At war’s end, ramping up drone strikes in Afghanistan

December 19, 2012

The United States carried out more drone strikes in Afghanistan this year than it has done in all the years put together in Pakistan since it launched the covert air war there eight years ago.  With all the attention and hand wringing  focused on the operations in Pakistan, it’s remarkable that such a ramp-up just over the border has gone virtually unnoticed.

The two battlegrounds are not the same, of course. Afghanistan is an open and hot battlefield where U.S. forces are deployed and the drones are part of the air support available to troops. Pakistan is a sovereign nation and the United States is not in a state of war with it and so you wouldn’t expect the same pace of operations, even though U.S. commanders say the Taliban insurgency draws its sustenance from the sanctuaries in the Pakistani northwest.

U.S. Air Force statistics published by Wired’s Danger Room blog showed there were 447 drone strikes in Afghanistan this year, up from 294 the previous year and 279 in 2010. It is far more than an estimated 338 strikes carried out by the CIA in Pakistan since it began hunting down remnants of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups  in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas eight years ago. The number of strikes in Yemen and Somalia together is 46 over the past decade, notwithstanding the high decibel noise over these missions.

It’s a clear sign the United States is changing the way it is fighting the war in Afghanistan. As the troop drawdown gathers pace ahead of withdrawal in 2014, the smaller number of forces left behind on the ground,  especially quick reaction teams, are depending more and more on air strikes to fight the insurgents. And these Predator aircraft which can loiter in an area for as long as 20 hours, are a low cost alternative to having F-18s fly all over the country to carry out these strikes, as Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, told me.

Unlike the remotely piloted flights  in Pakistan run by the CIA,  local military commanders order such operations in Afghanistan, usually to help troops under fire. But they are also used by Special Forces for targeted killings as in Pakistan if intelligence points that way or to thwart insurgents trying to plant roadside bombs, still the biggest killer of foreign and local forces.

If you crunch the USAF numbers further, the number of sorties  carried out in Afghanistan dropped to 27,085 this year from 34,286 in 2011 and 32,928 in 2010, the surge years. So while the broader air campaign is winding down in step with the ground troops packing their bags, the proportion of drone flights is going up. The United Kingdom has made an urgent purchase of five more Reaper drones to double the number of these unmanned aircraft carrying out combat and surveillance, The Guardian reported in October, even as it prepares to haul its troops and equipment out of southern Afghanistan. Perhaps the idea is to fight this war a bit longer, but from a distance with robots making up for the lack of boots on the ground.

One piece of argument in support of greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles is that because they stay long and slow over an area  undetected, unlike a bomber aircraft, and are equipped with powerful video cameras, the chances of getting it wrong and killing civilians are reduced. Commanders have been known to stack drones upon drones over a compound to track all movement for hours before unleashing a Hellfire missile.

Still, ultimately it’s a judgement call made by teams on the ground and in the rear and these have sometimes gone wrong in the past. Just because you see two people digging something in the ground on your video screen and because that happens to be in an area used by militants doesn’t necessarily mean they are planting bombs. And perhaps there isn’t much time  in cases such as this to act. You could conclude the diggers are innocent and then have one of your patrol members blown up soon afterwards on that stretch of road. It’s a war out there, better to act than risk your men’s lives by doing nothing.

Der Spiegel has a harrowing account of a former drone pilot who has seen both ends of the war from his bunker in New Mexico. He talks here of his first mission in Iraq when his job was to watch over a group of U.S. soldiers returning to their base camp as their guardian angel. He picked up what looked like an improvised explosive device on his screen and told his supervisor who relayed it to the command centre. But the soldiers on the ground couldn’t be reached because they were using a jamming transmitter and so the drone pilot saw the soldiers’ vehicle blow up on his screen killing five of them. From then on, he couldn’t keep the  five out of his thoughts.

Until another mission, this time over a  mud house in northern Afghanistan where seconds after he pressed the button on a Hellfire missile a child stepped into the frame. A part of the house was obliterated and there was no sign of the kid. The operator and his colleague were left to agonise over whether the child was dead, and worse — never knowing for sure.

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