America's global shift: drone wars, base politics

The emphasis on armed-drones is transforming the United States's counterinsurgency strategy. But their capacity for proliferation carries acute and so far unrecognised dangers for Washington and its allies.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 May 2012

The short visit of the United States president to Afghanistan on 1 May 2012, unanticipated but much trumpeted for its duration, was marked by a speech at Bagram air-base that balanced two key themes: the withdrawal of American troops, which is as popular at home as the war itself is unpopular, and the need to present US policy during the wind-down phase as responsible (a case of sensible transition rather than "cut and run"). This enabled him to signal an overriding domestic imperative to his intended audience, closely linked to an accelerating presidential-election cycle, while also offering a message of authoritative statesmanship.

The facts on the ground in Afghanistan, including Taliban control of many rural areas, indicate how vulnerable is the political-military process that Barack Obama is now engaged in (see "Afghanistan-Iraq, and America's fix", 19 April 2012). The latest in a series of bomb attacks in Kabul on the very day of the president's speech reinforce this message. But uppermost in his mind and that of his advisers is a recognition of the substantial change in mood in the homeland, something that can neither be ignored or wished away.

In the run-up to the election in November 2008, it was plausible for candidate Obama to portray Iraq as the bad war (thus necessitating and justifying a quick withdrawal) and Afghanistan as the good war (mainly because of its links with the 9/11 attacks, and thus requiring a more engaged retreat).

The second half of his first term, however - not least Osama bin Laden's death on 2 May 2011 - has changed the picture. Afghanistan's continuing violence and insecurity has meant that it too has come to be seen as a bad war, though Obama can argue that the killing of the al-Qaida leader is part of the movement's terminal decline and represents a sort of overture to the closure of the war (see "Al-Qaida: an enduring insurgency", 1 September 2011).

This argument about al-Qaida is probably true as far as it goes - but only as far. Al-Qaida as a closely structured entity may be in retreat, but asan idea it exists and even prospers. The control of significant parts of southern Yemen by al-Qaida-linked groups, as tracked by the journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad; the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria; the re-emergence of radical Sunni elements in Iraq; the flow of committed Islamists into Syria ("Syria, Iraq, and al-Qaida's opportunity", 26 April 2012) - all are evidence of the persistence of an ideological current with an ability to motivate and inspire.

The triple strategy

In this overall context, what makes Barack Obama striking as a political leader is that he is able to represent himself as an "anti-war" president even as his actual evolving record is substantially at odds with any such description. True, his administration may be anxious to avoid being embroiled in Syria (a stance taken also over Libya), and it may be working hard to restrain Binyamin Netanyahu in his confrontation with Tehran, but the forty-fourth US president has been quite prepared to use force whenever it is considered necessary - including in Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria (see Peter L Bergen, "Warrior in Chief", New York Times, 30 April 2012).

He is aided in fostering a more "pacific" perception, however, by his administration's adoption of new technologies and agents - such as armed-drones and special forces - able to conduct much lower-profile military operations. These have largely replaced the more spectacular regime-terminations in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose hugely costly consequences were also played out in the public glare.

Much of the shifting emphasis in counter-insurgency strategy is focusing on drones, with three elements in particular worth of note: the widespread use of reconnaissance drones to provide far greater detail of potential targets, the deployment of powerfully armed versions such as the Reaper (which have considerable capacity for "loitering" prior to attack), and the spreading of the occasions in which they are being used. On the last point, the CIA in particular has moved on from just attacking specific high-profile targets ("personality strike") in operations that may require high-level approval to wider assaults ("signature strikes") involving "attacks on groups of alleged militants who are behaving in a way that seems suspicious" (see Michael Hastings, "The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret", Rolling Stone, 12 April 2012).

The CIA may regard this as a legitimate method for dealing with dangerous radicals perceived as direct or indirect threats to the United States, but for very many people in Pakistan and other target countries it is simply militarised murder (see "Every casualty: the human face of war", 15 September 2011)

The drone impact

The Pentagon's increased dependence on drones and their accoutrements hase been explored in several previous columns in this series (see, for example, "Drone wars" [16 April 2009]; "An asymmetrical drone war" [19 August 2010]; and "The drone-war blowback" [29 September 2011]). But it is also apparent that if the United States (and Israel) are at present well ahead of everyone else in the details of drone technology, the fact that some basic yet robust technology is available virtually off-the-shelf means that this technology is proliferating fast - and thus increasingly available also to Washington and Tel Aviv's enemies.

An example of drone proliferation all of seven years ago seems, amid the current enthusiasm of the Obama administration, to have been quietly forgotten. This was an incident in 2005 when Lebanon's Hizbollah movement proved capable of flying two TV-guided drones over northern Israel. It's true that neither was armed nor of much use in prying into Israel's military dispositions on the Lebanese border; but the sheer symbolism of Hizbollah having the ability to perform this audacious act was decidedly the point (see "Hizbollah's warning flight", 4 May 2005).

The Hizbollah initiative is connected to a fourth element of drone use - the location of the "flying" operations. For the United States, an important centre is Creech air-force base at Indian Springs, just off Highway 95, eighty kilometres northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. Britain has also used US bases but is now moving its own operations to RAF Waddington, just south of Lincoln in eastern England.

These are well-protected and secure locations, many thousands of kilometres from where the drones strike. Yet it is worth re-emphasising that:

"For the radical groups and their sympathisers on the receiving end, the distant bases from where the drones are flown are very much part of the frontline of their war. At some stage in the months or years to come, there will be retaliation: perhaps not against the heavily protected bases themselves, but much more likely against 'soft' targets such as a local bowling alley or fast-food outlet" (see "The drone-war blowback", 29 September 2011).

It is worth too extending the analysis by factoring in the proliferation of technologies among the larger paramilitary groups, such as Hizbollah itself. It is far from implausible that a dedicated group within the United States or Britain could acquire and assemble small drones to launch against a base such as Creech (where there is also a round-the-clock casino just outside) or Waddington.

The physical consequences, assuming minimal explosive power, might be a mere pin-prick, but the symbolism would be immense. It might even be enough to induce a pause for thought among the many countries now embracing drone warfare with fervour - a fervour resembling and even exceeding that for nuclear cruise-missiles during the cold war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

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