Category Archives: military weapons

Drone Warfare, Carpet Bombing, and Righteous Strikes

eThis was a problem that seemed to come out of Hell. The “righteous strike” of a drone-fired Hellfire Missile killed Afghan aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and his nieces and nephews was America’s military doing what it did best–a precision surgical strike on a human target. As much as targeting a human target who was instantaneously dismembered as his car shifted into park, the “Over the Horizon” strike cell commander who fired the missile from the drone was firing at a coordinate, and trusting in its authority. United States Dept. of Defense spokesperson John F. Kirby vowed “to study the degree to which any policies, procedures or targeting mechanisms may need to be altered going forward,” to be reviewed by a former senior staff officer in Afghanistan, assigning it high priority–but insisting that the strike was only green lighted after the American General at Central Command, or CENTCOM, who remained apprised of surveillance found “a reasonable certainty of the imminent threat that this vehicle posed.” The CENTCOM Commander apologized, saying “we thought [we had] a good lead,” the balance between “certainty” and “threat” was not so clearly mapped as the pinpoint targeting of the vehicle, watched for over eight hours.

There are problems of balancing an awesome strike ability of a Hellfire missile caused, the association of a missile conjuring the eternal fire faced by the dammed with a “righteous strike”: the death sentence that the missile passed as a remotely tracked technology of obliteration was invested with curiously religious terms, the fire of damnation a sentence of divine wrath, sending the fire of hell to the courtyard of a Kabul family residence to shatter the life of the wrong man who had been tracked for eight hours by Over-the-Horizon Strike Cell dedicated to disrupt the Islamic State Khorosan.

Afghan Neighbors Ponder the Courtyard of the Zemari Ahmadi’s Home in Kabul, Afghanistan
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Were the mechanisms for firing the laser-guided missiles encoded in the authority of the mapping tools that sent the laser-guided Hellfire missile to Kabul, as much as in faulty intelligence, and the limited guidance on targeting individuals? In what was almost a bravura use of force, American military drones fired Hellfire missiles as the airlift continued, on the eve of the United States departure, pointing to the appearance of secondary explosions as fireballs to indicate presence of explosives inside vehicles that ISIS operatives might drive into the airport for a second suicide attack. But if the strike was “deliberated” and the information military had collected “all added up,” the rules of engagement of airstrikes, as much as the human intelligence, implied deep ethical problems of trusting in the logic of maps to sift through evidence with greater accountability, especially as we seem to be approaching a threshold of increased engagement without men on the ground in Afghanistan, in developing an “over-the-horizon” strategy for the immediate future, as President Biden pursues his commitment to fight ISIS-K without actually increasing civilian deaths.

An Afghan man who lost family due to US drone strikes weeps.
Ajmal Ahmadi, Mourns Members of His Family Killed byu Hellfire Missile in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. 
Marcus Yam/Getty Images

The mechanics of the decision-making process that led to fire a drone that later killed Ahmadi and his children, nephews, and cousins is under review, but the verbal and epistemic confusion between what was first described as a “righteous strike” of vengeance, evoking the theory of “just war” that was invoked by President Barack Obama in invoking “just war theory” to rationalize the use of the military force not as a wanton or needless display of power and with the hope of saving lives to prevent the loss of lives, required, in his hope a “near-certainty of no collateral damage.” And while this was of course collateral damage of the most extensive time, the coverage of the extent of mis-targeting of believed terrorists reveal a terrifying cheapness of life, undoubtedly only able to be researched in detail for the jaw-dropping mistake of targeting of innocent civilians by a laser-guided missile due to the density of journalistic coverage of this particular strike, and journalistic presence documented the costs of erroneous strikes and the scope of civilian casualties as horrific as carpet bombing–if far more surgical–as if this were a far more humanitarian form of war whose precision could be labeled just. We were able to see the Taliban checkpoint that let in suicide bombers to Kabul’s airport, causing almost a hundred and fifty deaths, we became convinced of the ability of targeting precision strikes of the perpetrators of similar crimes, and amped up the intelligence networks to scour the city for signs of any activity appearing that it demanded to be targeted, and snuffed out.

Planet Labs Inc., image of Taliban checkpoint blocking access to Kabul’s international airport Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021
(Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Precise targeting, unlike bombing raids of the past, provided this certainty, or was supposed to offer surety of not being needless. But if such near-certainty depended on a map, it rests not on the accuracy of mapping. The strike that killed Zemerai Ahmadi — and ten of his family members–was mistakenly categorized as a “righteous strike,” killing an innocent aid worker and his family members. While it occurred in the heady atmosphere of retaliatory strikes for attempt to sabotage the withdrawal from Kabul’s airport attempted to be just, the slippage between the logic of targeted bombing and justice became apparent. It was a lurch to affirm global strength, more than justice, in using a technology of geolocation that had evolved to coordinate hand in glove with surveillance from Reaper drones. The ability to pinpoint track the progress of one car tagged as an imminent danger.

U.S. Central Command maps movement across Kabul of white Toyota Corolla on Aug. 29, 2021. CENTCOM/via Military Times

The mistaken of surveilling and targeting a young Afghan civilian in a Toyota Corolla was terrifyingly akin to the senseless bombing campaigns of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and Laos, or more terrifying. Surveillance of Kabul and its airport were much better than Vietnam, by remote satellite and drone photography, the ability of such targeting–and the rush of such precision killing–seemed to follow the logic of the map, as much as people on the ground.

1. The maps used to conduct action at a great distance in Vietnam were not as transparent or evident, but they were for the time. In the 1960s and 1970s, they offered grounds to pose the eerily analogous question of the extent and expanse of the globalist claims of American power. The trust in the accuracy of maps provided an eery precedent for the confidence in strikes an old theater of empire, a theater once defined by imperial maps. The surety of the strikes that the UTM and LORAN B offered to American pilots existed in two theaters–the arena of the map that determined the strikes and the geographical space to which it corresponded, and old imaginaries of imperial and colonial power. The British empire was driven from Kabul in 1842 and 1843, and the French hold on Indochina had led them to withdraw; as the mapping techniques of post-war Europe led the United States to inherit Southeast Asia, global technologies of mapping opened the possibility of launching strikes that would offer lasting reminders as America withdrew from the Forever Wars in Afghanistan, leaving as the English did from both Kabul and Kandahar, but, in an attempt not to be forgotten, leaving a lasting imprint of the power of long-distance bombing. If combatants of most all wars fight with different maps, often reflecting differences in military intelligence, both these post-colonial wars were defined by the drastic dissonance of radically different maps of geospatial intelligence, one from the air and one on the ground, and the pursuit of a stubborn logic of air maps as if they offered both superior exactitude and geospatial intelligence, modernizing the struggle for control by defining a logic of modern military operations by which to understand and to shape the “sharp edge” of war.

Carpet Bombing in Vietnam by B-52 American USAF Planes

The beginning of the end of American Empire has been recently pegged to 1972, a year that marked and took stock of the the end of a huge expenditure of sustained bombing drives with little apparent enduring accomplishment. The geospatial logic that drove such earlier long-distance aerial bombing campaigns in Vietnam were driven by perhaps misplaced confidence in how maps enabled and facilitated military action at a distance: maps offered a logic, if there was one, for conducting the over six hundred sorties and operations over eight and a half thousand miles away. There is an eery analogy that we have the most complete and exact database for bombing raids of the American military in Vietnam, coordinates that were painstakingly compiled by Americans, so analogous to the geodata of thousands of drone strikes in Northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, from 2004-2018, that the New American Foundation asserts the vast majority–over 80%–of those killed, were militants, though the Brookings Institution counters that drone strikes killed “10 or so civilians” for every militant who died,; Pakistan’s Interior Minister complained vigorously that a preponderance of the killed with civilians–especially in habitual follow-up strikes, targeting those responding to victims of the first hit, targeting of funeral processions, or mourners, or simply less surgical strikes.

