Unmanned & Unmerciful: Drone Warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan

While America’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have played a significant role in shattering the hierarchies of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, they have become rather controversial as they have lead the charge in the War on Terror.  How did UAVs “take off” to play a key role on the battlefield, and do they help or hinder US efforts in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater?


Dawn of the Drone Wars

A decade before the War on Terror became America’s top national security priority, retired Israeli Air Force engineer Abraham Karem completed modifications of his UAV, nicknamed the Albatross.  This aircraft was highly advanced for its time, as the Albatross remained airborne for 56 hours in its first test flight, whereas other UAVs would have already crashed.  By the end of the 1990s, the US Air Force was flying the finalized version of this UAV, the MQ-1B Predator, for various reconnaissance flights.  Now produced by General Atomics, this aircraft first led America’s UAV campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

First procured by the United States Air Force (USAF) in 1996, UAVs were slowly introduced into the Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater.  As UAVs did not have a combat reputation, President George W. Bush preferred to use Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives and Special Operations Forces (SOF) to pursue al Qaeda after it executed the 11 September attacks.  Peter Bergen, the author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad, author explains that the main objective was to gather enough intelligence to lead US forces to the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden.

Shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, these personnel and the US-led coalition had disrupted al Qaeda’s organization, whose members scattered themselves across the Kunar Province of Afghanistan and various areas of Pakistan.  In 2005, however, the West saw a resurgence of this terror network.  The London bus bombing of 7 July 2005 displayed that al Qaeda was reviving its capability to launch attacks abroad, even with the large US-NATO presence in the country.  Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban were beginning to establish themselves within the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Bergen elaborates how this resurgence, in addition to the Iraq troop surge in 2006, raised frustration within the CIA.  President Bush ordered the Agency to transfer its human intelligence (HUMINT) personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan to support newly deployed troops in Iraq, who needed more CIA officers to gather intelligence.  This shift of resources ultimately weakened intelligence collection capabilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The CIA could not recruit enough personnel to make up for the loss of personnel in the region.  Former CIA officer Art Keller elaborated on this dilemma, saying “blond-haired blue-eyed” operatives could not collect intelligence as they pleased in Afghan-Pakistani tribal areas. 

This poor intelligence collection resulted in an embarrassing UAV campaign by the CIA from 2006-2007, as all six UAV strikes that year failed to eliminate their targets because of the lack of intelligence gathered on the ground.  CIA Director General Michael Hayden (USAF, Ret.) protested to the White House, exclaiming, “We are zero for ’07,” and asked the President if the Agency could intensify its UAV campaign.

Bush granted Hayden his wish.  UAV activities were expanded over tribal areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan (particularly in Waziristan, the southern half of FATA), and the US government stopped seeking Pakistan’s permission to enter their airspace. This ultimately reduced the process of acquiring and eliminating a target from several hours to forty-five minutes.  Within the final six months of Bush’s second term, thirty UAV strikes killed multiple al Qaeda figureheads, including:

·       Abu Khabab al-Masri: Head of al-Qaeda’s chemical weapons program

·       Abu Harris: Al-Qaeda’s Pakistani chief

·       Abu Jihad al-Masri: Propaganda chief

·       Usama al-Kini & Sheikh Ahmed Salim: Executed 1998 US embassy bombings

In addition to an intensified UAV campaign, the CIA was authorized to place more operatives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater, and SOF operators increased the frequency of their cross-border raids in the region.  This effort backfired when a Navy SEAL raid resulted in the deaths of twenty Pakistani women and children on 3 September 2008.  In response, Pakistani General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani declared that his country’s “territorial integrity…will be defended at all costs,” indicating that future SOF raids would be met with force.  While the US halted its SOF missions, UAV activities continued to surge over Pakistan’s skies.

The total number of UAV strikes that the US has conducted in Afghanistan is unknown, as the US military has classified most of this information.  As for Pakistan, however, President Bush oversaw approximately 50 UAV strikes that killed around 410 people, 167 being Pakistani civilians.  Bush’s successor, however, would intensify America’s UAV campaign to unprecedented proportions, and allow the technology to take a leading role in the fight against terror.

Peace through Predators

When President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize on 9 December 2009, he acknowledged that “evil does exist in the world…Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.” 

Bergen explains that the President’s acknowledgement of evil’s presence served as his justification for his intensified UAV campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In his first National Security Council meeting, Obama authorized Michael Sulick, the director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS), to continue UAV activities in Pakistan’s tribal regions.  In addition to a troop surge in Afghanistan, Obama would approve 45 UAV strikes in his first year in office alone.  These strikes eliminated several al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Uzbek militants, including Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban. 

