After 20 Years of Drone Strikes, It’s Time to Admit They’ve Failed
Emran Feroz / MIT Technology Review
The very first drone attack missed its target, and two decades on civilians are still being killed. Why can’t we accept that the technology doesn’t work?
(October 9, 2021) — After the Taliban took over Kabul in mid-August, a black-bearded man with a Kalashnikov appeared on the streets. He visited former politicians and gave a sermon during Friday prayers at the capital’s historic Pul-e-Khishti mosque. But the man, passionate and seemingly victorious, was no mere Taliban fighter among tens of thousands of others: he was Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani, a Taliban leader prominent in the Haqqani Network, the group’s notorious military wing.
Ten years ago, the US placed a $5 million bounty on his head, so his appearance generated plenty of commentary about how he was openly traveling around Kabul — indeed, in September the Taliban even made him Afghanistan’s minister of refugees.
But what the gossip and the op-eds didn’t mention was that the real surprise wasn’t Haqqani’s public appearances — it was that he was appearing at all: Multiple times over the last two decades, the US military thought they’d killed him in drone strikes.
Clearly Haqqani is alive and well. But that raises a glaring question: if Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani wasn’t killed in those US drone strikes, who was?
The usual bland response is “terrorists,” an answer now institutionalized by the highest levels of the US security state. But the final days of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan showed that is not necessarily true. A day after an attack on troops at Kabul’s teeming airport, for example, the US responded with a “targeted” drone strike in the capital. Afterward it emerged that the attack had killed 10 members of one family, all of whom were civilians. One of the victims had served as an interpreter for the US in Afghanistan and had a Special Immigrant Visa ready. Seven victims were children. This did not match the generic success story the Biden administration initially told.
Something different happened with this strike, however. For years, most of the aerial operations the US has conducted took place in remote, rural locations where few facts could be verified and not many people could go to the scene.
But this strike took place in the middle of the country’s capital.
Journalists and investigators could visit the site, which meant they could easily fact-check everything the United States was claiming — and what had actually happened soon became clear. First, local Afghan television channels, like Tolo News, showed the family members of the victims. With so much attention being paid to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, international media outlets started to arrive, too. A detailed report by the New York Times forced Washington to retract its earlier claims. “It was a tragic mistake,” the Pentagon said during a press conference, as it was forced to admit that the strike had killed innocent civilians with no links to ISIS.
In fact, America’s last drone strike in Afghanistan — its last high-profile act of violence — was eerily similar to its very first one.
On October 7, 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in order to topple the Taliban regime. That day the first drone operation in history took place. An armed Predator drone flew over the southern province of Kandahar, known as the Taliban’s capital, which was the home of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the group’s supreme leader. Operators pushed the button to kill Omar, firing two Hellfire missiles at a group of bearded Afghans in loose robes and turbans. But afterward, he was not found among them.
In fact, he evaded the allegedly precise drones for more than a decade, eventually dying of natural causes in a hideout mere miles from a sprawling US base. Instead, America left a long trail of Afghan blood in its attempts to kill him and his associates.
“The truth is that we could not differentiate between armed fighters and farmers, women, or children, ” Lisa Ling, a former drone technician with the US military who has become a whistleblower, told me. “This kind of warfare is wrong on so many levels.”
More than 1,100 people in Pakistan and Yemen were killed between 2004 and 2014 during the hunt for 41 targets, according to the British human rights organization Reprieve. Most of those targets are men who are still alive, like the Haqqanis, or Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who just published another book while thousands of people have been murdered by drones instead of him.
As far back as 2014, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that only 4% of drone victims in Pakistan were identified as militants linked to Al-Qaeda. It also underlined that the CIA itself, which was responsible for the strikes in the country, did not know the affiliation of everyone they killed. “They identified hundreds of those killed as simply Afghan or Pakistani fighters,” or as “unknown,” the report stated.
And yet many US military officials and politicians continue to spin the drone narrative. Even the targeted militant groups have joined in: for a couple of years, the Taliban have been using armed commercial drones to attack their enemies, portraying drones as technologically superior — just as American officials had done before them. “The drone’s targeting system is very exact,” one member of the Taliban’s drone unit recently told Afghan journalist Fazelminallah Qazizai.
The Taliban don’t have the same drone resources as the US. They aren’t backed by a global assassination network of operators and weather experts. Nor do they have a satellite relay station like the one at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which was described as the heart of the US drone war in documents supplied by Daniel Hale, a former intelligence analyst who became a whistleblower.
(Hale, too, has revealed evidence showing that most drone victims in Afghanistan were civilians. His reward was 45 months in prison.)
But even though they don’t have the same means as the US, the Taliban too have been convinced that drones are the perfect weapons. “We work for our ideology,” a Taliban drone operator told Qazizai.
Even though they know strikes regularly miss their targets, it seems that they — just like the US — have a blind faith in technology.
OCTOBER IS SHUT DOWN CREECH MONTH!
Veterans for Peace
(October 8, 2021) — VFP members, including Executive Director Garett Reppenhagen and staff members Chris Velazquez, Jules Vaquera and Casey Stinemetz, just got back from a week of actions in Nevada.
Together with other members of VFP, CODEPINK, and Ban Killer Drones, they led demonstrations daily last week outside Creech Air Force Base to call for an immediate halt to US drone attacks and a ban on the use of all armed drones. Many remote drone strikes are executed from Creech, a base about 45 miles outside of Las Vegas. You can read the full report back here
Another Week of Anti-war Protests at Creech Completed;
Activists Vow They Won’t Let Up
(October 3, 2021) — Garett Reppenhagen’s father is a Vietnam War veteran. Both of his grandfathers fought in World War II.