When Barack Obama tweaked George Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan in terms of “just war” theory, he seemed to be relying on the accuracy and surgical nature of precision strikes: if the first attachment of a Hellfire missile to a drone followed the sighting of Osama bin Laden by one of the Predator Drone of the sort that flew across Afghanistan from September 7-25, 2000, in search of the terrorist who was wanted from 1998 suicide bombings in two U.S. embassies, his first strike at American territory; the unarmed CIA Predator was able to laster-illuminate and geolocate him so that it tracked him fro almost four and a half hours, but he could be hit b y a Tomahawk missiles, but the time-lag for firing Tomahawk missiles failed to guarantee a similar sort of accuracy; as the new tool of the CIA and US Air Force were mounted with Hellfire missiles, they sighted and shot at Mullah Omar in 2001, but missed him, destroying only his car.

Afghanistan became the terrain for “the future of our military,” where Predators defined the mobile “edge” of warfare waged overhead and across borders. Targeted assassinations by CIA and USAF targeted the Waziristan region, mapping the region with pin-point in the notion of a “just-war” theory, rehabilitating an ancient doctrine of right conduct in war–jus in bello–by modern tools of geolocation, leading to the escalation of pin-point targeting by drone-fired missiles. Despite widespread global opposition to the use of missile enhanced drones as tools of targeting objectives in war in the mountainous areas of Pakistan province where the Taliban had fled by 2011,–

Escalating Drone Strikes Targeting Taliban in Remote Mountainous Region of Waziristan

–and, from 2012, the CIA went out of its way to try to design alternate missiles to “shred” vehicles and their inhabitants, but without blasts, to attempt to minimize “collateral damage” or killings.

Secret U.S. Missile Aims to Kill Only Terrorists, Not Nearby Civilians - WSJ
 Hellfire Modified to Limit Damage of Bystanders, Used from 2012

By the time the final American forces were set to ferry the final civilians from Kabul, however, the logic of drone strikes shifted to the homefront of Kabul, set motion by the terrifying suicide bomber who struck Kabul’s airport, killing 143 Afghans and 13 American servicemen. In what was either the last gap or new frontier of geolocated killing, drones targeted Hellfire missiles in pinpoint strikes across Afghanistan, in “just” retribution of the fear of further K-ISIS suicide attacks on the ground during the last days of American presence in Afghan territory focussed on flights departing Kabul, revealing an ability of surveilling, targeting and striking far into the country as American forces departed the ground, as if to alert the Taliban of the continued proximity of CENTCOM bases in Qatar.

However celebratory the drone strike seemed, hellfire missled that killed Ahmadi suggested the haunting return of a lack of justice on August 29, as twenty pounds of explosive struck the car of the breadwinner of an extended Afghan family, with seven children who depended on his work. The children who had rushed out to greet him as he pulled his own white Toyota Corolla into the driveway of his personal home were not seen by the man who fired the drone missile, who felt secure no civilians were nearby. As we examined footage to detect the alleged secondary explosion, we found a weird echo of the airstrikes of an earlier war removed from our continent. While much comparison between the messy tactics and poor planning American withdrawals from Vietnam and Kabul spun, the incomplete coverage of the “collateral deaths” of civilians from the strike led to the military’s eventual backpedalling of its story of striking ISIS-K as an act of counterterrorism or “righteous strike.”

It was only due to careful investigation on the ground that the horrendous mistake was discovered. Reporters used footage from security cameras to follow the forty-one year old aid worker before he was driver targeted by the Hellfire missile suggested the poor intelligence which operators of “strike cel commander” who had been operating the drone in Kabul. Even as we await analysis of the decision-making mechanisms, we wonder a the high degree of certainty in public statements, even as questions circulated from the start of accurate video analysis of an after-blast confirming, as was claimed, that the Toyota Corolla was carrying a payload of ISIS-K bombs, and the lack of a mechanism of review before the drone strike. The accuracy of targeting the car was questioned by journalists as Spencer Ackerman all too familiar from the targeting of civilians that had escalated in previous years. Although announced as compensatory for the deadly suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport, killing Afghans and thirteen U.S. military, as a second drone strike on ISIS-K leaders in Nangarhar Province of an “Islamic State planner” in retaliation for the deadly suicide bombing–and entranced the world with the surgical take-out of the very operatives who allegedly planned the airport attack that killed thirteen American service men and 146 Afghans, as they rode a three-wheeled truck near the Pakistani border from 7,350 miles away in the Nevada desert, injuring an associate but killing the two men immediately. There was a perfect symmetry in the image of men who were riding in a tuk-tuk being obliterated by a strike that left a crater four feet deep.

While removed in time, the bombing campaigns in Vietnam have left precise geodata for bombing raids so comprehensive to be able to map cumulative raids over time. The result privileges strikes over deaths, in the eerily lifeless and quite terrifying record of Bombing Target Maps,–charting sustained campaigns of bombing at a distance waged in maps. This blog considered human costs of aerial perspectives both as a result of the acceleration of bombing campaigns in World War II and how maps jusfitied and normalized the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As the longest and least accomplished use of maps to sustained military engagement at a distance, is impossible not to consider the retrospective view it offers and reveals on the logic of the role of drones in Forever Wars. Systematic carpet bombing of Southeast Asia was pursued 1965-1973 as if by a logic of mapping, escalating by 1972 in a failing attempt to illustrate global dominance. The increased exactitude of the map becam a rationale for the power to wage war from afar, both to compensate for a lack of information on the ground, and to compensate for more irreducible problems of distance: mapping tools promised a logic of the ability to operate smoothly across frontiers. The unprecedented global coverage of GPS coordinates was administered and run by the United States for Vietnam through 1975, long after the war concluded. But the role of maps in waging war early emerged. If the United States in 1959 had blocked adoption of new standards of global projection, perhaps linking knowledge to power, the Army Service had recalculated surveys of Southeast Asia–Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam from the global projection that became a basis to collate new geodata–the Army relied on for staging helicopter raids in Vietnam, and, later, for long-range bombing campaigns.

Tet Offensive, 1968

Not that this was always smooth. Despite troubling distortions inherent in the UTM along South Vietnam’s north-south axis and border with Cambodia, coordinates provided a basis for conducting war at an unprecedented distance, even if they would necessitate revamped geodetic networks to minimize built-in distortions. They offered a sense of security, notwithstanding, for the aerial sorties that continued to exercise claims to global power even in an unfamiliar theater of combat. Despite the huge ethical questions and costs, the authority of maps assumed huge costs as they were were able to conceal huge liabilities, changing the nature of the battle line at which we were now, as a nation, waging war, and its ethical costs: for we were bombing locations, not people, and the people were faceless who the bombs were targeting, othered, and in the national imaginary all but erased. It would take a force of consciousness, indeed, to place them on the map–on the ground photography remained relatively rare. And it is the ability to erase people by dots that provided, this post argues, a similar logic for the expansion of drone raids and drone-delivered bombs.

As bombing raids hit the the Seventeenth Parallel, the war was fought on a map: as much as Võ Nguyên Giáp revealed his military tactical genius as military commander of the Việt Minh, who had developed with stunning success the principle of Sun Tzu in successfully applying minimum military force to maximum effect in deploying light infantry in the First Indochina War, and in engineering of the Ho Chi Minh trail, did the deceptions of UTM distortions make Americans who sung the blues of Toby Hughes’s “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” sung to the tune of “Billy the Kid,” as a blues of airspace: “When you fly on the Trail through the dark and the haze/It’s a think you’ll remember the rest of your days./A nightmare of vertigo, mountain, and flak,/And the cold wind of Death breathing soft at your back”? “Uncle Sam needs your help again,” began another of the many songs that tried to process distance and space during the war, “He’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Viet Nam.”

