By David Case
March/April 2008 Issue
in 2004, when an American missile fired from a Predator drone killed Taliban leader Nek Mohammed, an observer told a journalist that the bombing was so exact it “didn’t damage any of the buildings around the lawn where Mohammed was seated.” It was an endorsement, if ever there was one, of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 efforts at assassinations using what are known as decapitation attacks.
The practice, which is shrouded under a veil of intense secrecy, is generally regarded as warfare’s answer to laser surgery: clean and accurate, cheaper than waging a protracted ground battle, and less risky for American troops. But in reality, these premeditated and narrowly focused air bombings often fail to kill their intended foe and hit civilians instead. “It’s much more difficult to hunt people with a 2,000-pound bomb than people realize,” says Marc Garlasco, who until 2003 was one of the Pentagon’s leading analysts of air strikes, including assassinations.
During the invasion of Iraq, Garlasco’s job was to analyze targets with an eye toward minimizing collateral damage using a software program called Bugsplat. Days after Baghdad fell, Garlasco, intent on examining firsthand the military’s success or failure in sparing civilians, accepted a position with Human Rights Watch (hrw) and traveled to Iraq to do just that. Among the sites he studied was a Basra neighborhood where the United States dropped bombs meant for Lt. General Ali Hassan al-Majid—nicknamed Chemical Ali because of his role in gassing tens of thousands of Kurds. Garlasco had watched the bull’s-eye attack live on video transmitted from a Predator drone. “We cheered when the bomb went in,” he says.
But Chemical Ali survived, and witnesses told Garlasco that they’d never seen him in the targeted location. As part of his investigation for hrw, the analyst met a 50-year-old laborer whose home was destroyed in the attack, killing seven family members. He found that 10 neighbors had also died. “When I stood in the crater and I was talking to the survivors,” Garlasco says, “it wasn’t so cool anymore.”
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