March 26, 2013

See Every Drone Strike in Pakistan on This Interactive Map


An interactive graphic from Pitch Interactive maps out all the known drone strikes that the U.S. has launched in Pakistan, including the estimated civilian death toll. It uses data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the New America Foundation as its source. (Graphic Detail has a nice backgrounder on how the project came together.)

According to the Bureau, there have been 366 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan responsible for the deaths of between 2,537-3,581 people. Of those, an estimated 411-884 were civilians and 168-197 were children.

These figures are not without their critics but they are the closest thing we have to a rough approximation of U.S. drone activity.

(Image: Pitch Interactive)

February 21, 2013

The 22 Ways al-Qaeda Dodges Drones


As al-Qaeda-linked militants fled the French assault in Mali, they left behind a trove of documents. The AP got their hands on some and discovered a list of tips that al-Qaeda circulated to its fighters on how to avoid being vaporized by drones.

So, what's their advice? Here it is in full:

1 – It is possible to know the intention and the mission of the drone by using the Russianmade “sky grabber” device to infiltrate the drone’s waves and the frequencies. The device
is available in the market for $2,595 and the one who operates it should be a computerknow-how.
2 – Using devices that broadcast frequencies or pack of frequencies to disconnect the
contacts and confuse the frequencies used to control the drone. The Mujahideen have had
successful experiments using the Russian-made “Racal.”
3 – Spreading the reflective pieces of glass on a car or on the roof of the building.
4 – Placing a group of skilled snipers to hunt the drone, especially the reconnaissance
ones because they fly low, about six kilometers or less.
5 – Jamming of and confusing of electronic communication using the ordinary water-lifting
dynamo fitted with a 30-meter copper pole.
6 – Jamming of and confusing of electronic communication using old equipment and
keeping them 24-hour running because of their strong frequencies and it is possible using
simple ideas of deception of equipment to attract the electronic waves devices similar to
that used by the Yugoslav army when they used the microwave (oven) in attracting and
confusing the NATO missiles fitted with electromagnetic searching devices.
7 – Using general confusion methods and not to use permanent headquarters.
8 – Discovering the presence of a drone through well-placed reconnaissance networks and
to warn all the formations to halt any movement in the area.
9 – To hide from being directly or indirectly spotted, especially at night.
10 – To hide under thick trees because they are the best cover against the planes.
11 – To stay in places unlit by the sun such as the shadows of the buildings or the trees.
12 – Maintain complete silence of all wireless contacts.
13 – Disembark of vehicles and keep away from them especially when being chased or
during combat.
14 – To deceive the drone by entering places of multiple entrances and exits.
15 – Using underground shelters because the missiles fired by these planes are usually of
the fragmented anti-personnel and not anti-buildings type.
16 – To avoid gathering in open areas and in urgent cases, use building of multiple doors
or exits.
17 – Forming anti-spies groups to look for spies and agents.
18 – Formation of fake gatherings such as using dolls and statutes to be placed outside
false ditches to mislead the enemy.
19 – When discovering that a drone is after a car, leave the car immediately and everyone
should go in different direction because the planes are unable to get after everyone.
20 – Using natural barricades like forests and caves when there is an urgent need for
training or gathering.
21 – In frequently targeted areas, use smoke as cover by burning tires.
22 – As for the leaders or those sought after, they should not use communications
equipment because the enemy usually keeps a voice tag through which they can identify
the speaking person and then locate him.

(AP Photo)

February 15, 2013

Are U.S. Bases in Saudi Arabia No Longer Inflammatory?


Last week, both the New York Times and Washington Post revealed the existence of a secret U.S. drone base operating inside Saudi Arabia. The news raised eyebrows because it was the existence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s that figured so prominently in Osama bin Laden's jihad against the United States. That the Obama administration would blithely drop another U.S. base into the country without regard for the potentially negative symbolism could, as Tom Engelhardt argues, be a sign of sheer stupidity. Max Fischer, however, isn't so sure, noting that since the revelation, reaction has been rather tame:

It is difficult to draw many conclusions from this one incident, but it does suggest several interesting possibilities. Perhaps, for example, there is something categorically different, for Saudi citizens, between a large number of U.S. troops and a relatively small drone base, which makes the latter less significantly offensive than the former. Maybe there have been so many hints and suggestions of such a base that people had time to get used to the idea.

