How the war in Afghanistan revealed an evolving drone fleet’s mettle—and shortcomings

The cameras got better, but a Hellfire missile is still no scalpel.

The following is an excerpt from The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley by Wesley Morgan.

As U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan’s Pech valley in 2011-13, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) launched a drone campaign called Operation Haymaker to avoid the dangers of further ground raids in the surrounding mountains, where several helicopters had crashed over the years. “As I looked back in 2011 on what we had done in the past, it was hard to define a circumstance where we’d accept that risk,” explained Joseph Votel, then JSOC’s three-star commander.

An armed drone had fired the opening shot of the American campaign in Kunar in April 2002. Now, after years of costly ground fighting, armed drones would close the campaign out, or carry it on forever. Much like the first special operators to enter Kunar a decade earlier, the JSOC personnel who got Operation Haymaker under way at Jalalabad and Bagram in late 2011 and early 2012 were looking for any indicators of a foreign presence—anything that could zero them in on where Farouq al-Qahtani and a handful of other known al-Qaida operatives might be holed up.

JSOC had six Predators at Jalalabad Airfield as Haymaker began, enough to keep two drones aloft 24/7. More aircraft joined the operation over time, including Reapers, the scaled-up Predator cousins that flew up from Kandahar carrying both Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs. Though they couldn’t pick out an individual person’s face, the cameras in the drones’ ball-shaped sensor turrets had come a long way since 2002, shrinking in size while gaining in definition just like cell phone cameras back home. Even a couple of years earlier, during the surge, “you would see a group of fighters, but you would struggle to identify things like weapons,” said a soldier involved in Haymaker. “By 2012, 2013, we weren’t struggling with that anymore.” Reapers with the newest cameras allowed viewers to tell whether a person was holding a cell phone, the color of his vest, and physical characteristics like a limp or unusual stride.

Kunar and Nuristan’s steep slopes and thick woods still posed challenges, though, even at night, when the heat emitted by the trees could swallow up that emitted by the human beings a drone was trying to track in the forest. JSOC tried to make up for this with persistence—keeping drones over the valleys it was interested in day and night and supplementing them with manned surveillance planes flying shorter shifts out of Bagram.

Every Haymaker killing was a worldwide collaboration. During the 12 or 15 hours a Predator or Reaper spent on station, it might bounce from the control of a pilot in New Mexico to another in Missouri. Stateside NSA analysts monitored cell phone communications in whatever valley was Haymaker’s highest priority, and a secret military cyber-operations unit outside Washington looked for ways into targets’ phones and computers. The Ranger commanders of Afghanistan’s JSOC task force oversaw it all from Bagram, and the operation’s nerve center was Jalalabad, where a rotation of SEAL Team 6 squadrons—beefed up by about three dozen intelligence personnel—ran the secret air campaign from nondescript plywood buildings inside JSOC’s Task Force East compound.

First, either a tip from a CIA or DIA source or a trick of the NSA’s technological wizardry would locate the targeted militant. Drones and turboprops would then stick to him like glue, with aircrews aboard the latter using their onboard signals intelligence tools to “register” and then “lock” his phone. If he went into a building or a forest where the drones’ cameras couldn’t see him anymore, the whole process might have to start over.

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Once the task force was sure it had its man, the staff in the Jalalabad operations center would develop a plan for how to kill him. In the rare instances when the destruction of a building was on the table, the task force might use the HIMARS rocket launcher it kept on hand. In other cases, one of the Air Force F-15s and F-16s that the task force had on call might be the best tool for the job; the 500- and 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs they carried were the weapons of choice in thick forest, for example.

Most often, though, drones executed the Haymaker strikes, typically with Hellfire missiles. The Air Force strike specialists attached to the SEALs at Jalalabad would get on the phone with the stateside drone crews to sort out the details, then submit a packet up to the Rangers at Bagram, who in turn might send it on to Kabul for final approval.

While the drone that had found the target backed off and flew in a wider circle, lowering its noise signature, more of the unmanned planes would converge on the area—ideally Reapers with their heavier weapons loads, as many as the task force could muster. Two or more of the aircraft would move into “strike posture,” shining their infrared laser designators on the man they meant to kill; others would watch for people approaching the target. Approval would arrive over speakerphone from Bagram, and a SEAL leader would give the nod to the strike specialist, who in turn would tell the drone crews. Twenty to thirty seconds after launch, the incoming Hellfires would appear for a moment on the big screens in Jalalabad and Bagram, and then there would be a flash and a plume of smoke.

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After zooming in for the strike, the attacking Reapers’ cameras would now zoom out to assess the damage; one drone might be waiting to do “squirter control,” killing any survivors it spotted running away from the scene with more Hellfires. Then the drones and planes would return to surveillance mode, watching and listening for clues from the scene about whom to target next.

“When you can track guys walking for miles on trails, you’re not going to kill anyone else,” a special operations officer involved in Haymaker explained. Sometimes, the moment to strike was “when a target wandered away from a meeting to take a piss,” added an intelligence analyst. Nevertheless, Haymaker did kill civilians.

How the war in Afghanistan revealed an evolving drone fleet’s mettle—and shortcomings
The Hardest Place. Penguin Random House

Between 2006 and 2010, when American troops had been living at outposts in the Pech’s side valleys, verifying claims that an air strike had killed civilians had been a fraught but more straightforward matter. A patrol could hike up to the scene, sometimes within hours of the strike, and photograph what they found and talk through an interpreter to the family members of the dead in the village. That had been the procedure when Marines confirmed the deaths of children in a Korengal AC-130 strike during Operation Mountain Lion in 2006, when paratroopers confronted the aftermath of a strike they called in during Rock Avalanche in 2007, and when 25th Infantry Division troops documented the gruesome results of a strike during the ill-fated 2011 mission back to Want. But without just one U.S. outpost left in the Pech by the end of 2012 and none a year later, getting to the bottom of what had happened in a strike on a mountainside became a more difficult proposition, one that rarely ended in something approaching a satisfying resolution for any party involved.

The point of Haymaker was that it kept Americans off the ground, capitalizing on drone technology and tactics that had evolved vastly in the decade since the fuzzy, mistake-riddled days of 2002 and 2003. But a Reaper’s camera was still not an all-seeing eye, nor was a Hellfire warhead a scalpel, and there was an inevitable flip side to taking American infantrymen and special operators out of harm’s way.

“The Americans plan the drone attacks well now, but the chance for mistakes is still high,” said Kunari cleric Mawlawi Shahzada Shahid, noting that an armed shepherd in the mountains looked no different from the sky than an armed guerrilla did. When President Hamid Karzai appointed him to investigate a strike in the Watapur that maimed and blinded a little girl in September 2013, Shahzada came away convinced that more civilians had died than the three the U.S. military acknowledged having errantly slain.

Even when the strikes didn’t kill civilians, “the militants’ sons and nephews replace them, and the drone attacks have created new enemies in these places,” Shahzada Shahid said. “People will still remember these strikes in a hundred years.”

Excerpted from The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley by Wesley Morgan. Copyright © 2021 by Wesley Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.