Afghan Drone War in Steep Decline

A March 6 airstrike in Afghanistan killed at least five Afghan soldiers and wounded eight more – an egregious accident that prompted the U.S.-led military coalition to launch an ongoing investigation into what occurred. Afghan officials allege the attack was carried out by a drone, long the Obama administration’s weapon of choice, while the U.S. says it involved a manned aircraft. Either way, the strike highlights an important — and surprising — shift:  Both the amount of time drones spend over Afghanistan and the number of total coalition airstrikes are in steep decline, and that trend is likely to accelerate as the U.S. withdraws most of its remaining troops in the months ahead.

Statistics released to Foreign Policy show that the amount of time spent  by U.S. drones over Afghanistan was down 22 percent between 2012 and 2013. The number of drone flight hours over Afghanistan dropped even more drastically over the last six months — 30 percent over the previous half-year. Coalition officials declined to disclose the specific number of hours flown, but said the primary mission for U.S. drones – remotely piloted aircraft in military jargon — remains intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance from the sky. The military also refused to say whether the numbers of drone strikes have been increasing or going down.


Drone usage declining in Afghanistan may catch some by surprise. The military has used them widely in other countries where the United States has a small presence of troops, including Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. It would seem logical, then, that with fewer U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, drones would be called on more. But it turns out the opposite is true: as the coalition military drawdown in Afghanistan continues, the amount of high-tech equipment used there also is declining. That goes not only for drones, but for ground-based surveillance equipment. One example commonly used by U.S. forces is the Ground Based Operational Surveillance System, typically known in military-speak as a “G-BOSS.” It includes an 80-foot tower that has infrared cameras, radar equipment and other sensors on it, and is capable of watching insurgents from long distances.

Officials at the White House, Pentagon and the military coalition with headquarters in Kabul all declined to comment on the change. But retired Adm. James Stavridis, who served as the supreme allied commander of NATO until retiring last year, said that while technology has been helpful to U.S. forces, the gear wouldn’t be as useful to the Afghans after coalition forces leave “because the enemy operates so often in a primitive context.”

The Afghan forces’ “knowledge of culture, language, geography, personality and so on means that they see the world in technicolor, while we are at best looking at a fuzzy black-and-white picture in so many scenarios,” Stavridis said. “For counter-insurgency, the human and physical terrain knowledge is vital, the high-tech capability is helpful. While additive, high-tech is not crucial in my view.”

The use of drones has continued to be controversial in Afghanistan, however, especially when it leads to civilians getting caught in the crossfire. In one recent example, a Sept. 7 airstrike in Kunar province, along Afghanistan’s eastern border, killed 14 civilians, surviving family members later told the Los Angeles Times. The U.S. military coalition contended that 11 were killed, many of them insurgents, but villages later said the dead included women and children.

“There were pieces of my family all over the road,” one 28-year-old farmer, Miya Jan, told the Times. “I picked up those pieces from the road and from the truck and wrapped them in a sheet to bury them.”

The Air Force stopped releasing statistics about the number of drone airstrikes it conducted last year, causing outcry from transparency advocates. U.S. Central Command told Air Force Times last year that the decision was made because doing so placed a disproportionate emphasis on the strikes, rather than other drone missions. The change occurred as both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and some members of Congress increasingly called for scrutiny on them.

The military coalition in Kabul says that drones — remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs, in military jargon — are used judiciously, however.

“Only 3 percent of RPA sorties are involved in airstrikes,” said Lt. Col. Will Griffin, a coalition spokesman in Kabul. “Our efforts to reduce civilian casualties are comprehensive and involve our civilian casualty mitigation board, as we as tightly restricted, meticulously planned, carefully supervised and coordinated use of aerial weapons applied by qualified personnel. This applies to both manned and remotely piloted aircraft.”

The latest numbers released show that the overall air war in Afghanistan continues to decline. The Air Force dropped weapons 400 times between November and February, a 60 percent decrease when compared to the same period a year ago. The heaviest single month of the air war came in October 2010, as the United States flooded thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan and assaulted numerous areas of the country that had little coalition presence. The Air Force dropped 1,043 weapons that month alone – 82 percent more than it did this past October.



