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Drone wars

Tuesday 21 April 2009, by Paul Rogers

A new report on the sources of violent death in Iraq is relevant to an assessment of the changing nature of the air-war over Pakistan.

The phrase "war on terror" might have been quietly dropped from the United States’s military lexicon - to be replaced (according to a memo to Pentagon staff) by "overseas contingency operation". But it is clear that to some degree there is continuity in practice in the tactics being pursued by the coalition in Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001 Afghanistan and Pakistan. An example is the relatively little reported campaign in western Pakistan characterised by what (in another euphemism) are commonly termed "drone incidents" but which would be better called air-raids.

The term "drone" has a serviceable analytical use, but the suggestion it conveys - of a very small pilot-less aircraft that is more of a scaled-up version of a model aircraft - is misleading as a description of what is happening in parts of Pakistan. For the technology of the "drone", which is developing at an extraordinary rate, is as sophisticated as its effects are becoming more intensive and destructive (see Christopher Drew, "Drones: the weapon of choice in fighting Al Qaeda", International Herald Tribune, 18 March 2009).

The present reality of these "drone" deployments is that United States forces are flying large and heavily armed aircraft over Pakistan for virtually every hour of every day, frequently accompanied by actual attacks. These air-raids have killed hundreds of people, many of them civilians and including scores of women and children.

Three aspects of this major development in the war are worthy of note: the size and power of the weapons being used, the rapid increase in their use, and the impact in terms of civilian casualties. If a so-called "al-Qaida central" is genuinely trying to target countries such as Britain - a claim that has arisen from the detention of twelve people at seven addresses in northwest England on 8 April 2009, though without any firm evidence so far - then a possible motivation for new recruits to the movement is readily at hand in western Pakistan (see Mark Mazzetti, "The Downside of Letting Robots Do the Bombing", New York Times, 21 March 2009).

A grim reaper

The weapon of choice for United States forces was until recently the Predator, manufactured by General Atomics. The much larger and more powerful MQ-9 Reaper is now becoming their favourite. The Reaper’s turboprop engine is nearly eight times as powerful as the Predator; it carries fifteen times the weapons load and yet travels three times more quickly.

Because these planes have no pilots and are operated remotely, often by technicians at bases in the United States, there is a huge "weight gain". This, combined with the sheer size of the Reapers, means that they can easily carry a range of weapons on a par with a conventional strike aircraft.

A recent version of the Reaper has a wingspan of over twenty-five metres (about the same as a Boeing 737 passenger-jet), and can carry sufficient fuel to stay airborne for thirty-four hours. If fitted with two drop-tanks and 300 kilograms of weapons, it can fly a forty-two-hour sortie; as pilot fatigue is not an issue, shifts of operators can be used to sustain this length of time in the air.

In practice, however, bombing attacks are more likely to be undertaken by Reapers with a much shorter range and carrying more weapons. These can include Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, Paveway laser-guided bombs or GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs).

The Reaper is a bomber in all but name. A comment in September 2006 on the designation of this "unmanned aerial vehicle" (UAV) from the then chief-of-staff of the United States air force (Usaf), General T Michael Moseley, is indicative of official attitudes: "We’ve moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter role with the Reaper." An even better indication of its growing role is that in 2008 the New York Air National Guard 174th fighter wing began to make the change from flying F-16 strike aircraft to "flying" Reapers.

A recent customer for the Reaper is Britain’s Royal Air Force, which has deployed the aircraft in Afghanistan since autumn 2007. Its initial deployment was an unarmed reconnaissance vehicle, but the armed variant is now in use. The ministry of defence (MoD) acknowledges the MQ-9’s "[complementary] mission" to be "a persistent hunter-killer against emerging targets to achieve joint force commander objectives." The MoD has, however, been notably reticent about publicising actual cases where the Predator has engaged in combat, or about any casualties resulting from this.

A view from the ground

These military and technical advances, in the context of the difficulties experienced by western coalition forces in Afghanistan in the war against the Taliban, help explain why the escalation in the number of air-strikes in Pakistan (regarded as the source of much Taliban activity and weaponry) has been rapid (see "Pakistan: the new frontline," 18 September 2008).

US forces struck just twice in 2006, three times in 2007 and seven times in the first eight months of 2008. A surge in the last four months of 2008 saw twenty-nine air-raids, and there were fourteen between January and 8 April 2009. Pakistani sources assess the number killed over this near forty-months period at 701, including 14 al-Qaida leaders; 152 of these have lost their lives this year (see Amir Mir, "60 drone hits kill 14 al-Qaeda men, 687 civilians", The News [Lahore], 10 April 2009). These sources also claim that the great majority of people killed are civilian, though US military sources often dispute this.

The pattern here is that the Pentagon or US spokespersons closer to the action tend to discount claims of civilian casualties immediately after a raid, only for independent evidence later to appear that confirms the initial local reports. It is therefore plausible in many cases to be sceptical of the denials.

A return message

Moreover, evidence becoming available from Iraq indicates that air-strikes are precisely the forms of attack most likely to lead to high numbers of civilian casualties. A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) - one of the world’s leading medical journals - the authors used the extensive and detailed database maintained by Iraq Body Count (IBC) to analyse 14,196 incidents in which 60,481 civilians were killed violently (see Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks et al., "The Weapons That Kill Civilians - Deaths of Children and Noncombatants in Iraq, 2003-2008", New England Journal of Medicine, 16 April 2009)

The lead author, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks of King’s College, London, says: "By linking a large number of deaths to the particular weapons used in specific events, the IBC database offers a unique opportunity for detailed analysis of the public health impact of different forms of armed violence on Iraqi civilians".

The study examines all the different kinds of incidents - including small arms, roadside-bombs, suicide-bombs, mortars and air-strikes - to find that the suicide-bomb achieves one of the worst killing-rates (sixteen civilian deaths per incident, on average). This might be expected, given that the tactic is often used deliberately to kill as many people as possible, often in crowded marketplaces.

More surprising is that the analysis reveals air-strikes to have an even worse effect, with seventeen civilian deaths per incident. Furthermore, the detailed nature of the IBC primary research allows data on many of the incidents to include the gender and age of the victims. The NEJM report finds that 46% of victims of known gender were female and 39% of victims of known age were children.

This is data for Iraq, not Pakistan, and there is no way of being certain that what has applied in one country is true for another. What is now clear is that research findings based on objective evidence from Iraq suggests that internal Pakistani reports of high numbers of civilian casualties through Predator and Reaper raids must be taken seriously.

It is also relevant that the air war in Pakistan has accelerated in a manner largely unrecognised in the western media, though this is widely covered in the middle east and southwest Asia. This goes a long way to explain the anti-western mood in Pakistan, and the difficulty that the current government in Islamabad has in supporting US actions.

Whatever the outcome of the investigations in northwest England - where ten of those arrested are Pakistani-born nationals reported to have entered the country on student visas - much of the media speculation has focused on suggestions that their focus is a bomb-plot with connections to Pakistan. The logic of this narrative is that the source of the security threat to Britain might be shifting from groups (such as the perpetrators of the 7/7 bombings in London) that had become radicalised within Britain to ones trained in Pakistan by "al-Qaida central" and deployed to the target country.

Britain may not be involved in any of the air-raids across the Afghan border into Pakistan, but the country is widely seen as the United States’s closest ally. If "al-Qaida central" does exist and does see an opportunity to undertake operations in Britain, it could well see the changing nature of the war in western Pakistan - including the many civilians being killed each month in air-raids - as fuel and succour in its effort.

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