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America’s drone wars are not creating a safer world

Mark Shea says the Obama administration’s lawless drone campaign is claiming innocent lives

By on Thursday, 20 December 2012

An unmanned drone flies over Afghanistan (Photo: PA)

An unmanned drone flies over Afghanistan (Photo: PA)

Since 2004, the United States has launched hundreds of attacks via unmanned drones within northwest Pakistan, despite Pakistan’s protests. The drones, which are piloted by radio operators in America, are touted as a means of saving the lives of US troops and making warfare more efficient. Without boots on the ground, we can safely target and kill terrorists half a world away. The question is: “Safely for whom?”

A favourite narrative among Americans is that such warfare is surgical and precise and does little “collateral damage”. Collateral damage is the standard euphemism for “killing and maiming innocent men, women and children”. But according to a recent study this “surgical” narrative is false. Researchers at the Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law estimated that from June 2004 to mid-September 2012 drone attacks in Pakistan killed 2,593 to 3,365 people; 474 to 884 were civilians, including at least 176 children, and 1,249 to 1,389 people were injured. The remote control murder of innocent husbands, fathers, wives and children has angered Pakistanis and others in that region of the world and helped to radicalise them against the US, helping to create a fertile field for terrorists to recruit new converts.

Many people respond to this by saying: “Oh, but all that sort of thing changed after 2009, when that dangerous cowboy Bush was voted out and Barack Obama rang in a new era of hope and change.” Not so much as you might think. In fact, most Americans – like most Britons and, indeed, most people outside Pakistan – are unaware of the realities of how the Obama administration conducts this war. Here are some salient things to remember.

Describing the CIA’s drone strikes, the American investigative journalist Jane Mayer notes: “The programme is classified as covert, and the intelligence agency declines to provide any information to the public about where it operates, how it selects targets, who is in charge, or how many people have been killed.”

The programme is founded on a claim by the Obama administration that the drone programme is subject to no judicial review, and that those targeted for killing may legally be secretly targeted on the president’s unilateral will alone – even if they are American citizens. In other words, we live, right now and not in some dystopian future, in a world where the president of the United States has seized the power to secretly order the immediate death of anyone he chooses, foreign or citizen, without evidence, arrest, trial, judge, jury, or verdict.

Mayer adds: “Because of the CIA programme’s secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the US is not at war. Should something go wrong in the CIA’s programme – last month, the Air Force lost control of a drone and had to shoot it down over Afghanistan – it’s unclear what the consequences would be.”

So what happens when the president’s drone war ends up killing and maiming civilians? According to the New York Times: “Mr Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” In short, the administration deals with the killing of civilians by calling them terrorists after it has killed them.

Such a method positively invites abuse. And abuse it has created. For the reality is that, as Conor Friedersdorf reports for The Atlantic: “The Obama administration permits the CIA to carry out ‘signature strikes’ even though they don’t know the identity of the people they’re trying to kill!”

You read that right. According to the American political journalist Glenn Greenwald: “In February, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism documented that after the US kills people with drones in Pakistan, it then targets for death those who show up at the scene to rescue the survivors and retrieve the bodies, as well as those who gather to mourn the dead at funerals.” In other words, the drone war has led, not to accidental collateral damage, but to the wilful and indiscriminate murder of civilians – exactly the opposite of the “surgical approach” it is touted as.

A common (and perfectly sound) argument on the pro-life front for those who are unsure of whether an unborn baby is a person is that you would not fire a gun into a bush without checking to see whether it was a deer or another hunter. If in doubt, don’t shoot. The US policy of drone warfare is the opposite: we are in many cases shooting at people we know nothing about in the hope that some may be terrorists. And, as citizens, we Americans are handing over to an absolutely unaccountable executive the power to secretly order the death of anyone he chooses. Imagine, say, the Chinese using drones on American soil to target and kill suspected criminals or members of the Chinese mafia. Would Americans be satisfied with the explanation of the Chinese government if they said that somewhere between 500 to 1,000 innocent Americans killed were “acceptable losses” and “collateral damage”? Could there be a more efficient way for China to provoke war? A Briton may likewise wonder: “If the day came when America decided to blow up suspected terrorists in London by this method, would we tolerate it for five seconds?”

