History In the Making? Drones Fire More Weapons Than Warplanes in Afghanistan
NEW DELHI: For the first time in the history of combat, drones in Afghanistan have fired more weapons than conventional warplanes. The news comes as analysts see a greater role for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in combat situations, with drones employed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
US Air Force data revealed that drone strikes accounted for at least 61 percent of weapons deployed in the first quarter of this year, with strikes involving 300 weapons. The data also showed strikes by drones accounted for 56 percent of weapons deployed by the US Air Force in Afghanistan in 2015, up a significant 5 percent from 2011. “In recent months it’s definitely flowed more,” Lieutenant Colonel Michael Navicky, commander of the Air Force’s 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, told Reuters. “We’ve seen increased weapons deployment in the past few months, and the demand is insatiable.”
While this may seem obvious to some, the study has important implications on the future of military operations, and raises questions on the role of drones in targeted killings. While President Bush started the “war on terror”, the Obama administration, although publicly declaring its intentions to end the war, has covertly continued it using drone strikes, special operations and sophisticated surveillance. The use of drones has increased significantly under President Obama’s two terms, with Obama launching more than six times the number of drone strikes in his first term in office than Bush did throughout his eight years.
While many casual observers see the trend as a positive development, concerns remain regarding the killing of civilians in drone strikes. In 2014, the United Kingdom-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as part of a report titled “Naming the Dead” noted that more than half of the victims identified in drone strikes were civilians, including a large proportion of children.
As the larger narrative excludes the victims from the efficacy of drone strikes - in favour of often repeated “facts” such as drone strikes enable targeted killings, cause fewer civilian casualties and are a better alternative to boots on the ground, this article provides a fact check against the same.
Myth #1: Drone strikes are effective in killing terrorist operatives without causing significant civilian casualties.
This is perhaps the most widespread myth, with the official position claiming that drone strikes are the most efficient way of targeting terrorists in remote and inaccessible regions. However, where is the data that supports this claim? The US government has not publicly provided a definite tally of strikes and casualties, and the numbers arrived at by independent outfits using newspaper and intelligence sources have significant variations.
The New American Foundation records 334 drone strikes in Pakistan between June 2004 and October 2012 (of which, 86 percent was under the Obama administration). There is no precise number of casualties, but the Foundation places the range between 1886 and 3191 people; that is, an average of 5.6 to 9.5 people killed per strike. This is a lower estimate than the numbers tallied by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) which has recorded 346 drone strikes in Pakistan between June 2004 and October 2012, with between 2570 and 3337 people killed, arriving at an average of 7.4 to 9.6 per strike. The discrepancies extend to the two estimates of the number of militants killed, with the New American Foundation placing the figure at 86 percent whilst TBIJ places it at between 74 to 82 percent.
Things are further complicated regarding the definition of “militant.” The US administration assumes that military age males in strike zones are militants, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Further, the local population is considered “guilty by association” and will be defined as a “militant” if they are seen in the company or in the association of a terrorist operative. In February 2012, TBIJ reported that 50 civilians had been killed in strikes during efforts to rescue victims of a previous drone attack; these family members and associates were considered “guilty by association” by the US administration.
“Signature strikes” are also another example of indiscriminate killings being ratified as official policy. Individuals are targeted without any knowledge of their identity, if they are seen in engaging in what is deemed as “suspicious activity.” Suspicious activity is itself very loosely defined, prompting a senior State Department official to note that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.
This points to the fact that the number of civilian casualties are probably far higher than any of the estimates arrived at above, as many are defined as “militants” without adequately clear evidence to support that claim.
Myth #2: The strikes target High Value Terrorists (HVTs)
High Value Terrorists (HVTs) are defined as senior leaders and key operatives of the Al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups. The US administration maintains that drone strikes are particularly efficient at targeting these individuals, while keeping civilian casualties low. We have already debunked the second part of this claim in Myth#1, and the first part is equally dubious. Data shows that far more lower ranked operatives and civilians are killed by drone strikes than HVTs. Research by Peter Bergan pegged the ratio at 1:49; i.e for every one key operative killed, 49 others have been killed.
This has immense consequences and is one of the main reasons why the governments of the countries where drone strikes are taking place have to continue opposing them. The local population, members of which have familial and tribal ties to those killed, have exerted pressure on the government to call for an end to drone strikes - citing civilian casualties as key reasons. These strikes further undermine the stability and legitimacy of the government, as the continuance of strikes is seen as a signal of the establishment’s complicity with and subservience to an increasingly unpopular United States.
Myth #3: Drone strikes are a better alternative to airstrikes and troops on the ground
While this myth may hold some weight when applied to war theatres such as Afghanistan, where air strikes and troops on the ground may lead to even more civilian casualties, its veracity can be questioned in reference to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia - the three other countries where the US is using drones. In the case of the latter, the drone strikes are part of a CIA-led operation as the US is not “formally” at war with any of the three countries. The alternatives in these countries range from capacity building to covert operations targeting HVTs. Instead, drone strikes are undermining the legitimacy of a government that the US expects assistance from in counter-terrorism operations. The governments of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia could benefit greatly from capacity building assistance - especially in policing and intelligence - that can build long-term measures to counter terrorism networks in the region.
In conclusion, the entire argument on the effectiveness of drone strikes is based on short-term success while accentuating long-term costs. It focuses on the numbers of “militants” killed while obfuscating the reality of many more who join terrorist ranks because of increasing anti-Americanism and the perception of an illegitimate and subservient home government.