Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

3102 words

Drones in the distance

14 February 2013

Western policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are based on an outdated imperial playbook and a modern but mistaken belief in “surgical strikes,” writes David Stephens


Detail from the cover of Under the Drones.

Detail from the cover of Under the Drones.

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power
By David E. Sanger | Crown Publishers | $44.95

Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan–Pakistan Borderlands
Edited by Shahzad Bashir and Robert D. Crews | Harvard University Press | $27.85

MILITARY drones are all about distance — the distance between the operator and the weapon, the distance between the high-flying drones and their targets on the ground, the distance between achieving military or anti-terrorist objectives and the possibility of politically unpalatable casualties. David Sanger’s book, Confront and Conceal, shows how drones (and cyberwarfare) have become an integral part of US policy during Barack Obama’s presidency. Under the Drones, a collection of essays edited by two Stanford academics, shows how the United States lacks knowledge about the faraway places where the drones operate.

Sanger, the New York Times’s chief correspondent in Washington, discerns an “Obama Doctrine” at work in the United States’s recent foreign policy initiatives, though he says the White House refuses to use that label. “When confronted with a direct threat to American security, Obama has shown he is willing to act unilaterally — in a targeted, get-in-and-get-out fashion, that avoids, at all costs, the kind of messy ground wars and lengthy occupations that have drained America’s treasury and spirit for the past decades.” In Confront and Conceal Sanger describes how the Doctrine has operated in relation to Afghanistan–Pakistan, Iran, the Arab Spring, and China and North Korea.

The Abbottabad raid to kill Osama bin Laden is the most spectacular example of the Obama Doctrine in action, and Sanger gives it saturation coverage, drawing heavily on press analysis at the time. In his view, the raid shows that Obama will not hesitate to use military force to advance Washington’s direct interests, in this case, its interest in eliminating bin Laden. Less familiar and less clearcut are the contrasting stories of Libya and Syria, where the popular uprisings fully tested the doctrine. “As Libya fell,” Sanger summarises, “and the pictures leaking out of Syria grew more and more horrific, the questions about Obama’s consistency grew more urgent, around the world and in Washington.”

In both countries, American interests were less directly at stake; altruism of a sort came to the fore. In Libya, it was relatively easy for the United States to invoke a responsibility to protect Libyans from their own government, to rule out sending American ground troops, and to leave most of the heavy lifting to NATO. The US role was to be “limited in scope and finite in time.” Obama said that NATO always complained of never being allowed to take the lead; now it was NATO’s chance. After initial bombing by the United States, France and Britain took over the air campaign. This was the first NATO operation in sixty years of US–Europe military cooperation that was not led by the United States. It was also cheap and almost free of (NATO) casualties.

While the president insisted that Libya set no precedents, within months he had to deal with Syria, which seemed to display the same essential ingredient — a government slaughtering its own citizens — and have the same claim for intervention. Administration officials argued that Syria was different because Russia and China had vetoed intervention at the Security Council. Privately, however, a senior State Department official conceded that “the only reason that we’re not doing the same for the Syrians is that it is hard” — “hard to sell to the public,” Sanger adds, “hard to win an international consensus, and much harder to execute from the air.”

Complicating the situation is the fact that Syria has close ties with both Iran and Russia, the Syrian government’s forces are strong and well-armed by comparison with Gaddafi’s, and — again unlike Libya — the Syrian opposition forces are fractious and divided. Crucially, Syria is harder to bomb than Libya; most of the fighting is in crowded urban neighbourhoods, raising the prospect that bombing would cause heavy civilian casualties. The Obama Doctrine seems to work best in sparsely populated countries led by lunatics.

Sanger’s treatment of the doctrine at work in Iran is fascinating, particularly for his description of “Olympic Games,” a computer worm that the Americans successfully inserted — at least for a time — into the operating systems of the centrifuges in Iranian nuclear plants. Given Julia Gillard’s recent cybersecurity initiative, it is timely to read of American efforts in this field, particularly the implication that the inevitable flip side of cybersecurity is cyberwarfare. We need to watch for further developments on Russell Hill as well as on the Potomac. Meanwhile, cyberwarfare is the Obama Doctrine in operation, par excellence: targeted, clean, free of casualties at home, and carried out without the knowledge of the enemy until it is too late.

THE other key component of the Obama Doctrine is the use of drones; Sanger’s chapter is headed “The Dark Side of the Light Footprint.” Military drones are pilotless flying vehicles, armed or unarmed, precisely guided using satellite imagery by operators at a remote location, usually thousands of miles away from the drone base and the target. Obama has taken to drones with relish: Sanger says that the president had authorised roughly 265 drone strikes by April 2012 (with an unknown number since then), mostly in Waziristan, Pakistan, seeking out al Qaeda and Taliban targets, and in Yemen and Somalia.

The political and economic advantages of drones and worms are clear. Sanger quotes an anonymous senior intelligence official (from the context, this could be John Brennan, whom Obama has nominated to become head of the Central Intelligence Agency) at the heart of American drone and cyberwarfare operations, who says, “We have a keener awareness than ever of what it costs, in blood and treasure, to go into a country on the ground, and how difficult it is to extract yourself once you are there.”

