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Fire and Forget - Drone Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Fire the Gizmo, forget the dead

Is Britain 100 times better than the US at drone warfare, or is the Government hiding something?

A recent report in the Sunday Herald ('Fire and forget' drones that leave a deadly legacy, 11 November 2012) on the Afghanistan and Pakistan "drone wars" reads more like an advertising feature than a piece of serious journalism. Written by the paper's diplomatic editor, Trevor Royle, it reproduces casualty figures from the British Government that are implausible, unverifiable and hugely controversial.

Trevor Royle says that drones are based on the principle of "fire and forget." It's perhaps an apt metaphor, since the government would like its operators to fire the weapons, and the public to forget about them. But in military terms, drones are not yet "fire and forget" weapons, although the US is trying to develop drones controlled by on-board computers that can decide for themselves when to kill.

For the moment, drones don't work like that. The Royal Air Force says on its website:

"UK Reaper [the US-made drone used by Britain to attack targets in Afghanistan] is not an autonomous system and does not have the capability to employ weapons unless it is commanded to do so by the flight crew."

"Fire and forget" drones would greatly exacerbate the legal problems already raised by drone warfare, as well as the difficulties and horrors faced by ordinary people who have no choice but to live on a robot battlefield.

The present-day difficulties are well summarised in a speech by Ben Emmerson QC, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, that the Sunday Herald refers to. Ben Emmerson said that some US drone attacks in Pakistan, if reports about them prove to be correct, would constitute war crimes.

But Trevor Royle places these concerns in a deeply misleading context. He tells readers that the 334 weapons launched from British drones in Afghanistan have resulted in 4 civilian deaths. He does not say that these are British Government figures. He does not point out that the government has undermined its own figures by saying that it is not only unwilling to release its assessment of the total number of casualties, but also that "this information is considered speculative and likely inaccurate." He does not point out that the British Government has refused every Freedom of Information request for more substantial data. He does not point out that the British Government has refused to release a Ministry of Defence report into the 4 acknowledged civilian deaths.

This is unforgivably shoddy journalism. Besides being the Sunday Herald's diplomatic editor, Trevor Royle is a historian with a string of books on war and empire to his name. He ought to know better.

British figures for civilian casualties in Afghanistan are based on complaints made to the international forces by Afghan citizens.

Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer at the Congress-funded US Institute for Peace, says:

"Given the difficulty civilians have accessing international military bases, I would doubt any verification system based on citizen reporting alone. Depending on the proactivity of Afghan civilians to assess whether a civilian or combatant was targeted would seem to contradict basic international law obligations to take measures to avoid civilian harm."

The RAF's website has for several years given a limited insight into drone warfare. Its operational updates section includes brief accounts (usefully compiled by Drone Wars UK) of drone engagements.

Battlefield operations

Some of the accounts deal with attacks on Taliban fighters who seem to be clearly engaged in hostilities, for example by firing on ISAF troops or positioning themselves to do so. Some deal with attacks on people observed transporting a heavy weapon such as a machine gun. Some make reference to the steps taken by the drone operators to avoid civilian casualties.

Some attacks are said to be directed against people observed planting an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). That isn't necessarily an activity that can easily be identified beyond doubt.

Other accounts are more succinct and ambiguous. The attack is simply said to have been against an "explosive manufacturing facility" or a "known insurgent" or an "armed insurgent." There is no way of knowing whether the "armed insurgent" may simply have been a non-combatant carrying a rifle, or even a person carrying an object vaguely resembling a weapon – like the cameramen killed by a US helicopter crew in Iraq in 2007 and recorded on the "co-lateral murder" video released by Wikileaks.

All these engagements are characterised in the Sunday Herald as "battlefield operations" where "the targets are largely known and therefore beyond question." Even the sanitised updates from the RAF suggest that Afghanistan is not a conventional battlefield and that insurgents are rarely evident "beyond question." On the contrary, the routine task of drone operators seems to be to attempt to answer the puzzles thrown up by the battlefield.