The Obama administration is aware of the incredible danger of the executive seizing such power for himself. In the days preceding the election, the administration began drafting “guidelines” for its policy of lawless, secret, unilateral killings because it was afraid that such power might fall into the hands of a Republican. That effort has relaxed now that those who regard themselves as truly enlightened are reassured they are calling the shots. They know they can get away with it because the drones are only falling on Pakistan – for now.

But with America dominated by a mindset that declares “the whole world is a battlefield” and which increasingly treats even its own citizens with suspicion, no American or Briton should rule out the possibility that what is being done to Pakistanis today will be done to “suspected terrorists” on their soil tomorrow as the American security state continues its relentless pursuit of safety, no matter who it has to murder to get it.

Mark Shea is an American Catholic author and speaker. He blogs at and

  • James Patton

    ‘Collateral damage is the standard euphemism for “killing and maiming innocent men, women and children”.’
    Innocent?  Oh no, Mr. Shea.  A commander has already judged them and those assets that are about to bear upon them ensure that our allies, you and I are not among the “collateral” damage.

  • Mack

    Methods are arguable, but that Congress has not declared war, as required by the Constitution, is not arguable.  Congress must declare war or refuse to fund war. 

  • Acleron

    Are you saying that only written up allies of America are safe?

  • Cestius

    The trouble is both sides are now fighting a new type of warfare that isn’t covered by the existing rules of war, and it’s going to take a long time for lawmakers to catch up. Drones are a highly effective weopon against terrorists and guerrillas, although it must be emphasized that drones depend heavily on local intelligence gathering and/or infiltration of the terrorist organization to be effective.  It’s always going to be a problem that technological advances will outstrip the rules of combat, the terrorists are not going to give up and neither will the US, or other governments fighting similar combats.

  • cullenD

    That number of civilians killed in collateral damage is of course a horrific figure. But let’s put that in it’s proper perspective. The islamic terrorists have killed over 35,000 people in Pakistan alone. Since 9/11. The majority of that number were innocent civilians who were purposely targeted.

    If you look at November 2012 across the world there were 215 islamic attacks, across 22 countries, resulting in 893 deaths. That’s more civilians killed last month alone than killed in 8 years of drone strikes.

  • One time

    GOT to love those SOURCES, Mr. Shea!  NYU Law, Stanford Law, and THE ATLANTIC?!  You’ve gotta be kidding me!  “Signature strikes?”  You have no idea what you are talking about.  Lies.  Besides – You think funerals “over there” are like the ones “over here”?  Innocent women and kids all mixed in at some pristine Catholic cemetery?  Not bloody likely!  No, the women and children are kept separated from the men – who’ve shown up armed to the teeth to throw Viagara and the grave of their virgin-bound comrade.  Most of the time they aren’t there at all.  In general this article is a bunch of pacifist bunk. 

    Legally speaking, is there a case to be made for legal self-defense? Under International Law, must a country first declare war to defend itself?  Or must it EVER?  Even in the US there is a difference between “low-intensity conflict” in the form of self-defense that does not require The Congress to declare war.  And the POTUS can defend the nation any time without a formal declaration.

    Imagine this example: A Russian sub off the coast of Virgina, launches a SLBM at Washington.  DC will cease to exist in 5 minutes.   What does the Constitution say to do?  Convene Congress and get a quorum?  

    The only point in this article worth noting is the risk of “domestic abuse”.   Posse comitatus covers some of this, but when the local Sheriff starts executing warrants via drone strike, then we may want to pass a couple extra laws.  (Or better yet – beforehand.)

    Meanwhile… kill the terrorists where they hide, when the plan, and if their Mom happens to be there with them… she’s no longer “innocent” is she?    What’s your solution anyway?  Speak softly to them and rub their bellies?

  • AnonymousCatholicGuy

    Mark, you’re 100% right. We are setting a terrible precedent with our drone war.

    “…what is being done to Pakistanis today will be done to “suspected terrorists” on their soil tomorrow…”

    Sooner or later, the Chinese will rain down Hellfire missiles into Chinatown in San Francisco, and explain that they were taking out Chinese dissidents who were threatening the rule of their regime. The 500-1000 civilian casualties will be “acceptable losses”.