Or maybe something about Saudi Arabia has changed during the past 20 years, such that what might have once caused wide public outrage no longer does. It is still an austere, deeply conservative and politically oppressive country, but it has not been totally immune from the Middle East’s two turbulent and ideologically charged decades.

It's obviously too soon to draw a firm conclusion, but it points to the underlying and probably unanswerable issue with the drone war: is it radicalizing more people than it is killing? Everything we know about the Obama administration's counter-terrorism policy suggests that they prioritize taking immediate action at the risk of long-term damage vs. enduring heightened risk in the short-term with the promise (hope) of mitigating the danger of jihadism over the long term.

It's hard to blame them for this approach -- there is no incentive for politicians to take the long view on this (or any) issue. Only time will tell if it was the right approach.

(Satellite photos of possible U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, via Wired)

February 12, 2013

More Evidence Americans Support the Drone War


Pew Research is out with a study showing that a majority of Americans support the drone war. According to Pew, 56 percent of Americans support drone strikes. Drones enjoy bi-partisan support, with 68 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats approving their use.

While there is bipartisan agreement, there is a sharp gender gap: 68 percent of men approve of them while only 44 percent of women feel the same.

As far as the potential impact of drone strikes, Americans are most concerned with civilian casualties (53 percent said they were "very" concerned) and less concerned about blow back (32 percent), the legality of strikes (31 percent) and the impact drones are having on America's international reputation (26 percent).


Another recent study from a Fairleigh Dickinson University showed that Americans supported drone strikes against foreigners, but not against U.S. citizens.

(AP Photo)

February 7, 2013

American Support Drone Strikes on Foreigners, Not Americans


Americans overwhelmingly support the use of drones on terrorism suspects, but a majority also believe it is illegal for drones to assassinate Americans, according to a poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Almost 75 percent of Americans polled said they supported drone strikes vs. 13 percent who opposed them. When it comes to killing American citizens, however, 48 percent oppose while 24 percent support it.

Interestingly, there was greater support for letting the military carry out drone attacks instead of the CIA.

(AP Photo)

February 4, 2013

Designing a 'Drone Proof' City


While the U.S. has pioneered the use of armed drones in warfare, other states are scrambling to catch up. A world of proliferating drones has security experts and civil libertarians grappling for ways to cope.

One novel idea, courtesy of Asher Kohn, is to design a "drone-proof" city. This high-tech concept features buildings with no consistent external layout, so as to render mapping difficult. It uses "smart windows" with multicolor glass to make seeing inside buildings considerably harder. The entire city would have a roof and thus a uniform temperature, making personal heat signatures harder to trace and on-the-ground visibility impossible.

You can get a more detailed description of Kohn's 'Shura City' here. The name, Kohn said, was inspired by the Quetta Shura -- the organization run by Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Reading through Kohn's architectural musings, I have to imagine that Omar and others on the receiving end of drone strikes can't be that heartened by it, as none of this is remotely easy to build.

(Image: Asher Kohn)

January 25, 2013

Al-Qaeda Waging a 'Dirty War' in Yemen


While the world is focused on the menace of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in North Africa, Daniel Green says that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has rebounded from a series of conventional military defeats and is fighting a "dirty war" against the Yemeni government:

Having been temporarily defeated using conventional military methods, AQAP has shifted tactics. Over the past several months, the group has undertaken a concerted murder and intimidation campaign targeting security, military, and intelligence officials working against it, not just in the south, but also in the capital. The most notable victim thus far was General Qatan, the southern commander who was killed by a suicide attacker in mid-June. By one count, at least fifty-five officials, many of whom worked on counterterrorism, have been assassinated by suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices, or small-arms fire.

AQAP's ability to conduct such strikes in the capital shows that its reach has grown significantly. It also suggests possible collusion with government security forces in Sana, some of whom may be allied with former president Saleh.

Green suggests that Washington expand military training for the Yemeni armed forces, focus on tribal committees to try and run al-Qaeda out at the grass-roots and bolstering U.S. intelligence to better anticipate assassination attempts.