File:Ho Chi Minh Trail network map.jpg
Ho Chi Minh Trail Netork (1990)
Week of September 27 | Vietnam War Commemoration

Americans administrators plagued by lack of knowledge about Southeast Asia or South Vietnam’s leadership relied on maps crippled by distortions. If the blues developed on the plantation, the wartime blues was a lament popular with American pilots as a new folksong of technological divide piltos sung as they balanced the demands of flight they shouldered–“the trucks must be stopped, and it’s all up to you,/ So you fly here each night to this grim rendez-vous”–to allay fears of meeting their fates in contested military space above the Trail, watching those “trucks roll on through darkness not stopping to rest,” consigned to their fate nervously navigating airspace from charts, “our whole world confined to the light of the flare,/And you fight for your life just to stay in the air./For there’s many a man who there met his fate,/On the dark roads of Hell, where the grim reaper waits.”

Carpet bombing was hardly comfortable, but was filled with fear. And one is filled by an eery apprehension at the ease with which geolocated records of bomb strikes in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Cambodia translate across time into a Google Maps platform, and the translation of the coordinates to a geospatial grid that we all have come to adopt to navigate space. UTM grid zones in Southeast Asia, as Bill Rankin noted, split in inconvenient ways in Southeast Asia, and although bombers were relying on them in raids that spanned over five years, As the provisional line of demarcation between North and South Vietnam, the so called “DMZ” of the Seventeenth Parallel Mendès France negotiated in 1954 was pounded twenty years later with all the firepower America could muster, trying to secure its border by a crazy huge show of power at a distance.

The result of these compound offensives was to riddle the countries with some 2.7 tonnes of explosives, as we were asked to keep our eyes on a static maps on television screens. This was described poetically as “carpet bombing” or continuous bombardment, first used only in 1944, in response to destructive V-1 and V-2 bombs, to mark a shift from the largely targeted bombing of industrial sites in the war. The sense of a lack of restraints or targets dramatically grew in the Vietnam War, as a no holds barred method, long before Ted Cruz vowed to recommit American to the carpet bombing of the Middle East to “utterly destroy ISIS,” asserting, as if in a perverse science experiment, that while he didn’t “know if sand can glow in the dark,” he would ensure American planes bomb ISIS positions until the sand glowed, in 2015,–intimating a carpet bombing of nuclear proportions. Donald Trump amped up Cruz on the campaign trail in Iowa, by promising not only to “bomb the shit out of ’em,” and “bomb the pipes, bomb the refineries, and blow up every single inch” of refineries to prepare for several months of rebuilding of pipelines by Exxon to “take the oil.” Since the debut of smart bombs in global video during the 1991 Gulf War, the sense of carpet bombing seems to have been consigned into the past, with the trust in the security of drone-fired bombs from 2003 promising to strike targets in a far more humanitarian way.

As the Vietnam War intensified, the long year of March 18, 1969-May 28, 1970 brought daily bombing of Cambodia, all but omitted from the entry of troops into Cambodia we watched on a static map on black and white televisions. Even as the escalation of disproportionate bombing campaigns that only ended on August 15, 1973 grew, they set a standard of sorts for the elegance of airborne strikes from afar.

Tet Offensive Bombing Campaign, 1968

2. The limits of local intelligence recalled the opaque maps before which an earlier Commandeer-in-Chief who, convinced of the logic of military strikes, attempted to project assurance at having directed American troops to enter Cambodia in April, 1970, as bombing grew. Just two years before the continued expenditure on aerial bombing campaign seven thousand miles away revealed a failure to reach military objectives announced a start of the decline of the American empire, the drone strike at the old colonial city of Kabul CentCom ordered revealed a continued commitment to the logic of military engagement by drone that animated the logic of war under an inauspicious promise to Maker America Great Again: the conducting of increased bombing strikes eight and a half thousand miles away would grow in intensity from 1970, but the argument Richard Nixon made was not apparent, as it rested on a geospatial map, but used the crude maps of boundaries of states few Americans were familiar–Laos, Cambodia; South Vietnam; North Vietnam–that hardly reflected why such intense bombing would be occurring around the seventeenth parallel, or mapped a clear vision of strategy.

American Troops Enter Cambodia, April 30, 1970

Even as we knew enough to be skeptical of his map of crude cut-outs, remembering Dresden Hiroshima, and My Lai aggression against civilians, but knowing we had heard stories from reporters on the ground about its intensity. And so we watched the maps of new offensives, distrusting escalated air bombing in times of war–if we knew not to trust them, we took to the streets in protests because we remembered, and because the official news maps of selective hits in one offensive was a partial story–and the danger of what was being targeted by a carpet of explosive bombs dropped.

Carpet Bombing of Vietnam

–hardly mapped the increased intensity of air strikes of carpet bombing, that created a show of force of unseen intensity across the country that covered the borders between north and south Vietnam and the coast, as 7.5 million tons of bombs across Laos, Vietnam , and Cambodia, between 1965-75, from Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-68) and Operation Steel Tiger (1965-68), to the extended campaigns in Laos of Operation Barrel Roll (1964-1973) to Cambodia, in Operation Menu (1969-70), covering the country in toto, but shifting to Laos and Cambodia and along the seventeenth parallel from 1971-2, trying to hit precise locations at UTM coordinates, covering the old DMZ with bombs.

There was something weird, as from a nation of the crossers of borders, we flew bombs across borders, carpeting regions with devastation, from the shorelines of Southeast Asia, to the interior, to the shore again, this time with even greater intensity and around what was then Saigon.

The intensity of carpet bombing was astounding in Cambodia and Vietnam, literally coloring huge swaths of the country red, in these maps that use red dots for cumulative tallies of bombing strikes.

U.S. Secret Bombing of Cambodia | rabble.ca
Aerial Bombardment by US Air Force of Cambodia, 1965-1973

The danger of those bombing strikes on civilians were rarely described, or even comprehended, at a distance. But visualizing the faces of the civiliians whose towns and life were disrupted so violently became a basis for protesting the war–and a crystallizing factor in antiwar protests as the bombing campaigns grew–as the ends of carpet bombing as a targeting of civilians nonetheless grew all too painfully clear, as the very intensity of such carpet bombing seemed a deeply unethical war.

Anti-War Protest Button, 1972

3. Precision strikes seemed more humane than carpet bombs. But the precision bombs of the Forever Wars were, perhaps haunted by those images of civilians with targets on their crudely drawn heads, trying to advertise themselves less as a global over-reach of the targeting of precise strikes in another hemisphere, a campaign that in fact began, back in the response to the apparent hubris of 9/11, in the battery of B-52’s brought out from retirement, before the Defense Department hit on the new idea of acquiring drones and investing in drone technologies, a budget that has risen to above $7 billion by 2021, whose use is severely restricted in American airspace, but seems the perfect medium for fighting forever wars, on which the United States has come to rely since at least 2005. Fighting the Forever Wars and for counterterrorism programs, a new logic of military engagement, although the program that was first used in 2003 to strike targets developed in secrecy as a way of blurring the “sharp edge of battle,” described by British military historian John Keegan as incomplete or elided in most military histories. Now the “sharp edge” is both everywhere, blurred, and intentionally difficult to see.

The airspace for operating for the 11,000 drones or “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” in the United States that the U.S. Department of Defense currently owns and operates in American airspace are far from civilian centers in the United States–but the logic of pinpointing strikes 7,000 miles away provided a precision bombing that replaced or antiquated carpet bombing, billed in a new humanitarian guise.

