x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Drones won't do the job in Afghanistan

Barack Obama has concluded that any kind of victory in Afghanistan depends on improving governance and winning hearts and minds.

In his strategic review of his country's commitment in Afghanistan last year, the US president Barack Obama concluded that any kind of victory there depended on improving governance and winning hearts and minds. It is odd then that the US-led effort is more reliant than ever on a tool that lacks both a heart and a mind: the unmanned drone.

Predator Drones have flown more than 21,000 sorties in Afghanistan so far this year, 2,000 more than in 2009. In September, drones dropped 700 bombs or missiles.

That the rise in drone attacks has coincided with General David Petraeus's taking command in Afghanistan is more perplexing. Building institutions and fostering trust with the local population was more important than fighting insurgents, Gen Petraeus has argued. Whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, the US could not capture or kill its way to victory. This was the foundation of the US counter-insurgency strategy - the one Gen Petraeus developed.

It is not that drones do not have a role to play. They have killed many foreign fighters and members of al Qa'eda in Afghanistan. Their strikes have become more precise: according to the UN, fewer Afghan civilians have been killed this year by the coalition. Small numbers of Taliban fighters are now seeking a settlement with the central government. Drone attacks may have been indispensable in achieving these tactical victories but they have done little to achieve the larger strategic imperatives for Afghanistan's success.

Commanders of coalition forces said last winter that when they took areas from the Taliban, "governments in a box" would follow them to strengthen infrastructure there. They would improve the welfare of ordinary Afghans and limit the appeal of the Taliban. These efforts now appear to have been set aside in favour of the drone and its blunt tools. Drone attacks may continue to bleed the Taliban but they will do little to dampen the sources of the Taliban's power - the absence of development and the desperation that it creates.