Monday, June 22, 2009

Killing Afghan Villagers in Florida

Iraq, Afghanistan Wars Coordinated from afar
by Michel Moutot Michel Moutot

TAMPA, Florida (AFP) – The target may be in Iraq or Afghanistan, but if a US air attack risks killing civilians the decision to strike is taken by leaders at this military base in sunny Tampa, Florida. In a windowless room at the sprawling MacDill Air Force Base, home to the US Central Command (CENTCOM), several dozen officers monitor developments across the Middle East, the Gulf and Central Asia 24 hours a day.

They also watch events in the pirate-infested waters off Somalia's shores.

During a tour granted to an AFP reporter and other journalists on Tuesday, the screens only showed film taken in Iraq more than four years ago.

A huge flat screen monitor on the left broadcasts live images caught by cameras aboard unmanned aerial vehicles, both spy planes and drones. Reconnaissance video streams and attacks are also tracked in real time.

On the right, another screen broadcasts Al-Jazeera English, the sister channel of the controversial Arabic-language news network that often angered the George W. Bush administration for its reporting of the Afghan and Iraq wars and airing tapes of Al-Qaeda leaders.

In the center of the room, another monitor continuously shows updated summaries of key data and information. Digital clocks on the wall gives the time in Tampa, Qatar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and "Zulu" (GMT).

"From this room," said Joint Operations Center (JOC) commander Todd Schappler, "we do all the operational reporting all over our zone of responsibility. We issue orders, we can assist with targeting. We collect information, repackage it for our boss, General (David) Petraeus," an architect of US counterinsurgency strategy.

Among the computer screens sit two powerful Sun workstations.

"Their job is to use picture and imagery to calculate what weapon to use," said Schappler, adding that the calculations at CENTCOM are completed simultaneously with others in the field.

"They discuss it and find a common ground. But if they still disagree, it goes to the higher level. So, the decision is taken here. But often, in the meantime, the target is gone."

Despite all the high-level coordination, there are sometimes mistakes -- mistakes that often prove costly in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the US air strikes are deeply unpopular.

US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have their own command posts and operations centers, but personnel at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, in the western US state of Nevada, maneuver the pilotless Predator and Reaper drones that fly over Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Schappler said CENTCOM does its absolute best to avoid any "collateral damage" and to "keep it absolutely as small as possible."

"If we find a bad person, a terrorist, we assign a priority to that person. We try to asses where he lives, who he is associated with, where does he go," Schappler said.

"If he lives in a tent, in the desert, that would make an easy decision for the commander in the field. But if he lives in a compound with women and children, or near a mosque, a historic place, we perform a collateral damage assessment."

If the risk of civilian deaths is too high, Schappler said, the operation is canceled.

And if there is an important development at any time, night or day, the JOC chief contacts a top aide to Petraeus. "We wake him up a dozen times a month," said Schappler.

CENTCOM also hosts military representatives from 55 countries that responded to Washington's call to join the "war on terror" following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

"The countries who joigned us in this fight wanted to have their people involved, to better understand what was going on," said Lieutenant Colonel Mark Hickman.

Located in a nondescript building on the military base, the Coalition Coordination Center is a military Tower of Babel, where officers of all ranks and uniforms play their part in maintaining a high-stakes balance.

"Our role is to be the interface between the ... Central Command and our countries," said Air Force Brigadier General Gilles Lemoine, head of the French detachment.

"We are the eyes and ears of our chiefs of defense on what is going on here, so they can take informed decisions," said a European colonel, who declined to be named because he had not been authorized to speak on the matter.

"Our job goes from the smallest details, like when are the vehicles going to be shipped to the highest level of political issues," the colonel said.

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