Department of Defense Special Use Airspace, 2006

–but the rest of the world is, as the Kabul airstrike reveals, an open surgical target. And the increasingly intentionally reduced transparency of an increased national commitment to military drones in the Trump administration has created a new logic for the use of military force, via armed drones, and the unprecedented mobility of military theaters, under the cover of the advancement of either military or national security objectives. The bulk of the drone programs run by the CIA are shrouded in entire secrecy, although the commitment to reducing any sense of transparency and accountability–a main operating strategy or modus operandi of the recent Commander-in-Chief–has left a stamp on the U.S. Drone Program that will be difficult to erase, and a new sense of the secret maps by which war is waged.

As military operators of drones gained far greater air-strike-decision ability and independence, both in the military and the CIA’s separate drone strike operations, a new level of security was increasingly embedded in the logic of the map. There was, moreover, not even a requirement for registering enemy or civilian casualties, even if they might embrace deaths, since Trump issued Executive Order 13732, exempting both the US Army or for the CIA for any such responsibility for strikes outside combat zones; strike-enabled drones were granted greater operating grounds with less scrutiny or oversight. At the same time, oversight of sales of U.S. drones waned, and the Department of State gained the ability of direct commercial sales without oversight or special export conditions. Drones, in short, became the new currency of the war, and the means by which anything like a familiar battle line vanished. Removing strikes of pin-point precision from a system of military review so localized the “sharp of edge of battle” that it might migrate, given the ease of mapping, to a civilian garage.

Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 30, 2021. Marcus Yam / MCT

The drone strike seems emblematic not of a hasty withdrawal from Kabul, but of the confusion of military and civilian space in the war that readily relocated anywhere on the geospatial grid. In targeting the driver’s side of the white Toyota with incredible precision, we can see something of a history lesson in how mapping tools offer terrifyingly increased precision strikes. Although the Pentagon assured us that the existence of “significant secondary explosions” occurred, indicating a “significant explosive load” in the car with “minimum collateral damage,” and “reasonable certainty” of no nearby civilians, the lack of any grounds for certainty of explosives or an absence of civilians suggest not only the fallibility of human intelligence, but the Hellfire warhead that ruptured the tank while targeting the driver’s seat was a disproportionate show of force of awesome precision led its operators to trusted was trusted with “reasonable certainty” to pose “imminent threat.”

Drone strikes were not particularly effective against Taliban forces, and rarely contained them. But the act of power of pummeling Afghan locations that seemed worrisome with credible degrees of “reasonable certainty” was a release. It led to an escalation unprecedented in airstrikes against the nation as a show of power–until the end of DOD releasing of air strike data during negotiations with the Taliban; if airstrikes stopped, the shipment and stockading of increased armaments funneled to the Afghan army’s American-built bases in an attempt to overpower the nation that created its own dynamic of awesome war all but erasing the sharp edge of battle. The escalation of strikes as Trump assumed office had only recently grown to unprecedented heights.

More seriously, without any public release of the principles and procedures guiding the U.S. drone program, secrecy shrouds the legitimacy of the use of drones or the notion of the responsible use of drone strikes of increasingly powerful capacity, undermining the accountability of the military’s actions. It is perhaps ironic that this is being revealed on the eve of the departure from Afghanistan, and twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, which were such a shocking violation of territoriality: the expansion of no oversight on drone strikes risks undermining legitimate military goals, and even undermining national security interests, in finally attaining the capacity to act as a rogue state.

4. Although the possibility of retributive payments for these lives have not been publicly raised, although America has discussed “considering ex gratia or reparations,” the demands for some sort of compensation for those who were killed outright by what U.S. Cent Com admits as a “mistake.” If the walking back from early qualifications that rather than being a direct hit in retribution for the airport strike against U.S. military, the strike was “unlikely . . . those who died [jn the drone strike] were associated with ISIS-K,” or a “righteous strike” foiling a strike, the admission of guilt by the “strike cell commander” located in Kabul raises questions of the logic of military engagement in an era of drone war. The increased trust in the mapping systems–rather than on-the-ground intelligence or a need for confirmation–had brought the war on rural Afghanis to the nation’s capitol, leaving looming questions of why the country was not so concerned to use arms left by Americans to repel the Taliban, and how the logic of drone warfare expanded in the Forever Wars as a logic of surgical strikes that had boasted to not involve or affect civilian populations.

This time

This time, the on the ground tracing of the Toyota Corolla’s movement in downtown Kabul led it to be targeted based on faulty information, and faulty flagging of suspicions in Ahmadi’s white Corolla, or the proximity with which it was parked or had stopped near an ISIS-K compound. The tracking of the car as it moved along city blocks and well-known streets led to the capture of surveillance footage of Ahamadi filling his car with water bottles, and dropping off coworkers, while he returned to his family, but it is unclear how a review of policies and procedures of targeting mechanisms will alter the logic of the drone strike as a surgical tool of war; just after the admission of mistakes in mapping and targeting of an Afghan civilian, CENTCOM followed up with announcement of the drone strike of a “senior al-Qaida leader” in Syria, in which “we struck the individual we were aiming for, and there are no indications of civilian casualties as a result of the strike,” as if to demonstrate how the smoothly the logic of drone strike technology could continue to work.

Yet, as journalists were increasingly present in Vietnam to film, witness and provide testimony of the devastation of bombing raids, with increased secrecy around drone strike programs, we have to wonder whether the mapping of civilian casualties will be something that would be in the government interests to continue, or if it is the case that the sharp edge of war has been definitively blurred. There was, by chance, due to the intense on the ground presence of journalists, an attempt to review the way that we set up what was almost a “home front” in Afghanistan; the victims of strikes were captured on closed circuit television, and could be tracked through the city of Kabul. Unlike for most drone strikes, we have faces, making it all the more possible to grieve their deaths and need to figure out how best to mourn their needless deaths, if not to take them as emblematic of the 71,000 civilian deaths from military campaign in Afghanistan we are told will come to an end. Though this time, we know their names–and can say them–the children of Mr. Ahmadi, Zamir, 20; Faisal, 16; Farzad (10); the children of his cousin Naser, Arwin, 7; Benyamin, 6; Hayat, 2, Malika, 2, and Somaya, 3, as well as a former Afghan officer who worked with the US military, Ahmad Naser–and we know how to say their names, that basic, elemental form of mourning that we never had access to in the past–let alone the series of smiling head shots.

More to the point, our actions are effectively setting international standards for drone strike accountability and for the limits of drone use, running counter to global security, and how drone strikes in the future wars that may be, eventually, used against us, as well.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, bombing raids, military maps, military weapons

Tools of War

The dramatic if quite abstract GIF in the header to this post tracks the rapid return of the Taliban to power as a drawdown of the Forever War. It echoes a sense of loss–a ceding of territory, echoing the “loss” of Korea, China, or Vietnam–as if it were the never imagined conclusion to the War on Terror. It is perhaps just a pivot to an unknown future, where that war will no longer be fought in terms of a map of Afghanistan. But the GIF dramatically collapses the past four years as they unravelled over the months from May to April 13 to August 16, 2021; if it is only one of the several theaters of war, it seems to offer a compelling, if distorting story of a fall of provincial provinces in the state that the United States and NATO committed to rebuilt from 2008, a loss that seems to ratchet up one’s sense of a lost opportunity. The failure to compel Afghanistan to present Osama bin Laden and Taliban officers or training camps led to a huge show of power to render the submission of Afghanistan by bloody bombing campaigns, drone strikes, and military incursions; the loss of what we imagine territory held by our troops seems almost to cleanse the bloodiness of that past history. The advance of the Taliban into areas allegedly once in “government control” offer a wash of deep crimson across the country as the tragic end of the War on Terror, something of a blood bath in the making, a spurt of pink and deep crimson red–as if the bloodshed was not cast by an American show of power.