Sanger considers the moral and legal questions attending the use of drones, and also explores — as much as possible, given the secrecy — how decisions are made at Obama’s drone-targeting Tuesday meetings. He notes the anger these attacks create among civilians in target areas but suggests that the weapons are becoming more accurate. He describes some of the successful attacks, discusses the main types of drones (named, suitably ominously, Predator and Reaper) and claims that the US Air Force is training more drone operators than traditional pilots.

While Obama has missed opportunities to explain the rationale for using drones, US government representatives — sensitive to charges that drones are simply a form of targeted assassination — resist claims of widespread “collateral” civilian deaths from drone strikes. The president has spoken of a “targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists,” some commentators have found it difficult to distinguish between drone strikes and exploding cigars (with which the CIA failed to blow up Castro) or magnetic car bombs (with which the CIA, or perhaps Mossad, succeeded in blowing up an Iranian nuclear scientist and his wife). The administration has come to describe deaths by drone strike as “lawful extrajudicial killings” and an administration lawyer has pointed out that a mistake made by a B-2 stealth bomber can kill many more innocent civilians than one made by a drone.

Washington also claims it only uses drones when it has been invited by a country to use them against targets in its territory, or when a host country is unable or unwilling to suppress threats, or where there is no functioning government. Sanger calls all of this a “delicate dance,” which seems a polite description.

Sanger detects unease within the administration about how dependent on, even addicted to, drones the United States has become, particularly as the weapons have become more accurate. An Australian officer with experience of borrowed Israeli-owned drones in Afghanistan likened using them to using crack cocaine. While Simon Jenkins in the Guardian Weekly recently described drones “and their certain proliferation” as “the greatest threat to world peace,” far greater than nuclear weapons, a reader comment in the New York Times probably comes closer to the American consensus: “I don’t see the secondary deaths of civilians where terrorists are hiding in their houses as any different than a ground attack on the same place — we are just saving American lives. I bet when tanks replaced horses someone complained of the brutality.”

DRONES will continue to appeal to governments attracted by the idea that foreign interventions can involve fewer military casualties, and so we can expect some moves in Canberra to explore the use of this technology. Meanwhile, we rely mainly on American sources to keep abreast of the drone saga. Confront and Conceal, completed in April 2012, is generally easy to read, if it tends to ramble in those sections where Sanger seems to have been driven more by the need to make use of work previously written for his newspaper than the need to support his argument. He is certainly a more elegant writer than Washington’s best-known journalist, Bob Woodward, although he has a disconcerting penchant for three-word descriptions of key players (“clean-shaven, square-jawed and baby-faced”; “built like a fireplug… short and bald”).

Sanger does manage to get a surprising number of his interlocutors, fireplugs and all, including Hillary Clinton and senior White House staff, to make mildly controversial statements on the record. This adds to the “authoritative insider” tone of the book. He briefly criticises Obama for walking away from commitments and not following through on his key themes, but otherwise he is broadly supportive. “At the government’s request,” Sanger writes, he has “withheld a limited number of details that senior government officials said could jeopardise current or planned operations.”

Australia rates only a sprinkling of mentions, three times to note the plan to base American forces in Darwin (which is seen as a linchpin of Obama’s approach to China and Asia) and once to quote an inconsequential remark by Hillary Clinton to Kevin Rudd. When Sanger describes planned troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, he mentions only the United States, the Netherlands, Canada and France.

China and North Korea get considerably less coverage than the United States’s residual concerns in the Near and Middle East, suggesting that Obama’s “pivot” towards East Asia has not yet quite captured the imagination of the New York Times. On the other hand, there are some gossipy paragraphs about Kim the Youngest and Xi Jinping, China’s latest heir to Mao, and a concluding comparison between Sparta–Athens and US–China relations.

JUDGING Under the Drones just by its title, a reader might expect analysis of the impact of the Obama Doctrine on the ground, but the book contains just three references to drones and four to the president. It draws our gaze instead to the people and culture of the Afghanistan–Pakistan borderlands, the main target area for the drone campaign. The essays, mostly by contributors (thirteen men and four women) based at American universities, cover the history of the region, the overlaps between religion and ethnicity, the origins of the Taliban, the role of religious schools (madrasas), the potential of Sufi Islam as a moderating influence, the political significance of truck decoration (esoteric but fascinating), the history of the media in Afghanistan, and the role of women in the drug trade. The editors contribute a useful introduction and a slightly less useful epilogue.

The essays began as papers at a workshop at Stanford in December 2009. While many of the authors hail from Afghanistan or Pakistan, their time on American campuses has infected some of them with a turgid, jargon-ridden style that makes reading their work akin to stumbling through wet cement. Despite this drawback, the collection is essential for readers who wish to understand more about this region.

The editors claim that the book’s main purpose is to “contest the prevailing discourse on the region, which we find to be simplistic, inaccurate, and alarmingly dehumanising” and to restore “a sense of history.” The book largely succeeds in its aim, leaving the reader with the impression that the history of the borderlands has previously been distorted to suit the interests of successive governments in distant Kabul and the perceptions of successive invaders.

