A number of news reports in March-April 2010 claims that the accelerated use of armed-drones is having a hugely disruptive effect on the al-Qaida movement. Most of these reports, which appear to emanate from CIA sources, identify western Pakistan as a key area where drones are damaging the Pakistani Taliban and other insurgent elements (see Joby Warrick & Peter Finn, “CIA director says secret attacks in Pakistan have hobbled al-Qaeda”, Washington Post, 18 March 2010).
It is understandable that United States agencies (and some analysts) seek to put a positive emphasis on developments in the “AfPak” war, especially so soon after the announcement of Barack Obama’s military “surge” strategy in Afghanistan (see “Afghanistan: victory talk, regional tide”, 25 March 2010). But the narrative of drone “success” needs to be examined with care, and put in the context of wider events that suggest the existence of other serious dynamics in the evolving war.
The drone effect
Indeed, a number of recent advances in drone technology mean that the capabilities of the most modern types of drone are hugely greater now even than the mid-2000s. At that time, the standard US armed drone was the Predator; the follow-on Reaper system carries fifteen times the Predator’s weapons-load at three times the speed (see “Drone wars”, 16 April 2009). The Reaper’s wingspan is about the same as a Boeing 737 passenger-jet; when in “endurance mode” it can be fitted with two drop-tanks that enable it to carry a 300kg weapon-load while staying airborne for forty-two hours.
Drones such as the Reaper are normally “flown” from bases in the United States where personnel work in shifts, a procedure that avoids fatigue while ensuring psychological and moral “distance” from the impact of the attacks they are responsible for. An operator in Nevada, for example, can kill a group of presumed insurgents (and quite possibly civilians) in a village in western Pakistan 11,000 miles kilometres away, clock-off shortly afterwards, then take the kids for a burger and a spell at the local bowling-alley before spending the evening chatting over the day’s events in a bar.
The increased use of drones has been a notable feature of the Barack Obama administration’s policy. In this the US president has continued and extended a trend that has lasted for more than a decade – for since the late 1990s, US forces have deployed drones and cruise-missiles in Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan (see "The hi-tech battlefield", 27 September 2007).
The administration has sought recently to clarify the legal basis for the attacks. The state-department legal advisor (and openDemocracy contributor) Harold Koh finds: “The US is in armed conflict with al-Qaeda as well as the Taliban and associated forces in response to the horrific acts of 9/11 and may use force consistent with its right to self-defence under international law …[Individuals] who are part of such armed groups are belligerents and, therefore, lawful targets under international law” (see Jim Lobe, “Legality of Drone Strikes Still in Question” TerraViva/IPS, 5 April 2010).
The justification has led to a number of legal concerns being raised by US human-rights groups. The wider issue here is the matter of precedent. A current controversy in Israel surrounds the house-arrest of the young Israeli journalist Anat Kam for making claims that Israeli special forces have carried out “targeted killings” (that is, assassinations) of what are described as “non-combatant Palestinian political opponents” (see Mel Frykberg, “Israel Gags News on Extra-Judicial Killings”, TerraViva/IPS, 5 April 2010). If such claims are established in court in the future, Israel may feel able to justify such activities by referring to similar US actions.
The US policy raises further questions:
- If drones are used legitimately in (for example) Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, what other countries - might the US feel justified in targeting?
- If Somali paramilitaries operate in Kenya, and Yemeni militants move east and north into Oman or Saudi Arabia - can they be attacked?
- When India seeks the planners of the devastating Mumbai operation of 26-29 November 2008, or Russia pursues those behind the Moscow metro bombings of 29 March 2010 which killed thirty-nine people - would they be justified in launching assaults on neighbouring states?
Whatever the answers to these questions, the Obama administration believes that the use of drones in western Pakistan has been very effective and must continue; indeed, the drone is now a favoured weapon (and could even be offered to Pakistan itself in coming months). Some local sources report occasional multiple strikes in a single day, and at other times strikes every second day; there are also near round-the-clock surveillance operations, which “(force) militants to abandon satellite phones and large gatherings in favour of communicating by courier and moving stealthily in small groups” (see Jane Perlez & Pir Zubair Shah, “U.S. drones wreak havoc on militants in Pakistan”, New York Times, 5 April 2010).
It is certain that the use of drones has had a major impact in the AfPak war. But past experience in this kind of conflict is that irregular forces respond sooner or later with major changes in their own tactics. The wide availability of technologies means that insurgents and paramilitary groups are likely to develop their own drones, and probably deploy them against military and civilian targets. In only a very few years, skilled groups will acquire drone capabilities stretching over thousands of kilometres (see “Hizbollah’s warning flight”, 4 May 2005).