But the arrival of bloodshed to Afghanistan was something that the United States, of course, brought there on a scale no one had ever before imagined, flooding the nation with arms of a level of modernity as if they would defeat the society we had once called ‘tribal’ and incapable of tactical maneuvering or high-tech weaponry. As the United States assures we are As the area under “Government Control” contracts to an isolated the limited area, leaving us asking how the United States mapped it so badly. As the Government four Presidents promoted military ties contracts to a dot, but the dream of such an independent state now apparently eclipsed and recast into what may now seem more of an inter-regnum of two rulers–Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani–in a Taliban regime. Rather than being cast as a restoration of power, the map illustrated to Americans the fall of an American dream, and an eclipse of the idea of nation-building as a primarily military prospect, that the US Army took over from NATO. The hope to recreate firm borders of Afghanistan at untold expense fell like a house of cards. The Taliban’s strategic operations for controlling the very roads on which they once attacked American and NATO forces, and paralyzing the country’s movement and flexibility of its soldiers or national infrastructure.

The fiction that was long nourished of an Afghan state that America had been able to try to fortify by the importing armaments–the “tools of war”–over more than twenty years. While the map is a visualization that derives from the work of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and poses as a vision charting the erosion or loss of the coherence of a liberal state in the borders of Afghanistan, it both isolates the nation from its broader context in the Middle East and War on Terror–from the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) in Qatar, from the allies of Taliban in Pakistan and elsewhere, or the exit of many Afghan forces as refugees, or the seizure of weapons, humvees, and armored vehicles abandoned by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who left them behind as they fled north across the border or abandoned their posts. A map of the arrival of firearms and materiel–the procurement of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Assistance (IMET) programs that American Presidents are authorized, and with Donald Trump escalated and Barack Obama had previously–would be as helpful, as it would track a vision of a significant increase of security assistance for geopolitical dominance.

Finally revealed: UK drone strikes in Afghanistan by province – Drone Wars  UK
UK Drone Strikes in Afghanistan
Heat htTableaux Heat map of Drone Strikes in Afghanistan by Amderican Military under Presidents Bush, Obmaa, Trump tps://dronewars.github.io/narrative/Map of Drone Strikes in Afghanistan by American Military, Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump (2018)
DRONE WARS | Narrative
Total Drone Strikes in Afghanistan and Somalia by Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump

The investment in drone escalation as a tactical relation to “space” redefined territorial dominance to replace one of community building, often confusing targets with the territory. Drone strikes not only served to “take out terrorist commanders”–but as if this did not destroy the stability of the fabric of a nation America was allegedly trying to rebuild since 2008–defined a view far from the ground. Over 13,000 drone strikes on Afghanistan alone–a minimum of 13,072 strikes killed in Afghanistan alone over 10,000–conducted by the United States Reconnaissance created a landscape being invaded by foreign powers. The dynamic of incessant drone strikes–conducted by a tool not owned by the U.S. military before the Forever Wars, and now showcased in targeted strikes is an invaluable prism to understand the mapping of the land that appears a hope for peace and end to the Forever Wars, as much as a lack of training, strategy, or American assistance. In ways that make drone strike fatalities pale, the recent estimate of 46,310 Afghan civilians–if below half of the estimated 95,000 dead Syrian civilian casualties of the War on Terror–suggests the way that the United States has benefited form the low presence of reporters on the ground.

The war in Afghanistan was located predominantly in the countryside, and across the many provinces that “fell” to a Taliban newly fortified by the windfall of armaments they accumulated as provincial cities, abandoned by the AFSN, fell. The logic that we had supplied the ANSF with sufficient arms to defend the territory reveals a confusion between the territory and the map–and the theater of combat and the situation on the ground. When Joe Biden marveled at how American-trained Afghan security forces Americans out-numbered Taliban fighters fourfold, and possessed better arms, the 298,000 armed ANSF were thinly spread and at low morale; if trained and armed by Americans, perhaps amounting to but 96,000, they lacked decisive advantage against Taliban force of 60-80,000 whose leaders effectively exploited internal weaknesses off the battlefield.

The real map–or the inside story of the progress of the Taliban across the nation–lay the perhaps not control over districts’ capitols, but the many well-stocked bases, airfields, and army depots long cultivated by American troops. The long-running bases across the country–sites with often mythic and storied names, like Kandahar and Bagram airfield, where tens of thousands of United States soldiers had been stationed from 2001–had posed a site of immense military materiel that the . The Bagram Airfield was a site for drones, of course, but also for storing cutting edge Blackhawk helicopters that the United States committed to Afghan forces, even if they were not well-trained in using or maintaining them, munitions, and firearms, even if the larger American aircraft and drones were withdrawn. As American forces withdrew, the rifles, ammunition, and tactical vehicles–as well as cars–were left at bases that the Taliban had long attacked–as Bagram—and had their eyes and were particularly keen. American commanders, as if intending to disrupt the withdrawal’s smoothness, disrupted the smooth transition by not even telling Afghans before they arrived at the Kabul airport–allowing the looting of laptops from Bagram, as a sort of bonanza, by local residents, before the arrival of Taliban forces. Over three million items were abandoned in Bagram, from food to small weapons, ammunition, and vehicles–as if presuming that the “tribal” Taliban did not know how to use them, or not caring, before they down-powered the entire base–doubting that they could ever operate them. As ammunition for weapons not being left for the AFSN was destroyed, the abandonment of materiel, planes, helicopters and ground vehicles followed departure from ten other bases before Biden took office, often over NATO objections–that bestowed a huge symbolic victory of sorts to the Taliban of having driven foreigners from the land as they long promised, if not one of military materiel as wall. If American military argued “They can look at them, they can walk around — but they can’t fly them. They can’t operate them,” the ludic inversion of Taliban displaying armaments of Americans was profound theater of deep symbolic capital.

Taliban forces celebrate the withdrawal of US forces in Kandahar.
Taliban Forces Celebrate American Withdrawal from Kanadahar

If the hundreds of bases that Americans sent soldiers had long declined to dozens, the withdrawal of American forces without clear coordination with Afghans left a vast reserve of symbolic military material ready for the taking. How much was left at the bases closed in Helmand province, Laghman province, or Kunduz, as well as the bases in Nangahar, Balkh, Faryab and Zabul? Did these sites, and the reduction of American presence in Jalalabad Air Field, Kandahar Air Field, and Bagram not provide targets on which the Taliban long had eyes? The seizure of Kandahar provided an occasion for a triumphal procession of sorts, showcasing armored vehicles, as Blackhawk helicopters flying the Taliban flag flew in the skies overhead. In a poor country, the large prizes of American bases stood out like centers of wealth inequality, stocked with energy drinks, full meals, medical care and other amenities, and stockades were impossible to fully empty as the American bases closed from 2020.

Sites Supported by United States Military in Afghanistan, 2006/Globalsecurity.org

Few gave credence to Taliban boasts 1,533 ANSF joined the Taliban by May, or that June saw another 1,300 surrender, but the numbers of deserters only grew, expanding “contested” areas where Government forces lost ground without a fight. All of this crucial information is absent from the map, but we still believe, despite all we might have learned from Tolstoy, that generals and strategists determine the state of play on a battlefield, without knowing how the war was waged, or that the war was never seen as geopolitical–as it was waged–but across borders and rooted much more locally on the ground, as Taliban entered sites of former bases, and amassed arms caches in a drive of increasing momentum to Kabul–one of the only areas that wasn’t bombed so intensively, hoping it would be a reprieve from the violent bombed out landscapes on the ground.