    If I were an upper-level Pakistani official, I’d say “To Hell with it! We can’t take this violation of air space, and slaughtering of our civilians anymore” and start working on getting a nuke in a missile to EMP the USA…

  • Hwang Che Z.

    A Chinese drone strike in the US is not vaguely analogous to US strikes on terrorists.  The terrorists are in failed nation/states.  The US isn’t a failed nation/state – yet.   These national failures are the problem.  Were these countries willing and even capable of policing themselves (and enforcing international law – as the FBI does when it arrests domestic terrorists in the States), then there would be no need for the strikes.  If they were able but uncooperative, allowing the terrorists to strike from their soil, then the terrorism itself would immediately become a causis beli under international law and full-out war against that nation/state would ensue.

    The drone strikes, then, are in fact what they appear to be:  The only means of self defense:  One that is the most limited, least intense, with fewest casualties.  They are a means of saving many innocent lives and preventing all-out, open warfare which brings vastly greater destruction and loss of life.

    Any innocents dying are a breathtaking tragedy, laid squarely at the feet of the evildoers (those would be the terrorists).   But it comes down to a simple choice: let the terrorists kill our children en masse, or stop them while doing everything humanly possible to prevent their own children from being killed in the process.  Not a tough choice, really.

  • Kevin

    “Many people respond to this by saying: “Oh, but all that sort of thing changed after 2009, when that dangerous cowboy Bush was voted out and Barack Obama rang in a new era of hope and change.” Not so much as you might think.”

    I did not think it at all. “The average Joe” may turn out to be a card-carrying liberal, but what makes him come up with the above crud is his card-carrying liberalism, not his average Joeness.

    That said, this is an excellent piece.

  • cullenD

    We in the West have an almost voyeuristic idea of war….. It happens to other people, but we get to watch it on the 24 hour news. The idea of clean, clinical strikes which somehow only kill the guilty, would have been alien to us just two or three generations ago. Think of Dresden or Tokyo just 70 years ago. There were American bombing raids during WW2 that killed over a 100,000 civilians in a single night, with “conventional” bombs. 

    Today of course we’d baulk at using those methods, but do you think, for a single second, that Islamic terrorists would hesitate to do that to us? Us, of course, being defined as anyone who isn’t them.

    The headline of the article is 
    “America’s drone wars are not creating a safer world”, well I disagree. For every terrorist who is killed in a pre-emptive strike, lives of innocents are saved. To be rather heartless, many of those children would have grown up to kill and many of those women would have given birth to killers.So to quote the Band Aid song ” So tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”.

  • Jstock

    Excellent article Mark. I’m horrified by most of these comments. How can anyone in their right mind think that drone strikes are self defense when they are striking innocent persons half a world away?  I don’t recall any Pakistanis, Iranians, etc. having anything to do with 9/11.  Hmm. Come to think of it I don’t think any of the Iraqis or Afghans did either! 

    We don’t belong in any foreign countries, period, much less those where we supposedly fight terrorists. Who get’s to decide who is a terrorist? Obama? Doesn’t that strike anyone as a slight overreach of power?    

    Arguing who is innocent vs. who is guilty is red herring; we are fighting an unjust war and they are ALL innocent by even the most “generous” (except to the victims) interpretation of the just war theory (see Aquinas on JWT). We are called to love – even made up enemies.

  • James Patton

    It has been several years since I served in the first gulf war but unless there has been a drastic change in how combat theatre of operations are conducted, those that are not in the designated targeted areas are relatively safe until the next moment…LOL

  • Westernpaul

    what branch of the service were you in to have such insight,  so it is better to risk American lives? Perhaps you forget how many :innocent civilians carry bombs to detonate in a crowded area or the Taliban using civilians as shileds hoping the the Mark Shea’s  will offer a bleeding heart.

  • Howard

    You, sir, are an embarrassment.  By wracking your fertile imagination to conceive worst-case scenarios, you would justify making the United States into as much an Evil Empire as Bolshevism every aspired to control.  You would have the United States succumb collectively to the temptation of Matthew 4:8,9.  Well, you may get your wish, at least for a time; and you may burn in Hell forever for having wished it. 

