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Predator: The Fascinating, Twisted History of the Drone

Drones crossed into a new frontier in military affairs: an area of entirely risk-free, remote and even potentially automated killing detached from human behavioral cues.
 
 
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The following article first appeared in the Nation magazine. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its email newsletters.

Portions of this article are adapted from The Violence All Around, forthcoming from Harvard University Press.


It was ten years ago this month, on February 4, 2002, that the CIA first used an unmanned Predator drone in a targeted killing. The strike was in Paktia province in Afghanistan, near the city of Khost. The intended target was Osama bin Laden, or at least someone in the CIA had thought so. Donald Rumsfeld later explained, using the passive voice of government: “A decision was made to fire the Hellfire missile. It was fired.” The incident occurred during a brief period when the military, which assisted the CIA’s drone program by providing active service personnel as operators, still acknowledged the program’s existence. Within days of the strike, journalists on the ground were collecting accounts from local Afghans that the dead men were civilians gathering scrap metal. The Pentagon media pool began asking questions, and so the long decade of the drone began. 

The CIA had been flying unarmed drones over Afghanistan since 2000. It began to fly armed drones after the September 11 attacks. Some were used during the air war against the Taliban in late 2001. But by February 2002 the CIA hadn’t yet used a drone for a strike outside military support. The February 2002 attack was a pure CIA kill operation, undertaken separately from any ongoing military operation. The drone operators were reported to have come across three people at a former mujahedeen base called Zhawar Kili—later, officials would never claim they were armed—including a “tall man” to whom the other men were “acting with reverence.” (On one previous occasion, a year before the September 11 attacks, CIA observers thought they’d seen bin Laden: a tall man with long robes near Tarnak Farm, bin Laden’s erstwhile home near Kandahar. This sighting by an unarmed drone was what had led to the first arguments among the White House and CIA about arming drones with missiles, a debate that simmered until it was snuffed out by the September 11 attacks.)

After the February 2002 strike, military officials quickly acknowledged that the “tall man” was not bin Laden. But they insisted the targets were “legitimate,” although they struggled to explain why, using vague and even coy language to cover up what appeared to be uncertainty. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark said, “We’re convinced that it was an appropriate target.” But she added, “We do not know yet exactly who it was.” Gen. Tommy Franks told ABC News that he expected the identities of the three to prove “interesting.”

Pentagon spokesman John Stufflebeem spoke of the government’s being in the “comfort zone” of determining that the targets were “not innocent,” noting there were “no initial indications that these were innocent locals,” a curious phrase reflecting a presumption of guilt. “Indicators were there that there was something untoward that we needed to make go away…. Initial indications would seem to say that these are not peasant people up there farming.” Rumsfeld later chimed in, offering his signature pseudo-philosophical analysis to address the allegations that the dead were civilians. “We’ll just have to find out. There’s not much more anyone could add, except that there’s that one version, and there’s the other version.”

The government’s evasion was helped by the fact that Zhawar Kili, the site of the strike, was an infamous mujahedeen complex built with CIA and Saudi support by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the mujahedeen scion allied with the Taliban, then and now. In the 1980s CIA officers and journalists used to visit the base. It was the site of two major battles against Soviet forces in the mid-’80s. President Bill Clinton ordered a strike on the area with Tomahawk cruise missiles in 1998 after the two Africa embassy bombings, and the US military pummeled it with airstrikes beginning in late 2001. For a time the military thought that bin Laden and his Al Qaeda forces might have fled to Zhawar Kili after the battle of Tora Bora (a puzzling hypothesis because the area had already been hit by withering fire and was more exposed than Tora Bora). In January 2002 the military sent several search and demolition units there to gather leftover material with potential intelligence value and to blow up the caves.

 
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