The Man on Both Sides of Air War Debate

As the United States has increased its use of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marc Garlasco has tracked each bomb's effectiveness and potential for killing the innocent.
As the United States has increased its use of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marc Garlasco has tracked each bomb's effectiveness and potential for killing the innocent. (Photo: Helayne Seidman/Post)
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By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sitting in a secure vault deep inside the Pentagon, Marc Garlasco cheered when the laser-guided bombs he had helped target slammed to Earth, striking Iraqi soil. As a body flew like a rag doll across the video screen, framed in a bright flash and a cloud of dust, Garlasco and his fellow intelligence analysts thought they had taken out one of the U.S. military's top targets during the early days of the Iraq war.

But even as he reveled in the April 2003 airstrike, Garlasco was thinking ahead to his next job, which would take him to the edges of the very crater he had just helped create. Just two weeks after the failed attack targeting Iraq's notorious Ali Hassan Majeed, known as Chemical Ali, Garlasco left the Defense Intelligence Agency and traveled worldwide as a human rights activist seeking to determine the civilian toll of his previous work.

"I found myself standing at that crater, talking to a man about how his family was destroyed, how children were killed, and there was this bunny-rabbit toy covered in dust nearby, and it tore me in two," Garlasco said. "I had been a part of it, so it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. It really dawned on me that these aren't just nameless, faceless targets. This is a place where people are going to feel ramifications for a long time."

Garlasco is uniquely suited to understand both sides of the air war debate: He knows what the bombs can do, and he knows the price of errant attacks. In the five years since he moved from targeter to human rights advocate, he has lobbied for greater deliberation in the military's use of air power. He has made it his mission to prevent the use of cluster munitions and has argued for smaller bombs that have less impact on surrounding areas -- like the bombs that the Air Force now uses in Iraq.

As the U.S. military has significantly stepped up its use of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Garlasco has tracked every bomb, noting their effectiveness and their potential for killing the innocent. The United States increased its use of aerial bombs in Iraq by more than 500 percent from 2006 to 2007 and dropped more than 20 times as many bombs on Afghanistan last year as it did just a few years ago.

That increase, part of a strategy by U.S. commanders who want to attack enemies in areas they have controlled for years, has made Garlasco's work all the more relevant. And his previous work on the Pentagon's Joint Staff has given him a level of credibility and a voice that few human rights activists have. He can call up officers in the Air Force's secret facility in Southeast Asia and can walk up to U.S. command posts in Afghanistan to learn what is being done.

Garlasco "knows more about airstrikes than anyone in the world who isn't in the military currently," said Colin Kahl, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University. "He knows enough about the professional military to know they make mistakes but that they try hard. When Marc says stuff is messed up, the military has to take it seriously. It's not some wing nut in a human rights group out to get the military."

Military experts and human rights advocates said Garlasco's background is a mixed blessing: He can communicate well with both sides, yet he is simultaneously suspect at the Pentagon and in human rights circles.

At Human Rights Watch, where Garlasco said he is more pro-military than many, colleagues value his perspective. Tom Malinowski, the group's Washington advocacy director, said that while it may at first seem incongruous for a former targeter to join a humanitarian effort, Garlasco has been a "perfect fit."

"The objective is not to end war, it's to change the way militaries wage war," Malinowski said. "In order to do that, we need people who can speak with credibility to military leaders. Marc is effective because he speaks the language of the community he seeks to influence, he comes from that culture. . . . They tend to see him as a constructive critic rather than the enemy."

In "Off Target," a 2003 report, Garlasco criticized the U.S. military for its last-minute targeting of officials in Iraq -- noting that it went zero-for-50 at hitting Iraqi leaders, while killing hundreds of civilians -- yet he has also praised U.S. forces for being careful.

While a student at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, Garlasco became captivated with the character Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's book "The Hunt for Red October." He began studying the military and could rattle off details about naval ships. He became interested in his grandfather's service as an antiaircraft artilleryman in the German Luftwaffe in World War II.


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