For a war that was long pursued remotely, the image of territorial “loss” obscured the failure of engineering a transition to democracy. We have already begun debating the extent to which an executive decision-making shouldered full responsibility for the folding of the government of Afghanistan that followed the withdrawal of United States soldiers. –and air cover. We like to imagine that an American President has continued to steer global dialogue about the Afghanistan War, the remainder and reduced proxy of the War on Terror. Perhaps it is that we have a hard time to imagine a sense of an ending, and loose the ability to imagine one, and have lost any sense of a conclusion to the War on Terror that was long cast as a “just war,” against evil, and in terms of a dichotomy between good and bad, as if to disguise its protracted disaster. If we could never “see” the results of a an end to the War on Terror, Orwellianly, we were told it was not endless–Americans must have patience, said President George W. Bush as he promised us he had, to pursue a simple, conclusive, and final end to terrorism, assuring us the war would not, appearances to the contrary, grow open-ended, with a “mission creep” even greater than the Vietnam War. Barack Obama, after he presided over the military surge, hoped to “turn the page” on it in 2016. But any “exit” receded, and may not even be able to be dated 2021–as we imagine–but more protracted and indefinite than resolute–as Barack Obama, who presided over the military “surge”–hoped to “turn the page” and wind down by 2016. The logic of the war grew, as if deriving from Bush’s refusal to negotiate as was requested after the eight day of the bombing campaign, or move Osama bin Laden to a third country, but employ military might to force destruction of the camps of the Taliban, and delivery of all Taliban, fixating on the Taliban escalated the war far as an American struggle, far beyond attention to the situation on the ground.

The nightmarish reversion of Afghan territories was seen as the culmination of the withdrawal of American troops at large levels, almost achieved by President Obama in 2016, after the heights of the first “Surge” in 20011, but which was delayed by President Trump. The war that refused to end or conclude was never seen as a protracted struggle–or presented as one–but it was, and perhaps because of this never had any end in sight. “This is not another Vietnam” was announced by the father of that President, President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Americans changed the organizational structure and leadership of Afghan troops with each U.S. President, making it hard to conclude or manage, shifting how Afghans were trained, that must have encouraged a sense of clientelism and corruption of which the Afghan government became increasingly accused–and perhaps introducing a lingering suspicion of corruption and clientelism, more than bringing anything like a modern fighting army or New Model Army. There was never a sense of refusing to leave for fear that the failure that the maps depicted of the collapse of all districts of the new “Afghanistan” depended on continued American investment and support to endure.

Although the rapid reversion of districts to Taliban is far more likely to remain perceived by Republicans as a fiasco in leadership, the poor state of the country and ineffectiveness to work with the increased military materiel it was provided as if the army members did not have to be motivated and organized. The impossibility of mapping the geopolitical interests America felt onto the Security Forces–Lt. General William Caldwell IV reflected Defense Dept. opinion in the military when he assured the world Afghanistan National Security Forces were effective and trained, in fact “probably the best-trained, the best-equipped and the best-led of any forces we’ve developed yet inside of Afghanistan,” by June 2011, after a decade of military training, and only able to get better, even if American Generals were clear they would tolerate a degree of chaos, and didn’t want Afghans to be defining priorities, but only to instill a “particular kind of stability“: by 2016, National Security officials openly worried about the lack of any metrics–levels of violence, control over territory, or Taliban attacks that presented or projected confidence. The distrust, missed assessment and mutual mis-communications between American Generals who promoted and mistrusted Afghan troops whose efficiency they promoted created a disconnect between Americans as they downplayed the military ability of the Taliban, regarded as lacking sufficient air capacity or military prowess to command the nation or pose a threat to the Afghan Security Forces who folded before the Taliban’s military and threats of reprisals.

Is it possible to trace a transfer of military technologies and armaments in the twenty years since the crashing of airplanes into the Twin Towers by jihadist militants and the appropriation of sophisticated arms, night-goggles and humvees of members of the same Taliban who now occupy Baghdad? At the same time as American purchasers of handguns and firearms grew, the transfers of weapons and military firearms to the Afghan areas–UAE; Saudi Arabia; and especially Qatar–in a massive transfer of military technology that paralleled the emergence of the very groups cast as primitive rebels who had commandeered aircrafts to strike the Twin Towers into an efficient user of enhanced military tools and technologies, rather than the primitives who occupied the outer peripheries, but were both trained and prepared to occupy a nation’s center in disarmingly modern ways. Although the image of the plans flying into the Twin Towers presented an image of modernity versus premodernity, a lens through which the protracted war was pursued, as we cast the Taliban as “tribal,” and drove the Taliban into the opium production business, selling “modern” weapons and military tools into Afghanistan, the dichotomy of modern and primitive failed to present anything like a proper lens to pursue the war, although it was one American military had adopted on cue from an American President who had promised a “crusade” in no uncertain terms.

9/11

Perhaps the story of the War on Terror, in both its Afghanistan chapter and in other ways, demands to be written, when it is, as a massive transformation from the perspective of a shift of military engagement on the ground, and the military experience of the soldier, or what John Keegan called “the face of battle,” rather than the grand narratives of a conflict of civilizations in which it was framed. If the experience and strategic outlook Keegan emphasized might well be expanded, following increased awareness, to the long-term psychological and physical costs to those who were fighting, the erosion and fraying of the sense of nation and national motivation for combat must be included in the history as well, but the shift in war experience of the soldier must have shifted far more dramatically for how the “sharp end of war” appeared for the generation of the Taliban who matured in a terrain where American weapons had increasingly arrived in abundance to become part of the landscape of the state, and might be understood in terms of the shifting eras of military engagement from being attacked by bombers, targeted by drones–none of which were owned by the U.S. Army before the war, a telling index of engagement that reflects the way the war was in fact pursued at its sharp face. While in America disdain candidate Obama showed for how his opponent thought the military operated by measuring might by its navy or air force–“we have these things called aircraft carriers . . .,” suggesting one might use cavalry or bayonets as metrics in the Presidential debates in condescending tones–the shifting theater of military engagement of the Taliban, from placement of IED devices to the mastery of roadways and local influence–more than the numbers of American soldiers on the ground.

From IED placement to suicide bombers, to rifles, kalashnikov, helicopters, and humvees, Taliban developed a new mastery of terrain, control of road networks for shipping materiel, to a n increasingly sophisticated tactical and performative use of arms and modern fighting tools that altered its experience and skill at the “sharp face of war” that we ignore, or attribute to outside assistance from Pakistani military, preferring to see the Taliban as primitive fighters without access to the technology America possesses and our provision of military “aid” as destined for “Security Forces” alone, rather than for a theater of war.

1. The current appeal of the clear mapping of the “fall” of Afghan districts to Taliban omits any senses of the line of battle. This is perhaps convenient for the military observers, who digest the war as it is pursued by American interests alone, even the NATO presence was increasingly defined in terms of the development of Afghan forces and democracy, although the “military alliance” shared by America and its Afghan ally is most often understood only in American terms. In mapping the “fall” of districts as if they were of purely strategic outposts in a geopolitical game, the map not only ignores the face of battle, but emblematizes the mis-mapping of American geopolitical interests onto Afghan interests. Despite the continued perhaps overzealous promotion of the skills of Afghan Security and the continued presence of American and NATO military failed to transition to Afghan Security Forces, even if we have continued to equip them with robust “tools of war,” without having trained them fully to fight our wars or to imagine their territorial mastery as anything like a strategic advantage for themselves.

Although the first elected President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was a friendly figure for Americans, trained in international relations and fond of Islamic philosophy, the promise invested in him as a “transitional figure” uniting “all Afghans” was better received by the British Queen and American President, Americans have been more concerned to map Afghan strategy as if it aligned with American interests, and a global war on terror, which Afghan Security Forces were deputized to adopt. We had long mapped the Taliban Resistance or “neo-Taliban” after the Taliban had been crushed as confined in the mountians, rather than in terms of its engagement with the “sharp face” of battle and its toll on both soldiers and the civilians who lived it. We saw the Taliban as an “insurgency” confined to the mountains as if these were the margins of the nation, and located them in Tribal grounds that were opposed to the vision of a central state–or as the inhabitants of a “Triangle of Terror” they had created.

