x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Afghan attacks highlight holes in drone policy

The US leadership likes to use drone strikes against militants in Pakistan but the evidence is that the tactic does more harm than good.

When the dust settled on a series of coordinated attacks across Afghanistan this week, bombings that killed at least four civilians, 11 security officers and three dozen insurgents, President Hamid Karzai condemned them as an "intelligence failure for us, and especially Nato".

There is no denying that is true; Nato and American forces have long been unable to predict when and where insurgent violence will occur. But this week's bloodshed was also a condemnation of the tactics western forces have relied on almost exclusively to target Pakistan-based insurgents - whom the Pentagon and others suspect orchestrated this week's strikes.

The US's preferred approach to targeting groups like the Haqqani network, which find refuge on the Pakistani side of the border, has been to strike from the sky, relying on unmanned drones to take out top commanders and foot soldiers. Efforts to cajole the Pakistani military to cut historic ties with fighters once nurtured by the US to fight Soviet forces have not borne fruit. And so the Obama administration has overseen a nearly 500 per cent escalation of its covert targeted killing programme. President Obama is believed to have authorised as many as 240 covert drone strikes during the last three years. There were fewer than 50 during the administration of George W Bush.

That the Haqqani and their militant Taliban counterparts remain lethal is not in question. This week alone the Taliban launched a series of attacks both in Afghanistan and within Pakistan. On Sunday, the group freed 380 fighters including high-profile insurgents from a prison in western Pakistan.

But while these sophisticated attacks show the need to maintain pressure on insurgent networks, they also suggest that strategies to contain them are not working. David Rohde, a former New York Times journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban and held in the tribal areas for seven months in 2008, wrote recently that "under Obama, drone strikes have become too frequent, too unilateral, and too much associated with the heavy-handed use of American power".

Challenging cross-border militancy requires sticks, but carrots as well. Talks with Taliban leaders are one approach that should be further explored. But it is also time to revisit talks with Pakistani leaders and explore long-term projects aimed at addressing the local population's real grievances, like poverty and poor infrastructure. If the US has learnt anything in the last decade, it should be that it can't bomb its way to regional stability.