The updates on the RAF website are not verifiable. It's impossible to determine whether or not they are based on official post-strike assessments. They only cover about 40% of British drone strikes in Afghanistan. And the updates appear to have ceased on 15 September 2012.

British drone strikes in Afghanistan seem to be closely co-ordinated with the activities of US forces. But US data offers no further insight into casualty rates. US authorities have avoided obtaining or publishing reliable information just as comprehensively as their British counterparts.

In the absence of real data from Afghanistan, the best option is to base some deductions on the only other place to have experienced a comparable level of drone warfare. Paradoxically, that means using America's supposedly secret war in north-west Pakistan to illuminate its official war in Afghanistan.

US drones operating in Pakistan are controlled by the CIA, not the military. That may cause some problems – CIA civilian operators are probably less familiar with the rules of war than military operators. Nevertheless, it would be odd if the US were more trigger-happy in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.

The best available casualty estimates for the drone war in Pakistan are probably the ones compiled by London-based the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and strongly supported by a recent report from Columbia University Law School.

Three thousand political assassinations, 176 dead kids

The Bureau's figures are based on careful work, including research by the Bureau's own investigators in north-west Pakistan. Nevertheless, the conditions prevailing in Pakistan mean that these figures are only estimates. The distinction between civilians and alleged militants is problematic. No one in Pakistan is actively engaged in combat with ISAF forces, or poses an immediate threat to them. So the drone attacks are typically directed against alleged militants in houses or compounds or motor vehicles or gathered in public places. The victims are not generally engaged in activity of an obviously military nature at the time of the attack.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism considers the victims of attacks to be non-civilian if it is persuaded by media reports and its own investigations that the victims were alleged militants. But all the attacks are essentially political assassinations, rather than actions undertaken out of immediate military necessity. The assassination programme is not confined to the enemy leadership. It seems on the contrary to be an attempt to kill as many Taliban-aligned militants as possible, and to deter the entire population of the region from hosting militants.

Possibly the 60% of drone strikes omitted from the RAF's record of its drone strikes in Afghanistan are of a similar nature to the US attacks in Pakistan.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the 350 US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 have killed 2,593-3,378 people and left 1,252-1,401 people injured. Of the dead, 475-885 were civilians and 176 of these were children.

This is a world away from Britain's claim of just 4 civilian deaths from 334 British drone strikes in Pakistan. The Drone Wars UK website summed the situation up. It said:

"The figures suggest that the UK is 100 – 200 times better at drone warfare than the US. Either that, or the figures are just not credible."

The Sunday Herald says, without attribution, that:

"some estimates put the number of civilian fatalities in Pakistan at between 450 and 800."

But it keeps this figure nicely separated from Britain's estimate of its own work. It doesn't encourage its readers to speculate on the RAF's miraculous skills. It doesn't invite the unnamed infantry commander interviewed for the article to offer an explanation. Instead, it lets him have the last word with a claim that drones are "legit and they're here to stay."

The Sunday Herald doesn't extend to the Government of Pakistan the helpful credulity it displays towards official British statements. Trevor Royle asserts that US drone attacks on Pakistan are carried out "on a nod-and-wink basis." The Pakistan Government strenuously denies nodding and winking. It says that the drone strikes are "illegal, unlawful and counterproductive" and that "there can be no question of Pakistan's agreement to such attacks."

Perhaps Pakistan is quietly content for the attacks to go ahead, as Trevor Royle appears to believe. Or perhaps it is genuinely opposed to them, doubts whether the US would take no for an answer, and isn't prepared to go to war with the US. That's at least as plausible as Britain's fatality figures.

If the Sunday Herald could offer some evidence to clarify Pakistan's tangled relationship with the US, that would be journalism. Instead it has politely deferred to a British fairy tale while flatly ignoring Pakistani views. That's just xenophobic spin.

MQ9 Reaper drone taking off in Afghanistan

A US MQ-9 Reaper takes off on a mission in Afghanistan, 2007
USAF Photo This image is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made during the course of the person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

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