Suddenly, tragedy struck on 30 December 2009 when a Jordanian spy, who had been providing valuable HUMINT to the CIA for several months, set off a car bomb in Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan.  The incident killed seven CIA employees, including CIA station chief Jennifer Matthews, a key player in the hunt for bin Laden since it began.  This was the CIA’s deadliest day since the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983, and made the hunt for bin Laden and his terrorist network, according to John Brennan, who was Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor at the time, “very personal for a lot of CIA officers.”  The Agency responded by killing over sixty militants in an unprecedented eleven UAV strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. 

Bergen states that the Khost incident, including the drawdown of American forces in Iraq, prompted the CIA to transfer more personnel and UAVs back into the Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater.  However, these reassignments concerned Pakistani officials; they believed that bin Laden was nowhere to be found in their country, and presumed he was either elsewhere or dead.  Regardless, the Agency was determined to place its assets in their country when Faisal Shahzad, an American of Pakistani descent, was caught trying to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square on 1 May 2010. 

Since then, Obama has heavily relied on UAVs to eliminate al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.  These UAVs have eliminated just short of 2,100 al Qaeda and Taliban militants, over fifty of them being high-level targets during his Administration.  In fact, this technology has proven to be so advantageous, Obama’s national security advisors proposed to use a UAV to strike bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound.  Obama initially approved the idea, but he decided that an SOF raid would allow the US to confirm bin Laden’s death easier than a UAV strike.  Nonetheless, this sincere consideration displays how UAVs have evolved into a primary instrument of modern warfare. 

 The Hunter-Killers

With an estimated 160 aircraft in service, the Predator is equipped with a Multispectral Targeting System (MTS-A), consisting of Electro-optical/Infrared (EO/IR) video cameras and laser designators.  This allows the UAV to conduct target acquisition, and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions, providing the location of al-Qaeda militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater to CIA and personnel.  Soon after AGM-114 Hellfire missiles were attached to the UAV, the USAF and the CIA employed the Predator to provide close air support and air interdiction for friendly ground forces to eliminate their opponents in the theater.  Despite the success that US forces achieved with this UAV, the USAF procured its last MQ-1B Predator on 3 March 2011, marking the military’s transition to procure a more heavily armed successor instead.

Nicknamed the “hunter-killer,” General Atomics delivered the first MQ-9 Reaper to the USAF in 2002.  Like its predecessor, the Reaper is also designed to conduct ISR and target acquisition activities.  However, the Reaper is more capable of performing strike missions, as it is equipped with two GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and two GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs, in addition to four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.  The Reaper also flies two times faster, two times higher, and nine times farther than its predecessor.

As a result, the Reaper has ascended to take a leading role in the UAV campaign in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater, as this UAV has granted the CIA and the military a greater strike capability to eliminate the hierarchies of regional terrorist networks.  In fact, the Reaper successfully completed its first combat mission on 18 July 2008, shortly after the Bush Administration enhanced its UAV campaigns in the theater.  With an estimated 175 Reapers in service, the USAF aims to procure 186 of these UAVs by 2021 to maintain the Reaper’s advantageous capabilities in the sky. 

 Reins of the Reapers

While traditional pilots do not fly UAVs, they still depend upon personnel to control these aircraft when they embark on various missions.  These personnel usually originate from the CIA and the USAF, and their UAVs are located at a multitude of hidden airstrips scattered throughout the Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater.  There, personnel handle takeoffs, landings, and the overall maintenance of UAVs.  Once a UAV is airborne, controls are electronically “slewed over” to CIA and USAF operators in Langley, Virginia and Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, respectively. 

These US-based operators, accompanied by intelligence officers, use joysticks to fly the UAV, and rely on live video feed to navigate through the sky.  As the UAV approaches its target, the National Security Agency (NSA) provides signals intelligence to help the UAV operators correctly identify the target, in addition to intelligence collected prior to the UAV’s takeoff.  Once the target is acquired, military commanders and CIA officials give the operators permission to pull the trigger. 

 In addition to the CIA and the USAF, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) also partakes in America’s UAV campaign.  JSOC usually conducts UAV strikes alone, relying on HUMINT collected by themselves or from other intelligence agencies.  Since they operate under Title 10 U.S. Code § 167, JSOC is not required to seek congressional approval to conduct these strikes, while the CIA is obligated to brief Capitol Hill before any UAV can take off.  While this legal obligation decelerates the CIA’s ability to take action, JSOC has been able to play a decisive role in the UAV campaign by acting quickly when the Agency cannot. 

 However, this lack of congressional oversight is more likely to produce civilian casualties, as the unit prioritizes the elimination of high-value targets over the possibilities of collateral damage.  A military intelligence source elaborates: “JSOC personnel working under a classified mandate are not [overseen by Congress], so they just don’t care. If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four people in the building, thirty-five people are going to die. That’s the mentality.  They’re not accountable to anybody, and they know that.”  Even though JSOC’s rapid deployment capabilities have proven to be effective, this collateral damage has hindered strategic progress for the United States.  More specifically, in its relationship with Pakistan.

 Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Despite the tactical and operational benefits that UAVs have provided for American intelligence officers and warfighters, the use of these UAVs has strained the strategic relationship between the US and Pakistan.  As Pakistan provided land and air corridors for the US and NATO to supply their troops in Afghanistan, unauthorized American UAV strikes irritated Pakistan during the war.

In 2004, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf allowed the US to fly UAVs to support Pakistani military operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban in exchange for military aid, including armed helicopters and night-vision goggles.  His requests for Pakistani control of the UAVs themselves, however, were denied.

Since then, UAV strikes have resulted in the elimination of many high value targets.  However, it is estimated that between 423 and 965 Pakistani civilians have been killed since 2004.  Additionally, when Bush ramped up UAV activities in his last year of office, they were executed without the approval of the Pakistani government.  Pakistan’s government declared these strikes to be infringements of its sovereignty and burdens on its citizenry, but the US ignored their warnings.  However, the two governments soon agreed to a secret deal that continued the UAV campaign, one that called for collaboration in light of a deadly terrorist attack.

On 30 March 2009, Mehsud’s militants attacked a police academy in Lahore, Pakistan, killing 12 and injuring 95 others.  To retaliate, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) agreed to provide the whereabouts of Mehsud so American UAVs could eliminate the Taliban leader.  In the meantime, the Pakistani government would continue to condemn the UAV strikes.  The deal proved to be effective when the US eliminated Mehsud later that year.

This success prompted the US to notify Pakistan when they planned to conduct UAV strikes (though they did not seek Pakistan’s approval).  The CIA would notify the ISI via monthly faxes, broadly indicating where strikes would take place (usually along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border), but not naming the targets.  The ISI replied with another fax that acknowledged the Agency’s message and cleared the airspace ahead of time. 

This communication proved to be effective, but the SOF raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound nearly put all forms of cooperation between the two countries at risk.  Bergen explains that while Pakistani officials first congratulated the US for killing Osama bin Laden, it did not take long for the raid to embarrass Pakistan.  Foreign forces had penetrated the heartland of Pakistan without a response from the Pakistani military, and the government was not notified beforehand because, according to CIA Director Leon Panetta, “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission.  They might alert the targets.”

Thus, in addition to a number of diplomatic protests, the ISI stopped acknowledging the CIA’s faxes about UAV strikes, though Pakistan continued to clear soon to be affected airspace.  A US official claimed, “Not responding was their way of saying ‘we’re upset with you.’” 

Since then, the CIA has scaled back UAV strikes in the region, while Pakistan has initiated its own UAV program to combat terrorism.  The Burraq, which bears a striking resemblance to the Chinese CH-3 UAV recently sold to Iraq, was the first to eliminate terrorists on 7 September 2015.  Currently, there is no indication as to whether Pakistan and the US will conduct joint UAV operations. 

While such a collaborative campaign could improve relations, the CIA’s lack of trust in the ISI would likely prohibit intelligence sharing, which would slow targeting procedures, and ultimately, the elimination of high value targets.  However, conducting separate campaigns could also cause conflict, as the CIA and the ISI could attempt to strike the same targets simultaneously.  In the meantime, American UAVs should pursue terrorists with caution, as their strikes will continue to damage America’s relationship with its strategic (yet dubious) ally to a point of no return.

Flying Forward

While US combat operations have officially ceased in Afghanistan, the CIA and JSOC are pulling their personnel and UAVs from the theater to collaborate in a UAV campaign against ISIS forces in Syria.  In this joint operation, intelligence officers from the NCTC use UAVs to identify and locate senior IS figures, while JSOC exclusively strikes these targets.  Despite the positive implications of this collaborative effort, the reduction of CIA and JSOC capabilities in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater could allow the Pakistani Taliban to expand its foothold in the region.  Hopefully, the Pakistani military will be capable enough to suppress the terror group on its own.  If not, the US may be (reluctantly) called upon to reenter the theater, and “reeliminate” these militants.

Despite the demands of other covert activities abroad, Predators and Reapers alike in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Theater provided both tactical and operational advantages for American warfighters.  Members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda have suffered at the hands of remote pilots halfway around the world, but a tense US-Pakistan relationship and rising civilian casualties have also resulted from this UAV campaign, hindering US strategy in the region.  Nonetheless, the prolonged withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely see a continuation of UAV warfare in the region.  Regardless of the differences in overall strategy, Obama’s successor will likely continue to use UAVs to the fight against terror networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons