x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

In America's sights: the 'drone war' escalates

The classified US drone programme may be the worst kept secret in Washington, and the Obama administration seems content to continue the controversial strategy.

The classified US drone programme may be the worst kept secret in Washington - and with nearly US$1.4 billion earmarked in the budget for more of the winged assassins - the Obama administration seems content to continue the controversial strategy. Hamida Ghafour reports When an al Qa'eda triple agent blew himself up at the Chapman military base in Khost, southern Afghanistan, on December 30, killing seven CIA agents who had been tricked into believing he was on their side, an enraged spokesman for the intelligence agency vowed revenge.

"There are some very bad people who eventually are going to have a very bad day," he said. This week the CIA appeared to make good on its promise. On Tuesday a volley of 18 missiles fired by unmanned aircraft hit Pakistan's North Waziristan region in a dramatic escalation of the so-called drone wars between America and the Taliban being played out in the shadowy region where the plot against the CIA is believed to have been organised.

The deaths of up to 18 militants and an unknown number of civilians came after Pakistani state television reported on Sunday night that Hakimullah Mehsud, the young leader of the extremist movement Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, died of injuries received during an earlier drone strike in mid-January. The Pakistani Taliban deny he is dead, although Pakistani and American officials say otherwise. Independent confirmation is difficult to ascertain because journalists are banned from travelling to the region.

What is certain is America's secretive "targeted killings" programme, a euphemism for assassinations, is expanding in Pakistan using unmanned Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles that hover thousands of metres in the sky keeping watch over targets with sophisticated cameras. Officially the programme is classified. But it is the worst kept secret in Washington. Since 2008, 20 top al Qa'eda and Taliban leaders have been killed which is why Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, last May told an audience of policymakers that drone strikes were the "only game in town".

This week the US government's defence budget review announced that spending on unmanned surveillance aircraft would increase from US$877 million (Dh3.2 billion) in 2010 to $1.4bn next year. The army is buying 26 extended-range Predators and the production of its deadlier sibling, the MQ-9 Reaper, will double to 48. The American Civil Liberties Union is considering suing the federal government to force it to respond to a freedom of information request it filed last month about the use of drones in its targeted killings programme.

"The government has not provided basic information about the scope and limits of the targeted killing programme or its consequences in terms of the number of civilians and non-civilians killed," said Jonathan Manes, a lawyer for the organisation speaking from New York. "Our concern therefore is that this programme not be shrouded in unnecessary and excessive secrecy and that it is operated in a manner consistent with domestic and international law."

The Pakistani Taliban has borne the brunt of the targeted killings. All of its leaders killed to date, have been the victim of missles fired by drones. Hakimullah's predecessor, Baitullah, a former gym instructor and diabetic, was killed last August as he lay with a glucose drip in his arm on the rooftop of his father-in-law's house in South Waziristan. Nek Mohammad, the charismatic founder of the Pakistani Taliban, was killed in 2004.

Hina Shamsi, a senior adviser on the project on extrajudicial executions at the New York University School of Law, spoke of secret hit lists which had little or no oversight. "There are lists that are maintained both by the military and by the CIA and we do not have more information about who signs off and what the issues are with respect to who can be included or not." It is also not known how many civilians have been caught up in the carnage - 15 drone missiles were aimed at Hakimullah before he was hit - as estimates vary from 700 to 1,000. "I think the figures are inflated but the problem is I can't prove it anymore than you can prove they are high," said Roger Cressey, a partner at Harbor Consulting and a former counter-terrorism official on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

"It is the nature of covert activity. By its nature it will not be publicly debated. There is a question: should it be a programme run and governed by US military or continue to be in a covert way? But the US cannot operate in Pakistan openly. The government of Pakistan also wants it to be covert because they don't want US troops openly there. So there is no alternative right now. It would have to go to Congress and the administration would have to seek a declaration of war. Which isn't going to happen."

The Pakistani government is complicit in the attacks. Some of the planes are taking off from Pakistan's Shamsi airfield, which was built 320km south-west of Quetta by Gulf Arab sheikhs for falconry excursions. Last year there were 53 drone missions but so far this year there have already been 13, said Katherine Tiedemann, of the New America Foundation and a co-author of an upcoming report on drone strikes.

"The strikes are clearly an important component of the administration's plans in Pakistan," she said in an interview from Washington. The technology is dazzling. Former fighter pilots at the Creech airbase in Nevada or at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, sit in virtual cockpits manning the controls of Predators and Reapers that take off from bases thousands of kilometres away in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq.

They hover quietly between 10,000 and 50,000 feet in the air recording live video over a 1.5km radius for up to 24 hours. They stalk their prey for kilometres across Pakistan's rough terrain with thermal sensors that can even detect which insurgent fired his gun in the last 30 minutes by monitoring the temperature of the barrel. When the pilots zero in on their target, they hit the trigger on a Hellfire missile, which travel at 1,500kph.

"These are technologies that are incredible, science fiction-like, but you still have the fog of war and the other part is the enemy still has a vote in how it plays out," said Peter Singer, the author of Wired For War. The militants are retaliating by hitting Pakistan's cities, traumatising a nation for whom the unruly tribal areas were once a faraway problem. After the March 2009 series of co-ordinated attacks on the cricket team in Lahore, Hakimullah Mehsud told reporters: "We will continue to launch suicide attacks until US drone attacks are stopped."

The leaders keep several mobile phones, frequently change the locations of safe houses and avoid gathering in one location. They move by night. They are also increasingly hiding in populated areas which means terrified civilians are caught between deadly Predators that roam the skies and insurgents who know any strike will take out innocent bystanders and further fuel public outrage. "It isn't the Taliban these strikes are harming, it is the businessmen, the shopkeepers and the average people," said Ahmed Khan, a shopkeeper in the village of Dir.

A tribal leader in Bajaur, who did not want his name published because he feared retaliation, said the drone strikes were encouraging young men to join the Taliban. "It is America's war against us and many young men are now joining hands with the Taliban to defend our country." Once, rescue teams and concerned citizens would rush to the scene of a missile strike to help the wounded. No more. Those who try to help have been killed by a second wave of missile fire.

The Haqqani Network seems to be the target of this week's attacks. The outfit is run by the Afghan father-and-son team, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Sirajuddin, who played a role in the December attack against the CIA control in the south-east territory straddling North Waziristan and Afghanistan. Sirajuddin, the son, has the reputation of being as sly as a fox, moving back and forth across the border hidden under a blue burqa.

Haqqani, the red-bearded elder, was a favourite of the CIA and Pakistan's intelligence services during the anti-Soviet wars and received large sums of cash and arms. It will be a rich irony if the Haqqanis now become the targets of their former mentors. @Email:hghafour@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Ayesha Nasir in Lahore