Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

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

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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.

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