  • Jeannine

     I find it rather interesting that journalists condemned Bush for using the drones in Pakistan. Under Obama, drone attacks has increased dramatically in that same region & the media rarely says “BOO.”

    Also, the original mission was to kill Osama bin Laden & then leave. Mission has been accomplished. Why aren’t the troops leaving that region? It’s not a strategic area.

  • Acleron

    Yes, I think we know that if you are not next to a bomb going off then you are safer, relatively. 

  • paulpriest

    Have you considered consulting a spiritualist to speak with your conscience?

  • One time

     I am blessed to have a very holy, no-nonsense priest as my Spiritual Director and Confessor.  My conscience conforms to the complete teachings of the Magesterium – which has never taught that self-defense is wrong. (I don’t speak to my conscience, btw, “it” speaks to me.)  I am ashamed of the sins I commit.  These aren’t them.

    I do disagree with the vastly uninformed – mainly those who’ve never served in uniform to defend their county and haven’t a clue about what real sacrifice means – and those who prefer to “pontificate” about theories whilst never having to make difficult life and death choices. (No!  This does not imply that I disagree with JWT!  It means that, in evaluating it’s application to real world situations, it sure does help to know something about the real world outside of a combox.)  I also disagree with those who judge based on ignorance of the processes in place that protect the innocent and the lengths to which some go to safeguard all life, while simultaneously having to face the reality that lethal force is sometimes necessary.

    Have you considered offering a realistic solution to stopping a terrorist and his cohorts, in a county with no law, when he is planning to kill thousands?  Perhaps write him a letter?  My constant prayer is for peace.

  • One time

     Self defense is not defined by the outcome (whether or not an innocent person is accidentally killed in the process of justly defending one’s self).  The Church insists on the minimum and most careful use of force as a last resort.  Whether or not bystanders will be hurt or killed absolutely must be considered and every last measure possible must be taken to avoid that.  That is exactly what is happening here.

    Further, your post indicates that you have no knowledge of the targeted terrorists.  However, I assure you, those who have targeted them know all about them.  Moreover, I promise that if you are as loving a person as you seem, knowing a tiny bit about these people and their plans and actions would make you vomit.  You might also understand the extremely grave threat posed by their intentions and capabilities.  Since no policy change on earth would make them change their mind that we infidels must die, and as there is no possibility to arrest them or stop them otherwise, perhaps, with just a little more depth of this knowledge, you might see things differently.

    To suggest that Afghans had nothing to do with 9/11 is astoundingly ignorant, unless that is some kind of a joke, and illuminates the rest of your post.

  • paulpriest

  • Al Dorman28

     Here’s the point, James: WE DON’T TRUST YOUR JUDGMENT.
    And your tax-funded “service” as a hired killer doesn’t impress anyone.
    Justify this blood-letting if you must sleep at night, but in the meantime, people with a functioning conscience must call on their representatives to stop it!

  • Al Dorman28

     You are the terrorist, dummy.

  • Jeannine

    How did you ever find this American priest who’s noted for retreats for men? I thought only Catholic Americans knew about him!

  • pow

    Mark, maybe you should move elsewhere, for one. Also, don’t believe everything you hear. Shoot, you think a pre-emptive attack on Iran is a sin.

  • Benedict Carter

    We are at war with Islamist radicals who hate us. What part of that doesn’t Mr Shea understand?

  • paulpriest

     I lived in and worked for the Diocese of Erie :)

  • Mark Shea

    Actually, the Pope does that: “Preventive war is not in the Catechism.” – Benedict XVI.  But don’t let the teaching of the Church get in the way of your neo-con ideological commitments to War Without End.

  • Mark Shea

    No.  It’s better to not deliberately target civilians.

  • Mark Shea

    “To be rather heartless, many of those children would have grown up to kill and many of those women would have given birth to killers.”

    One wonders if the person writing this filth calls himself a “prolife Catholic”.

  • Mark Shea

    The part about deliberately murdering civilians.

  • Claptrap

    “One wonders if the person writing this filth calls himself a “prolife Catholic”. Verbal – but not a bad bit of gratutious violence youself, Mark Shea!