‘Drone warfare helps sell wars to a domestic audience’

Development of modern drone technologies will never eliminate civilian collateral damage in conflict deployment, Michael Raddie, antiwar activist told RT, arguing that investing in drones makes warfare more acceptable for general public.

RT: A Downing Street source has told the Independent that drones are an essential piece of equipment for the military. Well they are, aren’t they?

Michael Raddie: If the military is all about killing the civilians, then I guess they are. But the real essence of drone tech is really about just carrying on giving subsidies to the industrial military complex, the likes of BAE, the likes of Rolls Royce, Thales UK, these are all the companies that are going to benefit from this joint-drone program. In fact it’s not going to be just with the French. I think the British are talking to the Italians and the Swedes and who knows who else.

But the program is likely to continue, the Reaper drones in Afghanistan are likely to be redeployed into Africa, again to assist the French, maybe in Mali, Central African Republic and possibly back into Libya to quell the pro-Gaddafi green uprising that is happening there in the south of the country.

RT: But the drones just don’t kill civilians, the whole point of this move by the British and the French is to build their own drones to make their own country safe, as well as obviously to use them in the overseas campaign where they are deemed necessary….

MR: This is the problem with the politics of drone warfare. It becomes very easy to sell a war based on drones to the domestic audience, because there’s no soldiers, there’s no airmen, there’s no pilots putting their lives at risk. This makes drone warfare fairly acceptable to most countries. It is very popular in the US, again for those reasons I’ve mentioned. It’s become popular in the UK, because we don’t have boots on the ground, we don’t have soldiers losing their lives. But what is to stop China and Russia and other states taking part in drone warfare.

Effectively, if you use drones in another country, you have invaded a sovereign state, you have violated the sovereignty of that foreign country. That is against the law, that is a breach of international law right there. It seems to me that the current agreement that’s going to be signed tomorrow… The French and the British, at the moment, they kind of make strange bedfellows, because we have a socialist government in France, we have a far-right, Tory government in the UK, they differ very much on the economic policy, and there has been a political spat about that.


In fact, this conference tomorrow, this summit tomorrow, was originally going to be held in Blenheim Palace. Now this just highlights the diplomatic insensitiveness of British. Blenheim Palace was named after a famous baron in the 19th century when the British slaughtered 30,000 French soldiers. It was moved at the last minute over to Brize Norton, just to avoid this embarrassment. Just the idea of that plan going ahead is just incredible.

So I think the long-term goal, certainly in the next 10-15 years, is to continue the drone program. It’s going to escalate and it’s going to reach parts of Africa that we have not been to thus far.

RT: Will drones become far more effective and accurate in the future, thus lowering the amount of civilian casualties?

MR: I don’t really see this happening, to be honest. The CIA drone program is pretty reckless and has the most civilian casualties associate with it. But then the CIA instead of getting most of its intelligence from Pakistan, places like Somalia, countries like Afghanistan, all of their intelligence is coming from the NSA and the GCHQ. So they are basing their missile strikes on intelligence that is not even being gathered on the ground, it’s gathered several thousand miles away. For one, it’s not going to be very accurate. In terms of collateral damage, yes we do have missiles that do kill those in the surrounding area and I do not think even the British military take much care, if they need to take out what they consider as an insurgent, if it is in a crowd of people, I think, they will carry on doing it anyway. Certainly the CIA drone attacks have been known to do that.

But even when there is only one person in the vicinity, we have managed to kill one person and as it turns out later, they happened to be civilians. There is a court case going on in the UK at the moment, brought out by the Afghan civilians because their family members were killed while farming. We also have drone pilots that have gone on the record and have said that from their images they can’t tell if someone is carrying a gun or a spade. So what the advice to the Afghan population would be? Stop gardening, stop farming, stop digging crops in the field, because these drones above your head can’t distinguish what you are carrying? –

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