File:Neotaliban insurgency 2002-2006 en.png
“Neo-Taliban Insurgency, 2002-6”
“Triangle of Terror”

In the images of Afghanistan’s “fall,” the “face of battle” is conveniently absent. In the visualizations of “district control” that were produced in the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and reproduced across Western media, serving lambasted President Biden for some sort of dereliction of duty in concluding a forty-year old poorly thought out war? Democracy becomes something that the United States defends in these maps–or deputized Afghans to learn to defend–but the American President is suddenly seen as asleep at the wheel and not vigilant, the reverse of the image of a powerful Commander-in-Chief we desire, or the necessary and needed military “genius” who can strategically protect the national interests these visualizations reveal to have been tragically imperiled. And so we watch the “fall” of districts that had never gained independent unity, as if they failed to protect themselves from a theocratic opposition. We pretended that the failure was not the entry of increased materiel to the nation, but the global dismay at the levels of arms that are left in Afghanistan–more than are possessed by some NATO countries, and an unknown remainder of the $83 billion of materiel shipped to that nation–and the failure of Afghans to learn to use them against the Taliban, as if they were the exponents shaped by a Triangle of Terror, not affected by the shifting face of battle and “sharp edge” of war.

Increasingly, the promotion of the image of success in containing the Taliban that the U.S. Government promoted was doubted in the press, and seen as not an accurate reflection of the dominant role that the Taliban already had gained and controlled in Afghanistan, but which United States military assessments had rather dishonestly diminished, a scneario in which the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy provided a needed reality check as the true crowd-sourced story of the limited amount of control that the Afghan Government controlled. The extent to which the misleading military map by which the US government was seen as exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan was US government is exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan reflected the more bracing judgements of the right-wing Long War Journal, which valued its ability to present a clear-eyed view of America’s strategic interests in an unvarnished or not sugar-coated geopolitical assessment that America needed in the Trump era, when the confidence in our own government declined.

We did not ever map the “sharp edge” of war, preferring to view the nation from above, either against a “Triangle of Terror” we sought to bomb and domesticize, or parsed into tribal affiliations that became the preferred means of translating Afghanistan to an American audience, which almost acknowledge the failed imperial fantasy to project Afghanistan as a nation with clear sovereign borders, or to define an objective for Afghan independence that is not backward-looking, and rooted in the cartographic attempts of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, translated into the crucial “buffer” function that might contain Pakistan, and stabilize Central Asia in a geopolitical struggle defined by the War on Terror, and not the situation on the ground, or how Americans altered that situation by their increasing military presence and profile. As the Taliban slowly gained ground over the years, and in which the logic of waging war as a protracted struggle had ceased to be worth the $6.4 trillion American taxpayers have invested in post-9/11 wars through FY2020, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan–and the escalating future costs that the war would mean. As we have lost sight of the logic of continuing the “forever wars” into the Biden Presidency, and the vision of a “just war” has become clouded and polluted in the Trump yeas, we have lost site of any ability to imagine the ground plan for the resolution of the continuation of a War on Terror or imagine at what scale such a conclusion might ever occur.

To be sure, the advance of Taliban was not how we wanted to imagine it as a restoration of “normalcy” or a status quo, and a rejection of a theocratic government for a secular liberal ideal. But perhaps the image of Afghanistan as a liberal state was indeed a failed project, and it only existed in maps that had outlived their usefulness or reflection of the area on the ground. The “fall” of Afghanistan reflects the inability to contain the Taliban from the nation, and the weird blindness that America–and the American military and perhaps military intelligence–have to the effects of war on Afghanistan on the ground, wanting to believe in a clear chain of command, recognizable in other militaries, in the AFSN. The GIF seems to raise as many questions as it resolves of the fall of Afghanistan’s provinces to imagine what that ending looks like. As much as the number of districts that speedily negotiated a resolution of hostilities with the Taliban, the fall of Afghanistan and painful and deadly withdrawal from Kabul has been cast as the final cataclysmic episode of the War on Terror, as if President Joseph R. Biden–and Donald Trump before him–had already decided on a military withdrawal from the region was both long planned, and was indeed a means of cutting losses and leaving a region to re-dimension or re-scale the War on Terror that had been fought.

The mapping of the collapse of Afghan districts to the Taliban, cast as sudden and without any sense of occurrence, seem to justify the continuation of that war, but track the erosion of a territorial war, long morphed into a struggle whose aims are unclear. Maps that suggest a “country” of Afghanistan as land that was lost help us imagine that the authority of US forces might have trumped geography. And so we are retrospectively questioning the reporting of intelligence on the ground, trying to read the records of intelligence, or debate the false confidence projected by U.S. military through the final years of the campaign, as if this were an American decision, and a reflection of American global authority, as a microcosm of the image of the United States in the world theater, and seem to present the reassuring picture of a scenario of global politics in which wars are still fought on the ground, and which the loss of the War on Terror was not a failure of the American military, but the ceding of land by Afghans themselves who lacked ability or conviction to fight the war against theocracy that was largely scripted by American Presidents and military–who were unwilling to share their sense of their mission in Afghanistan with Afghan leaders, certain, as last as 2016, that Afghan “priorities are different from ours”–perhaps making it impossible for Afghans to take charge, as leadership of the nation was less of a gridded battlefield that became the dominant graphic that filtered, processed and mediated the withdrawal of American forces across the mainstream media.

In viewing a nation as a battlefield, we are not looking at the right map, or perhaps not looking at the right maps at all–or at the role that the arrival of military weapons played in the rendering “Afghanistan” all the more difficult to map. Perhaps the exportation of arms to the Middle East and to Afghanistan in the years since the nation’s invasion provides a better legend, and indeed a necessary legend, to map how control slipped out of the increasingly corrupt Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, established in 2004 after the United States as it assumed control of most of the country, which has been ceded–and destroyed–by the advance of the Taliban. The drawdown of troops in the country from the heights of the first surge under President Obama of 10,000 men and women has in fact been declining for years, but we have not noticed, or even looked closely at it. Yet the compelling nature of visualizations of “control” over individual districts by 2020 seemed a sudden loss of the nation, a progression of a fall of provinces culminating in the Taliban taking control over almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces, and entering Kabul, perhaps as Afghanistan seems a fitting theater or field for the master-trope of America’s imperial decline. Indeed, the attention in media maps to the delusion at an apparent absence of groundplan for American extrication or withdrawal.

These graphic visualizations are hardly accurate maps, but conveniently omit all information about the “sharp end” of battle, falling back on the geostrategic place of “control” over provinces–is this by the flags flying in their capitals? what is control in a war-torn area?–that can be understood as an element of a “Global War on Terror,” rather than the ways that the war was fought. As uncomfortable as such images might be, we prefer the “objective” GPS image “mapping” control, not pausing to ask what they miss or distort, or process the war in an episode on the War on Terror, or a lost field of battle for Afghan independence which it has long ceased to be.

The time-lapse visualization in the header to this post, of Afghan provinces shifting from “Government Control” or “Contested” to “Taliban Control” offers an image of dramatic impact, as if it were real-time, compelling as a tragic narrative, but erases the deep roots of the “lightning drive” of Taliban forces, fueled in large part both by absence of administrative unity and a massive uncoordinated influx and abandonment of arms–both left to Afghan Security forces or in caches. So strong was the flow of arms to Afghanistan and Qatar from the United States that the Biden administration only suspended arms contractors from delivering pending arms sales. Caches of arms left abandoned by Afghan Security Forces and, presumably, American military who had left them to be used by Government forces, not only destabilized the landscape of local government, but amplified a landscape by men with guns long fed by the over $40 billion contracts for firearms and ammunition flowing to the Middle East since 9/11. But if Biden assessed the Afghan Security Forces as being “as well-equipped as any army in the world” in contrast to the Taliban–and greatly outnumbering Taliban fighters–the long-term distrust of Afghan priorities and concerns left them with little sense of a common grounds for defense. As Americans were making similar assurances, Afghans were already fleeing in July to Tajikistan, where over a thousand Security Forces had already fled.