Reppenhagen followed their path into the military, serving as a sniper in the US Army and doing a combat tour in Iraq before being honorably discharged.
Somewhere along the way, he said he came to the realization that there are better ways to solve problems than fighting costly wars.
The 42-year-old Denver resident, who traveled to Las Vegas last week, is now an anti-war advocate and the executive director of Veterans for Peace, a group global of military veterans that pushes for dismantling the war economy. It aims to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, and has 140 chapters worldwide working on the cause.
“We believe that we should use all diplomatic efforts and make sure they’re exhausted before we send troops in harm’s way, before we engage in military aggression that ends in killing many innocent people,” Reppenhagen said.
Veterans for Peace and CODEPINK, a women-led organization working to end US wars and militarism, led demonstrations daily last week outside Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs to urge the United States to stop using drones for surveillance or airstrikes. Reppenhagen was among the protesters.
Many of the remote drone attacks are executed from Creech, a base about 45 miles outside of Las Vegas the groups would like to see shuttered.
“I think people in Vegas should know what’s happening under their noses,” Reppenhagen said. “The military is still servants of our democracy. We deserve a right to have a voice and control over what’s happening.”
Protesters said the Aug. 29 drone strike that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, amid the US pullout from Afghanistan was a call to action. The Pentagon said it believed at the time of the attack the car that was targeted contained a known ISIS threat. Since, however, the Pentagon has backtracked and now calls the strike a “tragic mistake.”
“It’s an eye-opener for the American people and other people around the world,” said Eleanor Levine, an organizer for CODEPINK. “It happened in Kabul, so people actually witnessed it and heard about it.”
In 2019, 600 pilots and 350 sensor or camera operators work to average six airstrikes and 1,000 combat hours out of Creech every day, according to CBS News. The Pentagon reported in 2018 that 499 civilians were killed in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen due to military actions the year prior and 169 were injured in US airstrikes. Another 450 civilian casualties for that year “remained to be assessed.”
Since the War on Terror began in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it’s estimated between 910 and 2,200 civilians have been killed by 14,040 confirmed drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
It has been difficult to track civilian deaths by airstrikes since the Trump administration revoked an Obama-era executive order requiring the US to disclose civilians and combatants killed outside war zones.
Some of those civilian deaths are likely unintended consequences of conducting strikes on military targets, said Barry R. Posen, a national security expert and political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Others can be mistakes like the strike that killed the family in August.
Additionally, drone strikes could be counter effective to long-term US goals in combating terrorism, Posen said, especially when a population is under sustained attacks. When civilians are killed by drone strikes, surviving relatives, friends and community members may become sympathetic to anti-American causes.
“The various peace organizations will tell you that we probably made way more than we admit to,” Posen said. “(But) the American military has a high standard for accepting the argument that they made a mistake.”
While the term “drone” has been widely adopted, the military prefers the term remote-piloted aircraft, or RPAs. Tech. Sgt. Emerson Nuñez, a spokesperson for Creech, said Creech was one of several bases that operated the MQ-9, otherwise known as the Reaper, which can be equipped with laser-guided bombs, Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.
Reapers have a 66-foot-long wingspan and are 36-feet long, according to manufacturer General Atomics. They can be operated at a number of bases because the aircraft is linked by satellite and launched from other air bases from around the world, Posen said.
“It’s a weird thing to think about,” Posen said. “A person has breakfast, drives to the base, the command center or whatever it is they’re using. And then they’re taking off a plane in the Middle East.”
And as long as the military continues to fly drones out of Creech, the anti-war groups will continue with their movement, Reppenhagen said. He said the groups had been involved in protests twice annually at Creech the past 12 years.
Despite attempts by protesters Thursday to disrupt traffic, Nuñez said “the base is operating under normal conditions and supports the rights to assembly and free speech.”
Metro Police, which polices the area outside the Air Force base, said one arrest was made at Thursday’s protest at Creech. Toby Blomé, an organizer for CODEPINK, was charged with making a false statement and obstructing a public officer, Metro Police spokesman Misael Parra said.
“The military got caught with their pants down,” Blomé said. “It’s just our way of saying this is unacceptable.”
A smaller group of anti-war activists rallied Thursday on the Fremont Street Experience, reading poems, chanting anti-war slogans and speaking with visitors to the popular tourism corridor.
Veterans for Peace strives to do more than shut down the drone program and increase public awareness about the cost of war, both financially and emotionally. It also works to assists veterans and victims of wars.
Reppenhagen, who has previously worked as a lobbyist in Washington for anti-war causes, said he also wants to be an ally of military personnel dealing with trauma.
On Friday morning, the last day of protest, Reppenhagen said protesters distributed donuts to those entering the base. There was a QR code on the napkins that would take whomever scanned it to a website with links to military counseling and other resources.
According to the on Creech’s website, 4.3% of drone operators show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s lower than the range of 4%-18% of personnel returning from the battlefield that may experience PTSD, according to the post.
“I know firsthand the moral injury that comes along with serving as a service member,” Reppenhagen said. “There is guilt and shame involved in taking innocent lives. These drone operators are in a very difficult situation every day trying to accomplish their mission and do their job.”
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