View from abroad: Mowing the grass with drones

Published September 21, 2015
RETD US general Stanley McChrystal served in Afghanistan from 2003-2008.
RETD US general Stanley McChrystal served in Afghanistan from 2003-2008.

WITH so much going on in the world, two recent events went largely unnoticed: Pakistan’s use of an indigenously manufactured drone to attack militants in the tribal areas, and the killing of two British Muslim fighters in Syria by a US-made Reaper drone operated by British forces.

While we in Pakistan are long accustomed to American drones killing militants (and, occasionally, civilians) in our country, David Cameron based his government’s use of this weapon against its own citizens on the assumption that they were planning an attack on the UK. No details of such a plot have been divulged, and nor how the government learned of it. But it did emerge that there is a ‘kill list’ of terrorists, mostly of British origin, who could be next.

This is much like the list maintained by the Americans, except the latter’s is much larger, and those on it could be from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq. Under the Obama administration, the use of drones has expanded exponentially. In 2001, the US had around 80 drones; it now has some 8,000. Thus far, four countries have used this controversial weapons system: the US, Israel, Pakistan and the UK.

Most objections by human rights activists and lawyers to the use of this remotely operated weapon have focused on its morality and legality. But increasingly, questions are being posed about its strategic utility. American drone attacks in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas have killed hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives and jihadi terrorists. And yet, the movement has not been significantly weakened as a result. Some American observers refer to the drone campaign as ‘mowing the grass’, implying that no matter how often you cut grass, it will always grow back.

The retired American general, Stanley McChrystal, the man who served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008 as head of Special Forces, and who commanded the entire Afghan operation in 2009-2010, said about the drone campaign to the BBC in 2010:

“There’s a perception of arrogance, there is a perception of helpless people in an area being shot at like thunderbolts from the sky by an entity that is acting as though they have omniscience and omnipotence. And you can create an enormous amount of resentment inside population ... because of the way it appears and feels … what seems like a panacea to the messiness of war is not that at all … And wars are ultimately determined in the minds of populations …”

But the truth is that in Pakistan, at least, we are not helpless in the face of these ‘thunderbolts from the sky’. Drones fly very slowly, and can easily be shot down even by our air force’s training aircraft. However, our government is aware that an attempt to do so would bring it into confrontation with the Americans. So to an extent, our rulers are complicit in the US drone campaign.

Of course, governments in Somalia, Yemen and Syria are helpless to prevent unmanned, remotely controlled aircraft from patrolling their skies. Another objection many have to this new mode of warfare is that it allows a controller thousands of miles away to kill militants. This distancing of the operator and his targets makes it all seem like a video game, and removes much of the moral dilemma usually involved in killing fellow human beings. However, a pilot flying a B-52 bomber who drops daisy-cutter and bunker-buster bombs from 50,000 feet is just as removed. Nonetheless, several American drone operators have resigned because they could no longer cope with the stress and depression brought on by targeting individuals they monitored for hours on their screens before launching the precision missiles that killed or maimed them.

A few years ago, I discussed the effects of drone strikes in the tribal areas with the then chief secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He was of the view that the further away people were from the drone attacks, the more worked up they got about them. According to him, people in Fata supported the campaign as it rid them of militants who otherwise oppressed them with impunity. There is considerable evidence that until the ongoing military operation was launched, the only things the militants were afraid of were American drones.

One reason the drone is quickly becoming the weapon of choice is that the risk to soldiers and pilots is eliminated. And using them also gives the impression that the government is doing something. In Afghanistan, when troops were being killed by Taliban fighters who would then withdraw to the safety of our tribal areas, the Americans had some justification for using drones as the Pakistan government refused them the right of hot pursuit. And the reality is that for years, drones operated from an air base in Balochistan handed over to the US by our government.

Moral and legal arguments aside, drone technology is too tempting for politicians and generals to ignore. It may be no panacea, but it does have a practical use in situations where the cost of sending in ground troops would be too high. However, as Simon Jenkins reminds us in a recent article in the Guardian, no war was ever won by air power alone. Recent military interventions like the ones in Libya and Syria show the limits of aerial campaigns. Ultimately, you need boots on the ground.

And in the Middle East, Western states are now increasingly reluctant to commit ground forces. The Saudis are good at killing unarmed Yemeni civilians from the air, but the record of their army is limited to keeping their own citizens under the royal heel. Which is why the Americans are finally talking to the Russians and the Iranians.

Twitter: @irfan_husain

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2015

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