  • kendallpeak

    Know one has ever called me a pacifist, most jokingly say I’m slightly to the right of the John Birch Society, and I believe Islam is a false belief system that is in a war with the one True God. With that said, the US government has unfortunately become our own enemy. We have been shooting at others non stop since WWII ended, never with the courage to declare war. Our government hides the fatalities of our servicemen, and counts occassions where only 20 or so Americans die as not worthy of mention. We now send unmanned machines to kill, once again with no more consideration than squashing a bug. Our president has the authority to kill Americans without trial. Our religion is under attack, and secularism and deviancy is protected by law. We kill millions of babies, and condemn others. We have become what our forefathers feared and detested.

  • tz1

    Evil means cannot be used for good ends.  If someone designed a series of drones that killed those in the US who took innocent life (surgically – not even with “collateral damage”, but feel free to argue it), and it was the only way, would you object or say the end justifies the means?  George Tiller was assassinated.  Is his assassin a hero or a villain?  There are fewer abortionists here than Al Queda there.  We could end abortion quickly if we were to adopt the means many here say are necessary.  And the abortionists have taken 1,000 innocent lives for each innocent life the terrorists have taken.  Have 40 years of negotiations achieved anything? 

    If the argument is we can be as evil as the terrorists, damn our own souls in retribution, I can only remember our Lord saying what profit it if we gain the world but lose our soul – individually or nationally.

    There may be an even easier and safer way.  Just find an occult bookstore, summon up some horrendously evil demon from hell, and pledge him your soul, the soul (or lives) of your progenitors and descendents, friends, and anyone else, if the demon will simply stop the terrorists.  Then the collateral damage will not be either innocent Pakistanis or those in the west.  You will willingly sacrifice your life – not your temporal one you can see but your eternal one.

    You are destroying your souls anyway.  Why not simply make it explicit?

    If you would not do unspeakable things to stop the Abortion Holocaust in your own back yard – that would be a far more just war – on what basis do you do equal or worse evils to illusory threats 10,000 miles away?  Perhaps they are going to hell – but ought we damn our own souls to get back at them?

    The two issues cross in:

    If we are no more, but even less righteous than those we kill, is there no morality other than “might makes right”?  If there is a higher law, ought we not obey it?  We can obey God’s law and trust in Divine Providence and Mercy.  Or trust in our own fallen nature, the fear, hatred, anger, vengeance and the rest?  Be the shining city on the hill, or go into the muddy sty with them?

  • Benedict Carter

    Fewer civilians are killed in these strikes than in any other form of war in history. Remember Dresden?

  • 2xwalkers

    MR. SHEA…. read yuor article and as a result , thougt of another use for the drones – Drs withoutt borders are crying for medical supplies for the injured and dieing in Sariha  -  why not supply them with their medical needs via drones ?

  • CAEIfan

    Think of them as drive-bys:  it’s a style, more than a real policy.  Obama is from Chicago, don’t forget.  At least this should put the kibosh on the “secret Muslim” accusation:  the Big O has killed too many innocent Muslims to be considered one of them.  Though I suppose a lot of Muslims have killed more Muslims than him.  It’s all so very complicated . . .

  • Stephen

    “…we live, right now and not in some dystopian future, in a world where the president of the United States has seized the power to secretly order the immediate death of anyone he chooses, foreign or citizen, without evidence, arrest, trial, judge, jury, or verdict.”

    I can’t believe Americans have rolled over for this.  We boast about “liberty” yet this wasn’t even a blip on the radar during a presidential election year–an issue at the heart of our national identity and core values!  The current state of affairs in the U.S. indicates it is less the land of the free and the home of the brave and more the nation of moral decay increasingly populated by the dumbed down, the spineless, and the decadent.

    Merciful Jesus, please save our homeland, our beloved USA. Amen.

  • cullenD

    Stop wondering, I don’t. The fact that you ignored my earlier comment, which mentioned the actual number of people being killed by islamists, and the first half of this comment, just points to your unrealistic, voyeuristic use of “innocents” killed, that simply shows you lack the ability to report on this subject. 

    I write “filth”?…. So as always go for a pointless insult when you can’t give a real reply.

    Try addressing the real questions I raised….. There are many…. Do you want me to put them in nice easy text for you?