The arrival of the Taliban did not embody the victory of a theocratic to a secular regime that Americans have cast the War on Terror. The arrival of the Taliban as an armed infantry group, with its own modern military power, is an unwritten history, but was fueled by the arrival of an increased number of weapon that arrived in the region, and the transmission of military technologies across borders in ways that American governments could not perhaps imagine. Whether they were not exposed to the arrival of high tech arms of US manufacture in previous years or not, the idea that the arms that allowed Taliban members to arrive with speed in Kabul and negotiate a ready capitulation of districts, perhaps with Pakistani assistance, the seizure of of an unaccounted number of weapons caches turbocharged the advance to Kabul, in ways that not registered adequately in daunting images of the shift in districts to Taliban control. Such visualizations map a checkerboard of district that seem to track the government “control” of districts that image the erosion of a secular vision of Afghanistan. The division of Afghan lands into “districts” is almost a shorthand for the localism of Afghan politics, an admission of the difficulty of knitting together a secular state from into a centralized state, was never resolved by occupying forces or the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. More than confirm the alienation of ethnic groups from the vision of an allegedly secular government, inter-ethnic divisions have dramatically grown in the place of a coherent strategy for forging a multi-ethnic state, emblematized by an unknown CIA analysts’ map of circa 2017, that continued to map a nation bound by the red line of Afghanistan’s historical border–the “Durand” line, negotiated in the last decade of the nineteenth century–a conceit bisecting a region of Pashtun dominance and mountainous terrain that poses questions of Afghanistan’s ‘borders’ as much as it answers them. Was the retention of this imperial cartographic imaginary not suited for the sense that Afghanistan, as Samuel Moyn argued, offered a chance for the “last gaps if imperial nostalgia” in the post-Trump years, that was, improbably, able to play across the political spectrum?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cia-map-durand_line_border_between_afghanistan_and_pakistan-1.jpg
CIA Analyst’s Map of Afghanistan, Pashtun dominance in Blue “Tribal Belt” (CIA, c. 2007)

Is it possible that the among of weapons funneled into Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia that have disguised the cost of the War on Terror to some degree have created a huge concentration of arms in Afghanistan.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

If a rationale for the increased ability of Taliban members both to manipulate negotiations may lie in their attention to negotiations at Doha, their use military weapons may lie in the increased arrival of arms in the region. The escalation of imports and sales of arms to Afghanistan–many not registered or under the radar–escalated in the course of the Afghanistan War, and reflect a growing geopolitical significance that the nation was given to the United States, rather frighteningly similar to Vietnam, if the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been most focussed on as the greatest similarity between these two long wars, both fought at considerable hemispheric remove, only conceivable as they were logistically mapped by GPS. In both cases, wars were pursued across a complex and often oversimplified logistic chain, pursuing an elusive vision of global dominance or geopolitical strategy, whose obstacle appeared a lack of geopolitical “vision”: but was the presumption of a possibility of “global military dominance” that mismapped both military projects from a purely American point of view. The flattening of the effects of waging war only seems to have increased, paradoxically, as the geopolitical significance of Afghanistan overwhelmed the well-being of its residents, blotting it out, as the country modernized by force as it became a focus of the arms trade.

2. The investment of American taxpayers’ monies in the region was astounding, and hardly democratic, so much as a tantamount to a massive dereliction of national vision amidst the faulty reprioritization of mission creep that may be attributed as much to the military-industrial complex as to leadership or governance. Over half of all American foreign military financing arrived in Afghanistan directly by 2008, but aid had long flowed to Mujahideen and other insurgents through Pakistan, yet in later years billions of substantial materiel flowed via Qatar, location of the $1 billion CENTCOM headquarters where Americans coordinated all air operations in Afghanistan–a small nation that became the tenth largest importer of arms in the world, after South Korea, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, from 2015-19, largely from the United States, with contributions from France and Germany, jumping by 631% from 2010-14–becoming the eighth-largest market share in arms imports for 2016-2020 behind South Korea.

The absence of attention to the situation in the ground is nowhere more apparent than in the GIF that is the header to this post, which reveals the “fall” of Afghan districts to the Taliban from April, 2021. We map the hasty conclusion of the long war in GIF’s of districts, as in the header of this post, the flattening of a country that has been divided for over forty years, a form provided by the Long War Blog. The division of inhabitants of the land, or the effects of previous combat on the nation’s infrastructure and sense of security, is hardly rendered in the shape-files that flip from one hue to the other, suggesting a “lightning” advance of a militarized Taliban, evoking a sudden loss of a territorial advantage for which Americans long fought, and for which Aghans are to blame. Yet as much as the linked maps of “district control” suggest a traumatic collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the ally of the past five American Presidents, the maps collapse or elide the deep disturbances the war and importation of arms has brought to the territory that lies beneath the map, or oversimplified visualization of regional control.

Financial Times via Global Investigative Journalism, “The Taliban’s March”
source: Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s “Long War Journal” by Mike Roggio

The quandary of designating Afghan regions by questions of “control” presumed a sense of stability and allegiance more akin to an idealized military map than to the situation on the ground. The checkerboard image of areas of “government” and areas of “Taliban” control became thinly veiled covers for a Global War on Terror in which the United States defined itself on the side of the good, that was current in a variety of maps long after the First Surge. In the context of the broad drawdown of American troops after the First Surge, as US troops level fell below 10,000 and Afghan Security Forces were celebrated for their effectiveness, the Taliban made steady gains on the ground. But the maps that suggested “stability” in government-held areas created a cocoon from which to affirm stability of a regime that never had broad institutional support as if the dangers it faced were from an “insurgency” 2002-6, and promoted an image of government control within the outlines of a national map, arriving from outside of a nation that still had retained its integrity and clear bounds as if they were able to be preserved.

“Neo Taliban Insurgency, 2002-6”

Even as Taliban presence was more clearly established than we liked to map, the image of the Taliban as outsiders in Tribal lands created a sense of justifying a “civilizing mission” that was understood as more pacific than military, underpinned by a myth or conceit that the disciplined bodies of American warriors would beat the undisciplined bodies of the Taliban. This myth was confusing the goals of the military occupation, but creating an increasingly real edge for Afghans who experienced much more fully “the sharp edge of war” both forged increased bonds between the members of the military and the fighters and the landscape among the generations of Taliban fighters, and their logic of responding to a military strategy American generals mismapped on a geostrategic checkerboard–the very checkerboard that Foundation for the Defense of Democracies encouraged us to understand the success, progress, or challenges of combat, and indeed control their fears and responses to technologies of combat imported to the region by the United States.

Fall of Districts by July 1, 2021, documented by Fazl Raman Muzary, from local media and on the ground reports

The deep concern of a lack of “strategic vision” was not the best way to understand military engagement of Taliban forces, or to cast the compact shift of district loyalty after the American withdrawal. But these terms provided the terms to condemn and bewail the broad geopolitical military failure read into the maps of Taliban advance in August, 2021, apparently confirming that the AFSN had built up as our surrogate was unable to “face” the Taliban militia we continue to cast as “rebels” or “insurgents.” But the negotiated settlement allowed te rapid fall of a number of districts, as while it required the Taliban cease hostilities with NATO and American troops who had negotiated the settlement, the terms allowed Taliban forces to concentrate on negotiating settlements with local regions, exploiting divisions and existing corruption of Ghani’s Afghan government, boosted by the concessions to release 5,000 prisoners in the past, and the opening of jails in districts whose centers they captured or negotiated a solution.

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Filed under Afghanistan War, data visualization, military maps, military weapons, War on Terror