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi’s chapter on “Quandaries of the Afghan Nation” is a stand-out. Hanifi argues that Afghanistan is “a British colonial construction in both material and ideological terms” and that “Afghan elites have uncritically absorbed and reproduced colonial frameworks of reckoning about themselves and their homeland.” These knowledge deficiencies are evident in uncertainty over the meaning of the word “Afghan,” in widely varying estimates of the population of Afghanistan (somewhere between thirteen and thirty-three million) and in the erroneous belief that “the explicitly Persianate state of Afghanistan” is dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group originating in northern Pakistan and northern India.

These misperceptions have plagued Western occupiers of Afghanistan. Hanifi traces the influence of British colonial officials from the late eighteenth century as it was transmitted through Mountstuart Elphinstone’s influential book An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul (1815) to the American anthropologist, Louis Dupree, whose book Afghanistan (1973) portrayed Afghans as inward-looking, even xenophobic, and the country as “Kabul-centric.” (At the same time, Dupree disdained proficiency in the key local languages, Persian and Pashto.) Hanifi says Dupree’s influence — and thus Elphinstone’s, dating back two centuries — is still profound in American policy-making and tactics on the ground. Hanifi argues that “the American imperial apparatus has reproduced much of the British colonial mindset toward Afghanistan across a wide range of public and private institutions and organisations.”

Although Hanifi slips into jargon for his concluding paragraphs (“Rethinking the postulates behind the faulty colonial predicate of Pashtun domination…”) his piece is a salutary warning about the dangers of imperial intervention based on outdated playbooks — or indeed any playbook that is used as a substitute for evidence and common sense.

Also illuminating is Thomas Ruttig’s chapter, “How Tribal Are the Taliban?,” which considers the ethnic, religious and ideological motivations of the Taliban and the stages of their development. Apart from some individuals, argues Ruttig, “the Afghan Taliban have not bought into al Qaeda’s jihadist agenda.” Their agenda is “exclusively Afghan. They want to force the Western ‘occupation forces’ to withdraw and to re-establish their Islamic emirate.” For this, they need Arab money, which sometimes comes through al Qaeda, but al Qaeda needs the Taliban more. Ruttig suggests that the tendency of the Karzai government to see the Taliban problem as soluble by economic and social measures underestimates the Taliban’s essentially political motivations.

IT WOULD have been good to read more about the impacts of drones on the borderlands, particularly on women and children, but Under the Drones’s long gestation from conference to book may have precluded this. What emerges, however, is an understanding that the issues afflicting this ancient land are far too complex to be settled by lobbing skyrockets at them. Claiming that drones are intended as a “surgical” means of taking out terrorist enemies with minimal collateral damage does not meet the case: drone warfare risks exacerbating tensions among the local population, most of whom have no “links to al Qaeda” and desire none, and increasing hostility towards the people doing the lobbing.

Greater knowledge of local factors might have led the Americans to question the drone strategy, despite its political attractiveness. Similar hopes are held for drones as were held for carpet bombing in Cambodia and Vietnam, another high-tech strategy that tried to slice through a tangle of nationalist, ethnic and ideological issues in a war zone only dimly understood by the invaders — relying, moreover, on knowledge passed on from previous Western occupiers (the French in Vietnam, the British in Afghanistan and Pakistan). President Johnson picked out bombing targets in North Vietnam, just as President Obama decides on drone targets today. Forty years on from Vietnam, the weapons may be more precisely targeted but there are still unlearned lessons.

It is ironic that the United States, whose self-image (“American exceptionalism”) is driven so much by its history, seems to have so little appreciation of the history of Afghanistan and Pakistan or even the fact that this history might be important. Historians from Tacitus to Paul Kennedy have written about imperial powers which were inspired and burdened by a sense of mission as well as the normal dose of arrogance. In decline, these powers may lash out with whatever tools are at their disposal. Even when their targets are far away, drones and computer worms require considerable care in handling. Ancient arquebuses and faulty cannons are not the only weapons that tend to injure those who fire them.

There is a bigger issue, too: the threat of a new arms race. “Precisely,” Sanger says,  “because drones and cyberwarfare have the potential to change the way we fight the wars of the future, the legal and moral questions raised by these weapons need to be part of the public conversation, and an international one.” Indeed.

Where does that leave Australia? Will we run in the new arms race and, if we do, where will we deploy our drones and worms? Perhaps there is enough distance in the Australian–American alliance for Australia not to be lured by the apparent efficiency of drone warfare and cyberwarfare into foreign adventures in which our lack of historical awareness would come back to bite us. As the editors of Under the Drones conclude, our knowledge of contested regions like the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands is set within frameworks determined by the intervening powers and the national governments nominally in control of the region. We (the United States and its “allies”) have little understanding about the lives of the local people and thus little sense of the likely reactions to intervention. There is a “politics of knowledge” and we play it badly, whether the tools we use are Predators and Reapers, worms or SAS patrols.

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