Afghanistan and Pakistan: The Trouble with Drones

Air Force officials are seeking volunteers for future training classes to produce operators of the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

The use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan has always been deeply controversial. Whilst the drone campaign has certainly achieved some of its goals, it has also led to the death of countless civilians and an increase in levels of extremism. Afghanistan remains by far the most heavily drone-bombed country in the world, but now as U.S. troops slowly withdraw from Afghanistan, and with a new government secured in place, drone strikes don’t seem to be winding down. Rather, unmanned U.S. drone strikes have stepped up this year, in both Afghanistan and in areas of Northern Pakistan.

U.S. drone strikes in the region began back in 2001 as a tactic to persecute the “War on Terror”. Although the surgical strikes began slowly, daily drone use escalated quickly and became one of the key war strategies in the fight against insurgents. The drone programme has expanded significantly under the Obama administration, with deaths from drones six times that of the preceding Bush administration. Dozens of armed drones continue to fly over Afghanistan and Pakistan every day and regularly release their weapons.

Today, U.S. drones are used to achieve one goal; to neutralise terrorist operatives, principally those of al-Qaeda. The U.S. government has claimed that they were able to eliminate up to 70% of al-Qaeda’s leadership with the use of drones however there has been no accurate verification of this. Furthermore, civilian protection from such drone attacks remains poor, with civilian losses continuing to be viewed as acceptable. Due to the complex intermix of insurgents with the civilian population, thousands of innocent men, women and children have perished from drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The exact toll of civilian deaths has never been accurately reported, partly because the Obama administration employs a disputed method of counting civilian casualties, where all military-age male deaths in a strike zone are considered combatants. From the data available, 17-24% of all drone strike related deaths are civilians.

Other than civilian deaths, there remain other repercussions of such strikes; drones have a serious counterproductive effect when it comes to reducing extremist combatants. Drone strikes are known to have increased negative sentiments towards the U.S. government among the local populace. This anti-government sentiment stretches out to the Afghan government as well, though the Afghan National Unity Government has remained silent on the issue of drones. This negative sentiment from drone strikes inevitably provides an incentive for people to take up extremist Islam and join militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Drone strikes hamper Afghanistan’s ability to progress towards peace and development, something that the ‘War on Terror’ was fighting for. Yet President Obama continues to ignore the CIA’s warning about the “possibilities of backlash.”

Drones have given the US the ability to strike anyone anywhere, regardless of national boundaries and they are a direct violation of international law. Drones violate both Afghanistan and Pakistan’s sovereignty and undermine human rights, but there hasn’t been much of an attempt to stop the targeted attacks. While the administration of Hamid Karzai, who was president of Afghanistan from 2004 to 2014, demanded that the strikes be conducted with more moderation, his successor, president Mohammed Ashraf Ghani, has said little on the issue in order to decrease U.S.-Afghan tensions. The increasing civilian death toll and the increase in radicalisation as a result of the strikes doesn’t seem to be enough to justify the end of drone usage.

The drone issue remains complex. Apart from the collateral civilian damage, the attacks do undeniably play a significant role in challenging militants and supporting ground military operations. Reports have also shown that the strikes have managed to destroy large stocks of militant arms and ammunition. It continues to be argued that drones are the safest form of modern warfare and are the way forward; and although this might be false, what is the alternative if drone strikes were halted?

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