The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I killed Taliban fighters from an air-conditioned room. Did it even help?

I became a Marine to test myself in combat. I ended up waging a remote, abstract war.

A U.S. soldier walks past an A-10 Thunderbolt II at Kandahar Air base in Afghanistan on January 23, 2018.
A U.S. soldier walks past an A-10 Thunderbolt II at Kandahar Air base in Afghanistan on January 23, 2018. (SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

For nine months in 2018 and 2019 — roughly the 18th year of America’s war in Afghanistan — I directed airstrikes against the Taliban. From an operations center made mostly of plywood in the middle of the Helmand desert in southern Afghanistan, our team of intelligence, artillery and aviation specialists deployed some of the world’s most sophisticated technology against Taliban fighters who were primarily armed with rifles designed during World War II. We tracked and hunted these militants for hours every day with multimillion-dollar, indefatigable Reaper and Predator drones. We guided A-10 Warthogs, F-18 fighter jets or Apache helicopters to these targets, and the drones’ high-powered cameras provided intimate portraits of the effect of well-aimed steel and explosives on human flesh.

I oversaw these airstrikes every day in a neat eight-hour shift — pretty much the only regular schedule I ever had in the Marines. I’d wake up in my “can,” a small but comfortable air-conditioned metal container outfitted with a bed, desk and a dresser. I would take a hot shower and shave and then walk 100 feet over to the cafeteria for a breakfast of eggs, bacon and Cheerios. Afterward, I crossed a small dusty road lined with porta johns to arrive at the operations center. I brewed a pot of coffee and then took over my shift at 8 a.m.

I killed men for the next eight hours.

At 4 p.m. my replacement, a fellow Marine captain, would arrive. I’d brief him about what had happened that day — how many strikes we conducted, how many people we killed, how many we wounded — and where we had drones watching Taliban fighters he would kill later if he had the opportunity. (In nine months, I directed more than 250 airstrikes resulting in 304 Taliban members killed and 54 wounded.)

Once we completed our turnover checklist, I left the operations center and returned to my can. I changed into exercise clothes, hit the gym and took another hot shower. At dinner, Indian cooks served up country-fried steak or an overcooked salmon fillet with an iceberg lettuce salad, and I ate in front of a large-screen television. Later, back in my can, I called my girlfriend in the States, read a book and went to bed. I woke up the next day to do it all over again.

This is one of the new faces of war. I knew this before my assignment; drone combat was decades old by then. Nonetheless, the sterility of this type of warfare, which allowed me to kill Taliban fighters in one moment and finish a half-eaten hamburger lunch the next, was chilling. Given the general ineffectiveness of the Afghan security forces, which were supposedly in charge of national defense at this point, it sometimes seemed less that we were supporting their efforts and more that we were engaged in a Sisyphean exercise (since the Taliban never ran out of replacement fighters). The Afghan army leadership seemed content with a status quo that left it in control of population centers while a skilled enemy patrolled the countryside. As I watched the Taliban take over Afghanistan this past week while U.S. forces departed, the farcical nature of the Afghan military became apparent, as did our role in propping up this hollow force through remote warfare. In these grim days, I’ve been thinking about the strangeness of my job, which I was very good at — and the disconnect between war as I had long imagined it and the war I fought.

I joined the military out of my general desire to serve my country in uniform and my parents’ very specific desire to put four kids through college on a tight budget. I chose the Naval Academy over West Point largely because the images of Army soldiers getting blown up by IEDs scared me. In 2007, I felt it was much smarter to be on a boat in the middle of the ocean than in a Humvee on a dusty road in Iraq.

But once in Annapolis, I was struck by the professionalism and sense of purpose exuded by the Marines I met. I felt compelled to join their ranks, and I devoted myself to preparing for that goal. I studied the Arabic language and Middle Eastern history, society and politics. I devoured combat literature — Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn,” Nathaniel Fick’s “One Bullet Away” — all with one consuming question: When the time came, and I looked my enemy in the eye, would I have what it takes?

I joined the Marine Corps’ elite reconnaissance unit, but by 2017, even Marine Recon, considered “the tip of the tip of the spear,” was confined to ships as part of contingency response groups that spent months at sea waiting for a call to action that rarely, if ever, came. So, when the opportunity arose to join a “train, advise and assist” mission in Afghanistan, I took it. This was four years after the declared end of the United States’ and NATO’s combat operations in the country, though my job belied that.

It was not the kind of mission I had spent my adult life preparing for. In this campaign there would be no boots on the ground — at least not American boots. Instead, we’d be working with the none-too-aggressive Afghan army and police forces, supporting them by conducting remote targeting from the air-conditioned safety of our base. Our goal was to help these forces hold the population centers, towns such as Gereshk and Lashkar Gah, against Taliban encroachment from the periphery of Helmand province.  