The double blowback
The current escalation of violence in the Afghan-Pakistan conflicts on the ground also reveals the limits of aerial warfare. Two events on 5 April 2010 indicate the trend. A vicious attack on a political rally in the Lower Dir district of northwest Pakistan killed at least forty-three people and injured dozens more; and a multiple assault by five paramilitaries using a truck-bomb, machine-guns and rocket-launchers on the United States consulate in Peshawar killed three guards and wounded many civilians. The consulate and its staff survived, but the coordinated nature of the operation and the ability of irregular forces to get as close as they did to the consulate indicate their sophisticated capabilities (see Ismail Khan & Sabrina Tavernise, “U.S. Consulate in Pakistan Attacked by Militants”, New York Times, 5 April 2010).
More broadly, this phase of the AfPak war is marked by two immediately significant developments. The first is that in the area around Marjah (in central Helmand province), where US marines have ostensibly taken control as part of Operation Moshtarak, it is proving exceptionally difficult to separate the Taliban from everyone else in the local community. The process may initially have appeared to work, but a combination of threats, beatings and intimidation by Taliban paramilitaries has greatly limited its effect (see “The Afghan whirlwind”, 26 February 2010).
The marines’s attempts to win the confidence and support of local residents have included compensating local residents for damage done to lives and property. The result is that Taliban militants too have succeeded in getting compensation. An Afghan national police commander in Marjah reports being told by informants that at least thirty Taliban had been awarded payment either for deaths of relatives or damage to property during the February 2010 assault (see Richard A Oppel Jr, “In Marja, Taliban are rolling back the U.S. tide”, New York Times, 3 April 2010).
Colonel Ghulam Sakhi makes the revealing comment: “You shake hands with them, but you don’t know they are Taliban. They have the same clothes and the same style. And they are using the money against the marines. They are buying IEDs and buying ammunition, everything.”
The second development is that paramilitaries in Afghanistan, even before Barack Obama’s troop-surge was fully underway, had already increased the number of attacks using deadly improvised-explosive devices (see “Number of IED attacks is rising in Afghanistan, says head of JIEDDO”, Jane’s International Defence Review, 26 February 2010). Moreover, the insurgents have also developed a greater emphasis on carefully organised multiple-IED attacks (see David Pugliese, “Afghan Insurgents Move To Multi-Bomb Attacks”, Defense News, 15 March 2010).
The use of IEDs is so widespread in this environment that US special forces have expanded the number of night-raids against households suspected of being involved in the insurgency (see Gareth Porter, “Night raids belie McChrystal’s new image”, Asia Times, 2 April 2010). This, from a US military perspective, is both understandable and necessary; but it runs counter to previous experience across the country where forced entries of households have resulted in intense anti-Americanism.
It is also very likely to lead to further civilian deaths at a time when the United States military is already embroiled in a bitter controversy over the killing of three women in a special-forces raid on 12 February 2010. American sources originally reported that the three women (two of whom were pregnant) had been killed by local people prior to the raid but later admitted that they had been shot during it (see “NATO Admits Killing Afghan Women In Bungled Raid”, Agence France-Presse, 5 April 2010). A Nato official also acknowledged that there had been evidence-tampering at the scene, including the removal of bullets; other officials admitted that a local police-chief and a district-prosecutor were killed in another raid that went badly wrong (see Richard A Oppel Jr & Aboul Waheed Wafa, “Afghan Investigators Say U.S. Troops Tried to Cover Up Evidence in Botched Raid”, Washington Post, 6 April 2010).
The Marjah lesson
The counterproductive effects of the drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan include a dispersal of al-Qaida and Taliban elements across the region. In the short term this means disruption of their activities, but in the longer term – as with drone technologies - they will adapt and hit back. The events in and around Marjah, where Operation Moshtarak has pressed hard on militants without being able to defeat them, is the latest example of an enduring pattern.
In November 2001, the termination of the Taliban regime in Kabul had the effect of disassembling and fragmenting both the Taliban militias and al-Qaida operatives. Both survived, regrouped and returned – and in the process learned from their earlier exposure to attack on a regime with a base-city (the Taliban) or a movement located mainly in large training-camps (al-Qaida).
Almost a decade on, another dispersal is underway. The United States forces are preparing for a further assault on the insurgent stronghold of Kandahar, even as Washington’s relationship with the Hamid Karzai regime in Kabul is marked by deep distrust on both sides. The CIA and other agencies may trumpet the benefits of its deadly technologies. But the experiences of Marjah, Peshawar and of constant drone-attacks in the early months of 2010 suggests that the AfPak war – which now also means Barack Obama’s - is about to become even more difficult and costly.