Attrition: Kinder And Gentler UAV Attacks

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April 1, 2014:   The U.S. has sharply reduced its UAV missile attacks in Pakistan’s tribal territories. In 2013 there were only 27 such attacks compared to 128 in 2010, the peak year. That fell to 70 in 2011 because the American raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. Back in 2004 there had only been one such UAV attack in Pakistan, and that slowly increased (two in 2006 and 2005, four in 2007). Then came the American decision to use the UAVs more aggressively. That led to 33 attacks in 2008 and 53 in 2009 and so on until the peak year of 2010. 

In the last decade attacks by Predator and Reaper UAVs armed with missiles has cost the terrorists (al Qaeda, Taliban, and the Haqqani Network) over 50 senior leaders and more than a thousand subordinates. These losses are not only bad for morale at the top but seriously disrupted terrorist activities. The terrorist losses have been severe and include heads of operations, finance, and intelligence. Many of the mid-level commanders were bomb making and terror attack experts. These losses caused additional casualties as less skilled bomb makers died when their imperfect devices blew up while under construction. New bomb makers have been less skilled because of poor instruction. The loss of operations commanders meant operatives were less effectively deployed and more easily caught or killed. The damage to their intelligence operations meant there was less success in general, especially against the growing American informant network on the ground. The financial leadership losses have meant less income and more reliance on stealing from locals, which makes the terror groups even more unpopular.

Yet 2013 was also notable for being the first year ever there were no civilian deaths from these attacks in Pakistan.  This happened despite continued Islamic terrorist enthusiasm for using civilians as human shields, because the terrorists know that American Rules Of Engagement stress keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. So the terrorists try, as much as possible, to surround themselves with women and children whenever possible. Many of these civilians are wives and children of the Islamic radicals. As the CIA intelligence got better, and the locals more insistent on not being human shields, more and more of the civilians were close kin of the terrorists and at least aware of the danger they were in because of their husband's line of work. But the Taliban in Pakistan got a lot of local media sympathy for each of these human shields who died, so the U.S. has relied on getting terrorists when they are on the road, with no civilians along.

Even before 2013 there were fewer civilians killed each year. It's difficult to tell who is an innocent civilian in these circumstances but since the Taliban have rarely claimed and identified civilian deaths from these attacks, there are apparently very few civilians killed. There are several reasons for this. One is better intel but there's a new weapon in use. The CIA controlled UAVs are sometimes using a smaller missile: the Griffin. This enables targets to be destroyed with less risk to nearby civilians. The Griffin is an alternative to the Hellfire II, which weighs 48.2 kg (106 pounds), carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead, and has a range of 8,000 meters. In contrast, the Griffin weighs only 16 kg (35 pounds), with a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead which is larger, in proportion to its size, than the one carried by the larger Hellfire missile. Griffin has a pop-out wings, allowing it to glide and thus has a longer range (15 kilometers) than Hellfire. UAVs can carry more of the smaller missiles, typically two of them in place of one Hellfire. Note that if the Pakistanis were allowed to make these attacks they would be using 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs, each with over 120 kg of explosives. This would kill a lot of nearby civilians, which apparently does not bother the Pakistanis, as long as it's Pakistanis doing the killing.

Since the embarrassing 2011 raid to kill bin Laden Pakistan has demanded that the United States halt the use of CIA UAVs to attack Islamic terrorists in the Pakistani tribal territories along the Afghan border. Pakistan even offered a compromise in 2012. If the Americans would tell Pakistan where U.S. intelligence had located terrorists, Pakistan would send one of its F-16s and use a smart bomb to do the deed. The U.S. turned this down for several reasons, the main one being that the Pakistanis would "miss" (or simply not be able to find) terrorists who were working for the Pakistani Army. The Pakistanis could also sell protection (from air attacks) to Islamic terrorists. Some terrorists would still die because Pakistan has always been content to see the Americans kill Islamic terrorists who were carrying out attacks inside Pakistan. Terrorists who confined their attacks to targets in Afghanistan or India were another matter. From over a decade of experience the Americans know the Pakistani military cannot be trusted, but the Pakistanis deny this and demand more of whatever they can get.

So despite the Pakistani anger at the United States for flying into Pakistan to raid Osama bin Laden's hideout (in a military town) and the subsequent expulsion of many American military trainers and intel specialists, the CIA decapitation (kill the leaders) campaign continues. The attacks were halted for a short time after a friendly fire incident last November killed 26 Pakistani troops on the Afghan border (where American and Afghan troops are often fired on from the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes by Pakistani troops or border guards working for terror groups).

What the U.S. did do was shift more of the UAV use to the Afghan side of the border. This did several things. It made Afghanistan less useful as a terrorist hideout and many Pakistani Islamic terrorists went back to the North Waziristan sanctuary. But once there they found themselves under a lot of pressure from other Islamic terrorists there to make attacks in Pakistan. This is what happened and is the major reason Pakistan still tolerates some American UAV attacks in Pakistan. The Islamic terrorist attacks coming out of North Waziristan have become very embarrassing to the Pakistani government and they can’t blame the Americans.

The Taliban and al Qaeda don't like to discuss these attacks, even to score some media points by complaining of civilian casualties. Civilian deaths are minimized by trying to catch the terrorists while traveling or otherwise away from civilians. Journalists visiting the sites of these attacks later find few locals claiming lots of civilian casualties. Unlike Afghanistan, the Pakistani Pushtuns tend to avoid criticizing their government, for fear of retribution from tribal leaders or the government itself. In Afghanistan the locals are more likely to inform on Islamic terrorists and thus the UAV attacks their have much better info about the target.

 


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