Hunting the Taliban in Las Vegas

In trailers just minutes away from the slot machines, Air Force pilots control Predators over Iraq and Afghanistan. A case study in the marvels—and limits—of modern military technology

The pilot and sensor were waiting for a vehicle to emerge, which they would then follow. At least, that’s what the “customer” had told them. The customer, in this case, was the Canadian military, which now has a significant presence in southern Afghanistan. Because the Predator is in such demand, its crews take for granted that every mission assigned is important. Often, the more high-value the target, the duller the aerial stakeout: the top echelons of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Iraqi insurgents are the most likely to practice good operational security (or OPSEC), and thus go to extreme lengths not to be observed. Predators can go days watching one compound where nothing seems to be happening. This vigil was like going on a reconnaissance mission with a sniper unit, except that the boredom here was not worsened by heat or cold or the need to hide behind a rock.

Of the two keyboards in front of the pilot, the one he used most was the chat keyboard. He was writing messages to others involved in the mission, while talking into his mouthpiece to the JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller), usually a staff sergeant near the site under surveillance.

The Pred that was now watching the two compounds had only one remaining Hellfire missile. The other had been fired some hours earlier, taking out a nearby vehicle that turned out to be loaded with explosives; the immense blast had filled the screen.

The pilot beside me remarked, “Sometimes you get spun up, you fly to a site, you wait for the A-10s to arrive on scene, ready for a kill. Then the whole thing gets called off, and you wind up watching a house for hours, and all you see is a guy walk into the courtyard at night to take a crap, registered by the heat signature picked up on the ground after he gets up from his squat.”

I walked into the trailer next door and entered Iraq. An African American woman—an Army brat from Texas—was operating the ball over a big oil complex west of Kirkuk. Insurgents were thought to be laying IEDs or larger bombs inside it during the night. She saw three suspicious trucks and zoomed in. But there was no heat signature, so she knew that the vehicles had been there for many hours without using their engines, and she rotated the ball elsewhere. As she explained to me, the heat signature allows you a view back in time several hours—information that a good sensor can use to establish a narrative.

Yet the real value of UAVs is something that is still developing, and that hardly anyone outside the military has noticed: these assets are merging with, and thus expanding, the tactics of bread-and-butter elements like Marine infantry platoons and A-10 attack planes. With more and smaller UAVs, platoons will be able to see behind enemy lines and consequently find safer ways to defeat an ambush rather than charge directly into it. Because the Predator can “sparkle” a target at night—mark it in infrared so that A-10 pilots and grunts on the ground can see it with their night-vision goggles—it opens up a range of options that pilots and infantry never had before.

Keep in mind that CAS (Close Air Support), in which a Special Forces team on the ground can call in an air strike on a target only a hundred yards away, can merge twenty-first-century technology with nineteenth-century-style units. CAS was a breakthrough tactic crucial to toppling the Taliban regime in late 2001, when the Green Berets moved around Afghanistan on horseback. A video of a Hellfire attack that had occurred several days before I arrived demonstrated another way of combining the new Predator technology with old-fashioned tactics. Some Army helicopters had been brought in to fly menacingly over a building in eastern Afghanistan: nothing fancy. About a dozen Taliban escaped into a field—which was exactly what U.S. forces had been looking for. The helicopter visit was a feint, designed to flush the Taliban out into the open, where the missile from the Predator killed them without the collateral damage that would have ensued had the building been fired on.

Future Predators will be able to deliver bigger and heavier ordnance than the Hellfire, and to fly higher—above the weather, at 30,000 feet. But the Predator, especially as it is improved, may also interfere with decision making. As one pilot told me: “No general will want to attack something without visual confirmation from a Predator. It’s the old story—by the time you have all the evidence, it’s too late to affect the outcome.” Rather than expanding the opportunities for operations, the Predator could end up restricting them, even as we fight enemies who have no compunction about waging total war.

In fact, the more missions I watched, the more I realized what the Predator could not do. The Pred can fill only a small part of the gap resulting from our abysmal shortage of human intelligence. One nighttime mission (it was morning in Las Vegas) provided a telling case in point.

We were flying (virtually, that is) over Sangin, northwest of Kandahar. The pilot was given the GPS coordinates for the town hall, supposedly besieged by 450 Taliban. A B-1 Lancer, the heaviest and highest-tech bomber in the Air Force arsenal (save for the B-2 Spirit), was about to do a flyover as a show of force. But the Pred pilot saw nothing “except a few guys on the roof chilling out” in what we knew from the instruments was almost 100-degree heat, though it was near midnight there. “We’re seeing life, just not seeing anything unusual,” the sensor reported. “You sure you got the right grids?” He then moved the camera to observe the police station nearby. Still nothing.

The pilot spoke through his headset: “This is crazy—450 Taliban! Are you high or something? And they’re sending in a B-1. To impress whom? These dudes chilling on the roof?”

Watching the three robed figures moving on the roof, I could imagine the scene: the heat, the tea they were likely brewing, the desultory chitchat. And here we were, about half a dozen people—the JTAC, the pilot and sensor in the trailer, the image specialists in Qatar and at Langley Air Force Base in Norfolk, Virginia—talking to one another using the latest and greatest technology, and yet no one seemed to know what was going on. It was likely that the very number of people with electronic access further confused the mission. Circles were being run around them by guys with turbans and AK-47s, who could melt into the landscape.

Scanning the area, the Pred still found nothing. Then we were ordered to another detail: provide force protection for a convoy of jingle trucks delivering food and supplies, just to the west of Kandahar. We did that for a bit, inspecting the wadi egresses where an ambush might be laid and checking ruts in the road ahead that might be IEDs. Finally we were told to search for a specific “g-truck” (no one in Las Vegas knew what that meant); that led the Predator to a line of trees that seemed to be concealing a number of trucks. But it was impossible to know what, or who, was inside them, or what their drivers intended.

I had had days like this, embedded with Green Berets in the same area near Kandahar. Such days always ended with sergeants muttering, “Nobody knows what the fuck’s going on.”

“Yeah,” said Lieutenant Colonel Plamp, as we spoke in Las Vegas. “We’re in the thick of these ground missions, and as a result we’re just as confused as anyone sometimes. It’s the typical fog of war.”

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is Imperial Grunts, published in paperback this month by Vintage. He is the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U. S. Naval Academy, Annapolis.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus