Counter-Terrorism: The Killer Drones Find Friendlier Skies


December 5, 2012: The U.S. has carried out 41 UAV missile attacks against Islamic terrorists in Pakistan this year. But there was only one attack in November (on the 29th in South Waziristan) and the one before that was on October 24th (in North Waziristan). Half the UAV attacks were between June and October, all but one of them in in North (mostly) and South Waziristan. At its peak, in 2010, there were 117 attacks. That declined to 64 in 2011. Some of the shift has to do with more al Qaeda activity in Yemen, where there were 38 American UAV missile attacks so far this year (compared to ten the year before). There are still plenty of terrorist targets in Pakistan but for diplomatic reasons the U.S. is limiting the use of UAV missile attacks. These CIA controlled UAVs continue to patrol over Pakistan, collecting information on terrorist activities.

Pakistan has always demanded that the United States halt the use of CIA UAVs to attack Islamic terrorists in the Pakistani tribal territories along the Afghan border. The U.S. has consistently refused and threatened Pakistan with massive retaliation if the UAV operations were interfered with. Last year Pakistan offered a compromise. 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.

Meanwhile, as American UAV missile attacks in Pakistan have declined, they have increased next door in Afghanistan. There were 333 similar attacks there in the last year. The UAV attacks in Afghanistan are up a third compared to last year, while manned combat sorties in Afghanistan involving the use of weapons are down 16 percent. The reason for this is a shift in economy and utility. The UAVs, which are remotely controlled by operators in the United States, are much cheaper to operate. Moreover, a UAV can stay in the air much longer without expensive air-to-air refueling. Crew fatigue is not a problem either because the two (or three) person teams (a pilot and one or more observers) can be easily relieved as they are working from buildings in an air force base in the United States.

 There are far more attacks in Afghanistan because the UAVs cover a much larger area. In Pakistan the CIA controlled UAVs are largely confined to small areas along the Afghan border. In fact, most of the attacks are made in North Waziristan (a small portion of the border and an area of 4,700 square kilometers containing 365,000 people). The areas of Afghanistan that the UAVs operate over are more than 30 times larger and contain over five million people. Of course North Waziristan is a notorious terrorist sanctuary that Pakistan refuses to shut down and that accounts for nearly all the UAV attacks (that kill a lot of terrorists even the Pakistani government wants dead). Despite the UAV attacks, there are more Islamic terrorists per square kilometer in that small area than anywhere else on the planet. While all American air attacks in Pakistan are via UAV, in Afghanistan they are only nine percent of attacks. That’s up from 5-6 percent in each of the previous three years. Robots may not be taking over but remotely controlled aircraft, equipped with sensors that let you see what kinds of weapons people are carrying and details of their faces, are.

There are more UAVs being delivered and sent into action in Afghanistan. The U.S. Air Force wants to save money, and one way to do that is to pull combat aircraft out of Afghanistan and replace them with UAVs. As much as the air force, which is run by former combat pilots, wants to keep pilots employed, shrinking budgets make UAVs an option that cannot be ignored. While the CIA is increasing the size of its UAV fleet, it also sends it UAVs off to wherever the terrorists are. These days that’s more likely to be places like Yemen. While Pakistan should be the scene of many more UAV attacks, there is a major problem with the Pakistani government, which has been backing Islamic radicalism for over three decades now. Despite having created a monster that threatens the Pakistani ruling class, the Pakistanis cannot agree on how to deal with this Islamic terrorism and are reluctant to allow the United States to help.




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