Before dawn, nearly 3 miles above the rugged hills of central Afghanistan, American eyes silently tracked two SUVs and a truck as they snaked down a dirt road in the dark. The vehicles, packed with people, were 3½ miles from a dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, who had been dropped into the area hours earlier to root out insurgents. The convoy was closing in on them.
At 6:15 a.m., just before the sun crested the mountains, the convoy halted.
"We have 18 pax (passengers) dismounted and spreading out at this time," an Air Force pilot said from a cramped control room at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 7,000 miles away. He was flying a Predator drone remotely using a joystick, watching its live video transmissions from the Afghan sky and radioing his crew and the unit on the ground.
The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. "They're praying. They are praying," said the Predator's camera operator, seated near the pilot.
By now, the Predator crew was sure that the men were Taliban. "This is definitely it, this is their force," the cameraman said. "Praying? I mean, seriously, that's what they do."
"They're gonna do something nefarious," the crew's intelligence coordinator chimed in.
The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles.
"Oh, sweet target," he said.
None of those Afghans was an insurgent. They were men, women and children going about their business, unaware that a unit of U.S. soldiers was just a few miles away, and that teams of U.S. military pilots, camera operators and video screeners had taken them for a group of Taliban fighters.
The Americans were using some of the most sophisticated tools in the history of war, technological marvels of surveillance and intelligence gathering that allowed them to see into once-inaccessible corners of the battlefield. But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.
The Afghan travelers had set out early on the cold morning of Feb. 21, 2010, from three mountain villages in southern Daikundi province, a remote central region 200 miles southwest of Kabul. More than two dozen people were wedged into the three vehicles. Many were Hazaras, an ethnic minority that for years has been treated harshly by the Taliban. They included shopkeepers going for supplies, students returning to school, people seeking medical treatment and families with children off to visit relatives. There were several women and as many as four children younger than 6.
They had agreed to meet before dawn for the long drive to Highway 1, the country's main paved road. From there, some planned to go north to Kabul while others were headed south. To reach the highway, they had to drive through Oruzgan province, an insurgent stronghold.
American aircraft began tracking the vehicles at 5 a.m.
The crew of an AC-130, a U.S. ground attack plane flying in the area, spotted a pickup and a sport-utility vehicle with a roof rack converge from different directions.
At 5:08 a.m., they saw one of the drivers flash his headlights in the darkness.
The AC-130 radioed the Predator crew in Nevada: "It appears the two vehicles are flashing lights, signaling."
With that, the travelers became targets of suspicion.
A few hours earlier, a dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, known as an A-Team, had been dropped off by helicopter near Khod, 5 miles south of the convoy. The elite unit was moving on foot toward the village, with orders to search for insurgents and weapons. The AC-130, the Predator drone and two Kiowa attack helicopters were in the area to protect the A-Team.
The Predator's two-man team — a pilot and a camera operator — was one of the Air Force's most experienced. Also stationed at Creech were the Predator's mission intelligence coordinator and a safety observer.
In addition, a team of "screeners" — enlisted personnel trained in video analysis — was on duty at Air Force special operations headquarters 2,000 miles away in Okaloosa. They sat in a room with high-definition TVs showing live feeds from drones over Afghanistan.
On the ground, the A-Team was led by an Army captain, a veteran of multiple tours in Afghanistan. Under U.S. military rules, the captain, as the ground force commander, was responsible for deciding whether to order an airstrike.
To use deadly force, the commander would first have to make a "positive identification" that the adversary was carrying weapons and posed an "imminent threat." For the next 4½ hours, the Predator crew and the screeners scrutinized the convoy's every move, looking for evidence to support such a decision.
At 5:37 a.m., the pilot reported that one of the screeners in Florida had spotted one or more children in the group.
"Bull ... —where!?" said the camera operator in Nevada. "I don't think they have kids out at this hour." He demanded that the screeners freeze the video image of the purported child and e-mail it to him.
The Predator video was not the only intelligence that morning suggesting that U.S. forces were in danger. Teams of U.S. military linguists and intelligence personnel with sophisticated eavesdropping equipment were vacuuming up cell phone calls in the area and translating the conversations in real time. For several hours, they had been listening to cell phone chatter in the area that suggested a Taliban unit was assembling for an attack.
"We're receiving ICOM traffic," or intercepted communications, the A-Team radioed the Predator crew. "We believe we may have a high-level Taliban commander."
Neither the identities of those talking nor their precise location was known. But the A-Team and the drone crew took the intercepted conversations as confirmation that there were insurgents in the convoy.
At 6:54 a.m., the camera operator noted that the drone crew and screeners had counted at least 24 men in the three vehicles, maybe more. "So, yeah, I guess that ICOM chatter is great info," he said.
The screeners continued to look for evidence that the convoy was a hostile force. Even with the advanced cameras on the Predator, the images were fuzzy and small objects were difficult to identify. Sometimes the video feed was interrupted briefly.
In Nevada, the drone crew and analysts remained uncertain how many children were in the group and how old they were.
"Our screeners are currently calling 21 MAMs (military age males), no females, and two possible children. How copy?" the Predator pilot radioed the A-Team at 7:38 a.m.
"Roger," replied the A-Team, unable to see the convoy. "And when we say children, are we talking teenagers or toddlers?"
The camera operator responded: "Not toddlers. Something more towards adolescents or teens." The A-Team radioed that its captain had concluded he had established "positive identification" based on "the weapons we've identified and the demographics of the individuals plus the ICOM."
Although no weapons had been clearly identified, the pilot replied: "We are with you."
At 8:43 a.m., Army commanders ordered two Kiowa helicopters to get into position to attack. The Predator drone crew began discussing its role in the coming attack. The drone was armed with one missile, not enough to take out a three-vehicle convoy. The more heavily-armed Kiowa helicopters, using the call sign "BAM BAM41," would fire on the vehicles; the Predator would target any survivors trying to flee.
A little before 9 a.m., the vehicles reached an open, treeless stretch of road. The A-Team commander called in the airstrike.
Hellfire missiles struck the first and third vehicles; they burst into flames. Dead and wounded were everywhere. Soon, however, the crew in Nevada and the screeners in Florida realized something was wrong.
"The thing is, nobody ran," one crew member said.
"Yeah, that was weird," another replied.
At 9:15 a.m., the Predator crew noticed three survivors in brightly colored clothing waving at the helicopters. They were trying to surrender.
"What are those?" asked the camera operator.
"Women and children," the Predator's mission intelligence coordinator answered.
"That lady is carrying a kid, huh? Maybe," the pilot said.
"The baby, I think, on the right. Yeah," the intelligence coordinator said.
U.S. and Afghan forces reached the scene 2 ½ hours after the attack to provide medical assistance. After 20 minutes more, medevac helicopters began taking the wounded to a hospital. By the U.S. count, 15 or 16 men were killed and 12 people were wounded, including a woman and three children. Several weeks after the attack, American officers traveled to the villages to apologize to survivors and the victims' families.
They gave each survivor 140,000 afghanis, or about $2,900. Families of the dead received $4,800.