post about this incident, the military’s insistence that this was still a successful strike in spite of the civilians who were killed. We’re supposed to know better than that. It’s been 10 years.

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Pol-Mil FSO May 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm

One of the most discouraging aspects of this report is that it appears that our situational awareness seems as bad in 2010 as it was in previous years. This report raises some serious questions about our approach in Afghanistan and for that reason I suspect it will be ignored by most persons concerned with or involved in Afghanistan.

carl May 16, 2011 at 7:08 pm

“This report raises some serious questions about our approach in Afghanistan and for that reason I suspect it will be ignored by most persons concerned with or involved in Afghanistan.”

THAT…is a brilliant sentence. I wish I had written it.

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