An official study of the use and impact of armed-drones might be welcomed as recognition of the importance of public scrutiny of this form of warfare in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. This makes a document published on 25 March 2014 by the defence committee of the UK’s lower house of parliament all the more disappointing.
This reaction starts with the report's title and terminology. The House of Commons committee has chosen not to use the accepted term "drones", but instead readily accepted the ministry of defence’s preferred language; so the report is called Remote Control: Remotely Piloted Air Systems. It resembles a clumsy attempt to create a distance from public disputes over the use of armed-drones by western forces, especially over the civilian casualties they have inflicted (see "Remote control: a new way of war", 18 October 2012)
The content of the report confirms this sense of avoiding realities. For example, it does provide updated information on the Royal Air Force (RAF’s) use of Reaper armed-drones in Afghanistan; by 31 August 2013, it says, these had accumulated over 50,000 hours on operations and in the same period had fired 418 weapons. A Reaper armed-drone fires Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and drops GBU-5,670 kilogram, but the report does not say how many of each were used.
Moreover, alongside the lack of detail in relation to these 418 bombs dropped and missiles fired, the report quotes the UK defence ministry as saying it was aware of only one incident where civilians were killed (as a by-product of targeting two trucks carrying explosives). The implication is that powerful weapons were fired on 417 occasions - and only insurgents were killed.
In turn this raises ancillary questions. Who is an insurgent? If a compound is hit and an insurgent is killed, is that person’s brother, sister, father, mother, uncle, cousin, child or friend treated as akin to an insurgent by virtue of being present near a target? How does the drone’s operator tell the difference between an insurgent or someone else in the house, or indeed in a minibus or truck?
Perhaps the ministry has answers - though there is no evidence from the report that the committee inquired further to try to unearth them. As things stand, the quite astonishing statement on civilian casualties underlines how thoroughly disappointing is the document in its whole approach.
This is further revealed in the committee's decision not to call for oral evidence from informed witnesses, analysts and others. The opportunity to address contentious issues in televised public hearings, and to meet some of the concerns expressed in the ongoing public debate on drones, was thereby missed. Instead of the much more transparent report the issue requires, the space for open-ended inquiry and genuine debate was essentially closed down.
This situation reflects a wider culture of evasion that reaches far beyond the UK ministry of defence. It bedevils any attempt to assess the real results of a long occupation and war, the former now drawing to an end after nearly thirteen years.
For example, Britain’s Reapers may be regarded by the ministry as effective means of fighting a war, not least in protecting the lives of service personnel; but Afghans may see them as a particularly insidious method by which an occupying force maintains control from a distance, killing scores if not hundreds of people in the process (see "Drone wars: the Afghan model", 14 February 2013). The defence-committee’s report is of no help in airing this possible difference of view. It is, if anything, an obstacle by virtue of being a wasted opportunity.
A lost accounting
This in itself is a great worry. But it is also indicative of a much wider turning away from the realities of a long and costly war that continues to harvest a severe daily toll.
The Afghan presidential elections due on 5 April 2014 are taking place in volatile conditions. This week alone saw three significant attacks: on an election-commission office, on the Afghan security forces (both of which killed six people), and on an athletics competition (which killed five). In the last year the Afghan national army (ANA) has lost an average of three to four soldiers every day, and the pattern continues (see Muhammad Hassan Khetab, “Last year bloody for security forces: Azimi”, Pajhwok Afghan News, 25 March 2014).
The foreign forces in Afghanistan, including the British, are now engaged almost entirely in the complex logistics of dismantling equipment, closing down bases and transporting everything of value out of the country. This means they have largely ceased patrols.
Just occasionally there appears a more realistic insight into what is likely to happen in the period after the foreign forces have gone. One example is a powerful essay from Christopher Johnston, an Australian who has served in southern Afghanistan. He is worth quoting at length:
“Arteries carrying government monies from Kabul to the south are already sclerotic with corruption. When they seize completely, who will fund the schools, hospitals and checkpoints? The Afghan Army is largely composed of Farsi speakers from northern Afghanistan, and still subject to debilitating turnover. What will motivate them to face gathering dangers in the south? Soon, warlords (and drones) will be the primary instruments of U.S. policy.”
“Soon the West can turn a blind eye to the tribal reckonings, the burning schools and squalid hospitals, the violent subjugation of women. Our approaching ignorance is a melancholy solace for those who served there. Southern Afghanistan’s future will unfold in silence, and in darkness.”
This is a conflict where Britain's prime minister can claim “mission accomplished” in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, and where it is expected that the ministry of defence will put the best face on things, including the controversial use of armed-drones, it is in no-one’s interest to avoid facing up to the realities of a failed war and its likely consequences.
A key role of a parliamentary committee is to hold an executive and its ministries up to independent scrutiny on behalf of parliament. In relation to armed-drones (or to use the correct language, “remotely piloted air systems”) in Afghanistan, the defence committee has a long way to go.