Attack of the Drones

Attack of the Drones

Airstrikes, manned or unmanned, regulated or not, cannot build a better Afghan future.


“Attack of the Drones,” a homage to the lesser of the Star Wars trilogies, is the headline of choice in reports on the One Good Thing to come out of the “war on terror”: very cool gadgets. With the media stoking laddish pleasure in “weapons porn” (Newsweek‘s phrase), we might be forgiven for forgetting that this “greatest, weirdest, coolest hardware in the American arsenal” has neither brought the war to a swifter end nor enabled the capture of archenemy Osama bin Laden.

Indeed, behind the glittering mirage of news about the technological wizardry of drones and the giddy success of manufacturers from California to Karachi lies a chilling void of information about their use. In June the UN Human Rights Council condemned the US failure to count and disclose, much less prevent, civilian casualties from drones in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, pledged to regulate their use (implying a disturbing lack of regulation till then). But the government still refuses to share even the most basic information about attacks, partly because in Pakistan they are run by the CIA. Independent reporters who dare to investigate–like Stephen Farrell, who went to Kunduz after an airstrike killed about a hundred civilians–court death as well as condemnation for taking “unnecessary” risks for something as trivial as the truth.

The US military’s certainty of the drones’ effectiveness is difficult to take on trust, when it neither counts nor identifies those killed. It claims a number of top Al Qaeda officials have been hit but provides no answer to the Pakistani figure of nearly 700 civilian deaths in Pakistan alone since 2006. Official secrecy fuels rumors of the worst, and scandals like the September 4 Kunduz massacre prove that often the worst is true. Regulation cannot solve the practical problem, so evident that day, of identifying bad guys in a war-torn society in which fuel tankers captured by the Taliban attract a range of youths willing to siphon off free fuel at 2:30 am.

Afghans are cynical (and wise) enough to assume from past experience that the secrecy covers up facts too grisly for public airing. Aerial counterinsurgency was invented in the Pakistani-Afghan borderland and Iraq by the British in the 1920s. Then, as now, it was a means of fighting insurgency without public scrutiny. Then, as now, no one counted the dead. British MPs pressed futilely for “particulars of where and why these bombardments have taken place…[and] whether inhabitants have been killed.” Despite the government’s twisted assurance that the regime worked primarily through “terror,” bombardment was used routinely even for tax collection–the sort of perversion only Orwell could capture: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” It failed miserably: anger at civilian deaths and continual foreign surveillance provoked frequent insurgency, mistrust of local governments and the anxiety about Western imperialism that led to our present discontents.

Americans who are confused by the grotesque transformation of the modest aim of capturing a few bad men into a conflagration that has destroyed the lives of millions echo the Guardian of the 1920s, which asked why the British government had to send “all this machinery, all these forces…if we were establishing a political system on the basis of popular consent?” To make this skeptical public more “air-minded,” the Air Ministry produced the glamorous image of the warrior-airman, which today’s press is obligingly updating with the sexy robotics and thermal dynamics of drones. Without distinguishing between drones that protect our troops and those that drop bombs and hover menacingly over an occupied people, The Economist taunts, “like them or not, drones are here to stay.”

But they needn’t be: some experts in the media echo chamber realize that behind the awesome special effects is a pretty weak story. Lord Bingham, a retired senior British judge, compares hunter-killer drones to cluster bombs and land mines, weapons that have been deemed too cruel for use; and David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert and former adviser in Iraq, calls their hit rate immoral.

But time is running out. Drone surveillance is fast becoming the excuse for an extended American presence over Iraq and Afghanistan, if not on the ground, making the spoken objective of state-building a canard.

Airstrikes, manned or unmanned, regulated or not, cannot build a better Afghan future. For every decapitated Al Qaeda leader, ten angry and desperate dupes join up. In their pursuit of a better technique of bombardment, General McChrystal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama have forgotten the all-important politics of bombardment. While eagerly correlating any drop in US casualties with drone activity, they have missed the more revealing correlation between drone use, visceral hatred for the Kabul and Islamabad governments, and the expansion of the Taliban, who shrewdly portray their insurgency as nationalist resistance to the violence these governments connive in. As long as Afghans and Pakistanis see their governments as Janus-faced collaborators with the US military occupation, the governments will not be able to stand up, and US troops will not be able to stand down. Instead of sophomorically hailing the futuristic Attack of the Drones, it’s time to revisit the homelier original, “A New Hope.”


Stephen M. Walt

, “High Cost, Low Odds

John Mueller

, “The ‘Safe Haven’ Myth

Selig S. Harrison

, “The Ethnic Split

Manan Ahmed

, “Paranoia Over Pakistan

Mosharraf Zaidi

, “The Best Wall of Defense

Robert Dreyfuss

, “How to Get Out

For a collection of The Nation‘s best Afghanistan coverage, see our special page of links, “Afghanistan In Crisis.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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