The ever-ready answer for failures in Afghanistan: More war

Every day at 8 a.m. as I began my shift, I received an intelligence briefing from a contracted civilian specialist. I took stock of the drones available to us. Then, based on the briefing, I guided them to where I thought we had the best chance of finding and killing Taliban fighters. The militants understood that they were safe from American airstrikes when in crowded areas and near mosques, and they smartly used that to their advantage when they traveled. Eventually, however, one of our identified fighters would make a mistake or, by necessity, travel into an area far enough away from collateral hazards that we were able to kill him.

The strikes happened with such quotidian regularity that I don’t remember the details of the vast majority. One that I do vividly recall occurred one sunny December day, on a road connecting the district of Marja to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. While sizable Afghan army units anchored the ends of the road, they never left their bases; consequently, the Taliban set up checkpoints to extort taxes from the local population. One recurring roadblock was set up where a small, dusty road intersected with the main thoroughfare.

That day, there were two young men manning the checkpoint. One, wearing a sequined cap — it sparkled on our screens — stood on the north side of the road, briefly interrogating passing cars, which he stopped at his leisure. The other, wearing a pink shawl, sat in a small plastic chair on the south side.

We’d killed other guards at this exact intersection multiple times over the last three months, yet the Taliban kept ordering young men back to it again and again. (My amazement at this practice — and at the fact that fighters would dutifully return — may explain why this particular strike lingers in my mind.) After we identified a rifle sticking out from under the shawl of one of the men, we were legally cleared to kill them, but doing so would be tricky while avoiding the civilian traffic at this busy checkpoint.

We observed with a drone, but our killing machine that day was an A-10 Warthog, flying with a partner plane. As the aircraft reached the optimal point from which to drop ordnance, the tension in the operations center rose; conversations stopped, and all eyes scanned the screens for incoming traffic. We had only seconds to call out any concerns. Suddenly a sedan entered from the east, and the controller radioed to the pilots, “Abort, abort, abort.” We repeated this process two more times because of passing traffic at the checkpoint.

America was finally using Biden’s Afghanistan strategy. Then he pulled the plug.

On the pilot’s fourth approach, our controller authorized him to fire when ready: “Hawg 55 cleared hot, cleared hot.” After a few seconds, the radio buzzed: “Pistol.” That means bombs away, the point of no return. More tense seconds of waiting between release and impact. We spotted a vehicle moving inbound from the west, but too slowly to reach the target before the bombs did.

A dust cloud erupted on screen. Two rockets had landed at the feet of the man in the bright cap. When the dust cleared, I could see his body in the road — a dark mangle, his turban blasted off and unspooled into a black ribbon nearby. A pool of blood slowly stained the sand beneath him. The other fighter was lying in the road a few yards away. The car that had been closing from the west stopped, and the driver got out for a better look. Seemingly unfazed, he got back in his car and drove on. Eventually, a flatbed truck stopped, and men placed the mangled bodies on shawls to lift them into the vehicle. As the drones confirmed that it was a clean strike, meaning no civilian casualties, the tension in the control room dissipated.

But I remember feeling very differently after the strikes that did not go as smoothly — the tragic handful when we killed or maimed bystanders. I remember the dread of watching the wrong motorcycle drive into the impact zone of our bombs. I remember the gradual tightening in my stomach as a post-strike review revealed that one of the bodies on the screen was too small to be an adult.

It was in these instances that the video game stopped and the flesh-and-blood consequences of what we were doing hit me — a wave of sickness, regret and second-guessing. Yet my routine on the base would remain largely unchanged. I’d work out, grab a hot shower and listen to the Marines in the cafeteria debate the merits of competing “Bachelor” candidates over chocolate ice cream. I’d go back to my can and call my girlfriend. With a hollow feeling in my stomach, I’d stare at the aluminum roof and drift off to sleep. And then I would wake up the next day to do it all over again.  

When my rotation was up, a replacement arrived who had no more relevant training than I had possessed nine months earlier. In two weeks of overlap, I tried to teach him everything I had learned. On one of my last days in Afghanistan, I went to the lounge where the contracted workers from Kenya, Uganda and Bangladesh hung out to enjoy free WiFi and shoot pool. I read the news on my laptop and called my sister. I explained that it was the first day in nine months that I had gotten a break from my job.

“How does it feel?” she asked.

I choked up. I’d never cried in front of my sister as an adult, and I wasn’t about to then.  But relief washed over me — killing people remotely from this Afghanistan base was somebody else’s job now; a great weight had been removed.

Finally I managed to get some words out. “It feels good,” I said, my voice wavering. “It feels really good.”

Twitter: @IanMCameron

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