Afghan drone campaign said to kill fraction of intended targets

A joint U.S. military and intelligence campaign in northeastern Afghanistan that relied on drones to kill leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups mostly killed other unintended targets, according to a Thursday report by The Intercept.  

According to documents leaked to The Intercept, the Operation Haymaker campaign killed 219 people between January 2012 and February 2013, but only 35 were the intended targets. 

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During one five-month stretch of the campaign, nearly nine out of 10 people who died in airstrikes were not direct targets, The Intercept reported. 

All 200 deaths, however, were declared "EKIA," or “enemy killed in action," even though there was no definitive evidence they were enemy targets. 

“If there is no evidence that proves a person killed in a strike was either not a [military-age male], or was a MAM but not an unlawful enemy combatant, then there is no question,” said the source who leaked the documents to The Intercept. “They label them EKIA. 

“Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association,” the source continued. When “a drone strike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate. … So it’s a phenomenal gamble.”

The campaign was run by the military's Joint Special Operations Command, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, while the Air Force's 11th Intelligence Squadron also played a role. 

U.S. Special Operations Command declined to comment when contacted by The Intercept on the grounds that the campaign, while over, remains classified.  

The documents also showed that special operations raids on the ground were far less lethal than airstrikes, and resulted in the capture of "scores" of individuals who could be used to gain intelligence. 

During the period of Sept. 2011 through Sept. 2012, the U.S. conducted more than 1,800 night raids, with shots fired in less than nine percent of its missions and a total of 14 civilian casualty "events." 

However, the source said the civilian casualty figure is "highly suspect," and that the actual number is much higher. 

"They make the numbers themselves so they can get away with writing off most of the kills as legitimate," he said. 

A slide assessing the effectiveness of Operation Haymaker rated its effects as "marginal" in multiple areas such as disruption of northeastern Afghanistan as an al Qaeda safe haven, and loss of key members and enablers of Al Qaeda. 

The most recent date included in the documents on Operation Haymaker is February 28, 2013, but it's not clear when the campaign ended. 

The Intercept reports that the campaign coincided with an increase in drone strikes and civilian casualties across Afghanistan, according to statistics from the United Nations. 

Civilian casualties "tripled" from 2012 to 2013, with "almost one-third of the civilian deaths from aerial operations," according to the U.N. The Intercept said more than 45 condolence payments of $118,000 were made in Kunar between 2011 and 2013 to cover the deaths of 27, as well as injuries.  

A senior administration official told The Hill on background that President Obama laid out in a May 2013 speech "why the use of such strikes is just, legal, and necessary to protect the American people from the threat posed by terrorism." 

"By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life," the official explained. 

-- Julian Hattem contributed to this article.