FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Myth of the Drone War “Successes”

by PATRICK COCKBURN

As the US and its allies ponder what to do about Syria, one suggestion advanced by the protagonists of armed intervention is to use unmanned drones to attack Syrian government targets. The proposal is a measure of the extraordinary success of the White House, CIA and Defense Department in selling the drone as a wonder weapon despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The attraction of the drone for President Obama and his administration five months before the presidential election is self-evident. The revelation that he personally selected targets from the top ranks of al-Qa’ida for assassination by remote control shows the President as tough and unrelenting in destroying America’s enemies. The program is popular at home because the cost appears not to be large and, most importantly, there are no American casualties. The media uncritically buys into claims of the weapon’s effectiveness, conveniently diverting voters’ attention from the US army’s failure to defeat puny opponents in two vastly expensive campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Republicans cried foul, alleging that the administration is selectively leaking highly classified secrets to portray Obama as a man of decision untroubled by liberal qualms in the defense of his country. The White House expressed itself deeply shocked by such a claim of political opportunism, and last week the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, appointed two lawyers to track down the leakers, though without giving them special powers to do so.

Almost unquestioned in all this is the utility of the drone strikes and whether they really are the wonder weapon they are claimed to be. After all, air forces have been over-selling precision bombing as a way of winning wars on the cheap since Lord Trenchard ran the RAF in the 1920s. Politicians of all nations have been attracted by new war-winning armaments or commando-type organisations. Examples include Churchill in the Second World War and President Kennedy, who favored the Green Beret special units and helicopter-borne forces in Vietnam. The media has traditionally gobbled up and publicized tales of magically effective arms or the derring-do of elite detachments, often ignoring their lack of long-term military success.

The most striking but understated feature of the drone strikes in the North-west Frontier districts of Pakistan is that they could not take place without the co-operation of the Pakistani army and its all-powerful military intelligence branch, the ISI. Some government co-operation is essential in Yemen, too, though less so than in Pakistan because of the weakness of the Yemeni state.

The problem is that high-precision weapons still need ground-based intelligence to identify targets. In Pakistan, the ISI says privately that its agents provide the details without which the drones would not know whom to pursue and eliminate. The difficulty for those guiding the drones from command posts far away has not changed much since “precision bombing” in the Second World War or the far more accurate missile strikes in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Large, immovable facilities or power stations are easy to identify; individuals are not. In 2003, President Bush brought forward the start of the bombing and missile strikes because US intelligence believed it knew the exact location of Saddam Hussein in south Baghdad. This was destroyed by missiles, but research after the war showed that Saddam had never been near the place.

Up-to-the minute intelligence about who is in what house, and when they are there, requires a network of local agents who can communicate their information immediately. It is very unlikely that the ISI would allow the CIA to have this sort of network in Pakistan. The crucial information that enabled the US to find and identify Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad reportedly came from the ISI itself.

Of course, an assassination target might be stupid enough to give away his or her position by using a mobile, satellite phone or some other form of electronic communication. But few insurgent groups today are likely to give away their position so easily.

The result of reliance on the ISI is that it is Pakistani military intelligence officers, and not President Obama or his security and military staff, who really determine what sort of person is killed by the unmanned drones. This is in keeping with Pakistan’s cynical but successful approach to dealing with the US since 9/11. This is to be, at one and the same time, its best ally and worst enemy.

It means allowing the US to kill or capture members of al-Qa’ida in Pakistan, successes that have important electoral benefits for any administration in Washington. At times, Pakistan may look to the US to eliminate a troublesome member of the Pakistan Taliban such as its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who over-reached himself in the eyes of the Pakistan authorities and was killed by a drone strike in 2009. Over the years, the White House or the CIA has been able to claim successes, such as the elimination of the second in command of al-Qa’ida or the killing of most top al-Qa’ida commanders, as if Bin Laden’s old organisation were the same size as the Pentagon.

What we have not seen is the effective use of US drones against the Afghan Taliban and its allies, who rely on their safe havens in Pakistan. It is here that the Afghan Taliban’s leadership is based, and its ability to retreat into Pakistan has ensured the US military failure in Afghanistan, just as it ensured the Soviet Union’s inability to wipe out the insurgents fighting its forces in the 1980s. The lack of good US intelligence on the Afghan Taliban leadership is striking. How else, as happened a few hears ago,  would a shopkeeper from Quetta be able to extract a large sum of money and pose as a Taliban leader in peace negotiations in Kabul?

Unmanned drone strikes are all about American domestic politics rather than about the countries where they are used. They cater to illusions of power, giving Americans a sense that their technical prowess is unparalleled, despite the Pentagon’s inability to counter improvised explosive devices, which are no more than old-fashioned mines laid in or beside roads. The drones have even been presented as being more humanitarian than other forms of warfare, simply by claiming that any dead males of military age killed in a strike must have been enemy combatants.

The downside to these exaggerated successes is that the White House and the US security agencies believe more of their own propaganda than is good for them. Ramshackle insurgent movements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are not like regular armies, in which the elimination of officers or senior cadres might be a crippling blow to the organization. Just as important, in the long term, assassination campaigns do not win wars, and they create as many enemies as they destroy.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail