Above a small base in southern Afghanistan, a spy blimp captured video of the perpetrator of Sunday's massacre surrendering to base forces. The question now becomes what other aspects of the killings, which left 16 Afghan civilians dead, are detailed in that video - or in any other footage that may have been shot by the U.S. military's innumerable surveillance sensors in the region.
Reuters reports that video footage, "taken from a security camera mounted on a blimp above" the base, showed the perpetrator, allegedly a U.S. Army staff sergeant, surrendering after his fateful, early-morning trip off the Combat Outpost Belamby. "The footage showed the uniformed soldier with his weapon covered by a cloth," Reuters adds, walking to the gates "and throwing his arms up in surrender."
The existence of the video is a new and potentially major detail in a case that's still under investigation. And it's possible that the video shows much, much more than the surrender.
Navy Capt. John Kirby, a top Pentagon spokesman just back from Afghanistan, said he would not discuss "evidence into an ongoing investigation."
The video wasn't just snapped, it was preserved and distributed. Reuters says that it's been shown to Afghans investigating the massacre, "to help dispel a widely held belief among Afghans, including many members of parliament" that there were multiple gunmen. If the video can establish a lone shooter, then it very likely displays the entire grisly incident. Even if the video can't capture what happened inside houses, sequential muzzle flashes inside darkened buildings could tell the story of the massacre.
Several other U.S. wartime disasters have been captured on camera. Wikileaks became famous after acquiring and distributing a video, "Collateral Murder," purporting to show U.S. troops in Iraq killing civilians. Footage also exists of an airstrike in the western Afghan region of Garani, even though the military has yet to release it three years after swearing it would prove the strikes targeted Taliban positions. Such footage refuted Taliban propaganda that claimed the U.S. was responsible for a 2009 grenade attack in Kunar province that the insurgents perpetrated.
It's possible that Reuters didn't actually mean a "blimp." Smaller military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan use tethered aerostats as relatively cheap platforms for hosting cameras, allowing troops a broader vantage and awareness of incoming threats. As of March 2011, there were 184 of the floating, chubby spies in Afghanistan. Many bases also have cameras affixed to heightened areas for the same reason. The most likely explanation for the video is that the cameras were either running 24-7 or the blimp/aerostat was an impromptu surveillance tool for the search party.
Still, even if it was tethered to the base, Danger Room's sources indicate that Belamby - a small base hosting both special operations and conventional forces - is only a short distance from Zangabad, and very likely within camera range. While Belamby's conventional forces might have had small drones on base, like Ravens, those are more likely to be used on missions than for force-protection efforts like recovering a soldier who went out at night on his own.
Most accounts of the shooting in the media say the suspect only left the base for a short amount of time before he turned himself in. It probably wouldn't have taken long for the search party to have gotten approval from nearby Kandahar airfield, which is home to lots and lots of drones and manned spy aircraft. (The coalition flew 717 recon missions over Afghanistan in the last week alone, according to U.S. Air Force statistics.) There may also have been other eyes in the sky on separate missions that might have absorbed imagery of the assault. "I don't know what ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets were available at the time, or were used at the time," Kirby said.
The Washington Post notes that the reaction inside Afghanistan to the horror has been surprisingly muted. It's possible that the lack of nationwide protests has to do with the routinization of U.S. special operations "night raids," which many Afghans already believe are as bloody as the Zangabad massacre. But if videotape emerges, that relative calm may not hold.