  • Carmakazeee

    obama filmed checking the drone controls

  • Mark Shea

    So you have murder threshhold?  Can I get pass on murdering, say, five members of your family and just explain to the police that murdered *way* fewer than were murdered at Dresden?

  • cullenD

    I don’t think that Mr. Shea understands that Islam means Submission. He may well wring his hands in guilty angst, but the Islamists revel in innocent deaths. Their objective is that all people submit to islam, but not all are muslims. The fundamental flaw with islam, one which was spotted early by “imans”, was that it cannot survive on it’s own. Thus they conceived of the “holy protection racket”…jizya.

    Their aim is to subjugate and control, terrorise into submission, but not convert all. 

    Mr. Shea lacks any knowledge of the ideology of the “innocents”, so much so, that he has to rely on emotional platitudes. He doesn’t offer a single analytical point or constructive comment.

    People are dying… and it’s bad…. I wish the world were better.
    That about sums up the article.

  • Benedict Carter

    War involves death. I wish it wasn’t so, but it does. Time you liberals recognized this unfortunate fact. 

  • cullenD

    Hey, I object! I’m a left leaning, atheist liberal, but we can both agree on this subject. The biggest threat the west (or elsewhere) faces is the threat of people in power who can’t learn from past mistakes. 

    As G.W. Bush, put it, badly, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”

    Giving ” people the benefit of doubt” is a good idea, but allowing them to repeatedly mug your neighbours is stupid. Once it becomes clear that that is their habit, and you are their next intended victim, there is only one choice. 

    Remove them before they do more harm.

  • JabbaPapa

    My, what an absolutely horrendous little comment !!!

  • Lewispbuckingham

    ‘incredible danger of the executive seizing such power for himself’.
    It all depends upon the rules of engagement and the ability of the pilots involved to abort the mission.
     It is salutary to see what may happen in a US theatre of war as shown by the following events.
     ‘Our pilots refused to bomb 40 times’ Frank Walker SMH,March 14 2004.
     “Australia’s F/A-18 pilots defied the orders of American commanders and refused to drop their bombs on up to 40 missions during the invasion of Iraq, it can now be revealed…….
     “Squadron Leader Daryl Pudney last week described how he and other Australian F/A-18 pilots were forced to weigh up the risk of civilian casualties in a split second before dropping their bombs. He said pilots broke off many missions after they saw the target and decided there was not a valid military reason to drop their bombs…’
     ‘it appears there were fundamental differences between the US dominated headquarters and Australian pilots over what constituted a valid military target.’
     These differences persist.
     As drone technology becomes the poor man’s army the UK and its ally Australia needs to make sure that our combatants don’t make the mistake of killing innocents.
      In THE DUST OF EMPIRE by Karl E Myer in his chapter Afghanistan In a Dark Defile, the author begins
    ‘Why please tell us why, do they hate us? No question was asked more anxiously by Americans in the weeks after September 11′.
     He concludes by quoting John F Kennedy
      In short, we must face problem which do not lend themselves to easy or quick or permanent solutions. And we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient-that we are only 6 percent of the world”s population-that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind-that we cannot right every wrong or reverse every adversity-and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.

  • Magiart1

    People who’ve no idea what entity or entities really motivates the CIA and the president are so damn scared of the bogeymen who these unknown, shadowy people label ‘terrorist’ that they feel no need to think twice about real motives and rulers…they like to talk about ‘the REAL world’ but forget that these strikes are made extra-judicially on recommendations from a secret agency whose only reason for being is to lie and murder not enemies of the United States but enemies of their Plutocratic paymasters…I hope someday it doesn’t turn out to be ‘One time’ and his family.

    At one time the British thought of Revolutionary Americans as ‘terrorists’ and the Revolutionists were proud of that designation…that is the REAL world, One time, a world you’ve never lived in.

  • mahatmacoatmabag

    The Americans should not be using Drones, they should be dropping Tactical Nukes

  • Ptah

    War is never constructive.!

  • geral sosbee
  • stats79

    Defending your country?  From whom?  Goat herders in Afghanistan…who would prefer that we stop occupying their nation. We have enemies in Pakistan, because of what we have done in Afghanistan.