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?

Taliban talk to Afghan officials in Norway whilst the world continues to cross its fingers

afghanistan-peace-people-kiteRepresentatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban attended an international conference in Norway this week. 150 people gathered in a small town outside Oslo to discuss different ways to end conflict. While there was no plan for formal peace talks between the two factions, the very fact that they were attending the same meeting was a step in the right direction. As Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende put it, ‘if you are going to reach peace than those who disagree must talk together.’

This is not the first time Norway has tried to encourage cooperation and communication between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Earlier this month, delegates from both sides took part in informal talks about women’s rights and education for girls; this on top of other informal meetings between the Taliban and the Afghan government in different parts of the Gulf. Even though none of these encounters can be characterised as peace talks, the fact that they are meeting on such a regular basis indicates a willingness to move to official negotiations in the future.

There are several reasons for Taliban agreement to these informal talks. First, Pakistan, which has been an important supporter of the Taliban, has put increasing pressure on the group. One reason for this being that China is worried about the overspill of militancy in the region into western China. China has put pressure on Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to become more open to the possibility of peace negotiations. Last but by no means least, there is reason to believe that the Taliban finds the new government in Afghanistan easier to communicate with than the old Karzai administration.

It is difficult to predict whether 2015 will see the start of any official peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Taliban’s continued use of violence suggests otherwise. That the two factions have had increased communication over recent months is a positive development. But in order for peace negotiations to take place and be successful both parties must be completely committed, and the current situation on the ground suggests that this might not be the case.

Yemen Crisis continues to escalate

Earlier today (24th April), an Iranian flotilla bound for Yemen, suspected of carrying weapons for Houthi rebels, averted its course and turned back. According to U.S officials, Iranian cargo ships, accompanied by two Iranian warships, shifted course as a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt moved within 200 nautical miles of the flotilla. This move averted a potential confrontation between the Iranian and American warships. Following this incident which took place in the Gulf of Aden, officials claim it is still too soon to tell if a crisis has been averted.

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The conflict has sent tensions soaring between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, raising fears that Yemen could become a new front in what some believe to be proxy war between Middle East powers. Yemen’s Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin accused Tehran of trying to break a naval blockade on his country, describing the war as an “Iranian plot implemented by the Houthi militia”.

President Obama said that Iran has been warned to not challenge the United Nations arms embargo on the Houthis. He went on to say, “What we’ve said to them is that if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that’s a problem.”

After four weeks of ruthless airstrikes, more than a 1,000 civilians have been killed with over 4,000 injured and 150,000 displaced in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has destroyed many of the Houthi rebels’ sites and weapons but with Iran’s support they seem to be surviving. The Saudis are nowhere near to restoring the Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi who was driven into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The US has been helping Saudi Arabia with intelligence and tactical advice and by deploying warships off the Yemeni coast. However with the numbers killed rising and no resolution in sight, they are now urging them to end the bombing. The Obama administration seems to have realised that the Saudis appear to have no credible strategy for achieving their political goals, or even managing their intervention.

Saudi Arabia’s much-publicised creation of a Sunni coalition to fight “the Iranian and Shiite threat” in the Middle East took two major blows when Pakistan and Turkey opted out of the coalition after having initially indicated that they would join. Riyadh worries that Iran is emerging as a legitimate player on the regional and global stage and Washington no longer perceived as a reliably anti-Iranian force thus potentially jeopardising its relationship with the Americans.

The United Nations had previously led a diplomatic initiative which made some progress, but was not given enough support and attention and the official leading the negotiations, Jamal Benomar, resigned. Finding a political solution will not be easy. For one, it will require Saudi Arabia to accept the Houthis as part of the governing power structure if there is any hope of bringing some stability to the country.

Pakistan decides to remain ‘neutral’ in the Yemen conflict

Pakistan’s parliament has unanimously passed a resolution expressing its ‘desire that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen conflict.’ While the resolution also reaffirms Pakistan’s ‘unequivocal support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,’ this desire for neutrality indicates that the country will not be joining the Saudi-led military coalition that is currently fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The parliamentary resolution is not binding on the executive branch of government, meaning that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could still decide to take part in the coalition. But the fact that it was passed unanimously and that large parts of the resolution were proposed by senior cabinet member and Minister of Finance Ishaq Dar, who is a member of the ruling PML-N party and related to Prime Minister Sharif, suggests that it is highly unlikely the government will defy it.

Members of both houses of parliament began debating involvement in Yemen on Monday the 6th of April, since when many Pakistani politicians and lawmakers have spoken out against joining the coalition. The request put forward by Saudi Arabia placed Pakistan in a difficult position. On the one hand, Pakistan is a longstanding ally to Saudi Arabia and they share strong economic, military and religious ties. On the other hand, it shares a border with Iran, a country allegedly providing assistance to the Houthi rebels that Saudi Arabia is trying to defeat. Agreeing to provide military troops and equipment to the Saudi-led coalition could therefore possibly sour relations between Pakistan and its neighbour.

Getting involved could possibly also inflame sectarian tensions domestically. On April 3rd, anti-Shia armed groups in Pakistan – including those behind numerous incidents of anti-Shia violence in recent years – took to the streets to express their support for the Saudis and their detestation of Iranian influence. If the Pakistani government were to join Sunni Saudi Arabia, or indeed Shia Iran, that could serve to induce more protests and even sectarian violence. Pakistan has a Sunni majority but the Shia minority makes up around one-fifth of the population, making Pakistan the largest home to Shias outside Iran. Pakistan is therefore afraid of being caught in the middle of two actors that are on the verge of an all-out proxy war on Yemeni soil.

Deciding against joining the Saudi-led military coalition was a smart move. Not only could it complicate things at home, but also abroad. While Pakistan still remains an ally to Saudi Arabia, the decision to remain neutral in the Yemen conflict suggests that the country is still capable of making tough decisions that it perceives to be in its best interest.