The U.S. has had some recent counter-terrorism success in Yemen. The "number 2" of AQAP recently died from wounds sustained in a drone strike. The U.S. drone war in Yemen has also sharply escalated, with four drone strikes in the last five days. According to Ken Dilanian, the U.S. carried out 10 drone strikes in 2011 and 42 last year. It would surprise no one if we surpassed that figure in 2013.

(AP Photo)

December 26, 2012

Is the U.S. Digging Itself a Deeper Hole in Yemen?

The Washington Post offers some reporting from Yemen that suggests the U.S. drone campaign there is creating a mess:

U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine counterterrorism fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country.

In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.

Since the attack, militants in the tribal areas surrounding Radda have gained more recruits and supporters in their war against the Yemeni government and its key backer, the United States. The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist about the incident for the first time, expressed willingness to support or even fight alongside AQAP, as the al-Qaeda group is known.

“Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans,” Mohammed said. “If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting America.”

Public outrage is also growing as calls for accountability, transparency and compensation go unanswered amid allegations by human rights activists and lawmakers that the government is trying to cover up the attack to protect its relationship with Washington. Even senior Yemeni officials said they fear that the backlash could undermine their authority.

“If we are ignored and neglected, I would try to take my revenge. I would even hijack an army pickup, drive it back to my village and hold the soldiers in it hostages,” said Nasser Mabkhoot Mohammed al-Sabooly, the truck’s driver, 45, who suffered burns and bruises. “I would fight along al-Qaeda’s side against whoever was behind this attack.”

Relatedly, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen spoke to the Canadian International Council about the budding air war in Yemen. It's a very illuminating interview and in it, Johnsen argues that U.S. policy in Yemen is backfiring:

In the West, the debate over U.S. policy in Yemen has become focused on drone strikes, but in Yemen, the focus is on the civilian casualties that are a result of some of those strikes. When the Obama administration started carrying out attacks in Yemen, there were about 200-300 individuals affiliated with AQAP. Today, it’s at least 1,000 – in fact, the U.S. State Department estimates that it’s at least a few thousand. I don’t think all of this is attributable to the use of drones, or to the civilian casualties they’ve resulted in, but I think a large portion of it is, and because of this, one of the things that I think the U.S. has to do is reconsider its strike policy.
Johnsen goes on to argue that a more targeted policy of fewer strikes against only truly high value targets may yield better results. But he also makes a crucial point -- because of the secrecy that surrounds U.S. counter-terrorism policy, it's very hard to make critical judgments about its effectiveness:
So we’re all basing our analyses on what’s been made public, and because there’s so little of that and so much that remains shrouded in secrecy, we’re all able to import our own biases into the discussion. Two well-intentioned, honest individuals could look at the same thing, and one could claim the action represents an evolution of what the term “imminent threat” means, while the other could see an example of the U.S. acting as a counterinsurgency air force. The truth is that most of us on the outside just don’t know what the government officials who are making these decisions are thinking, or what’s driving the program.

November 26, 2012

America's Counterinsurgency Air Force for Yemen


There's no question that U.S. drones have served a beneficial purpose in prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda, but there have long been two worrisome trends associated with drone strikes. The first is the target list: it appears to be much broader than simply al-Qaeda's top leaders. The second is the executive branch secrecy and assumption of broad powers to kill people, including American citizens, at will.

A new report in the New York Times sheds a bit more light on the issue:

But by many accounts, there has been a significant shift in the nature of the targets. In the early years, most strikes were aimed at ranking leaders of Al Qaeda thought to be plotting to attack the United States. That is the purpose Mr. Obama has emphasized, saying in a CNN interview in September that drones were used to prevent “an operational plot against the United States” and counter “terrorist networks that target the United States.”

But for at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.

In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.

“Unless they were about to get on a flight to New York to conduct an attack, they were not an imminent threat to the United States,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the strikes. “We don’t say that we’re the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but we are.”

Of course, since the administration will only discuss the drone program through self-serving, mostly anonymous leaks, it's literally impossible to judge anything that's written about it. However, taking the New York Times report at face value, it does appear that the administration has unleashed drones on a wider set of targets than seems justified given the threat.

Among the problems with serving as a "counterinsurgency air force" for countries like Pakistan or Yemen is that it makes yet another series of enemies for the U.S. Part of the problem likely stems from the co-mingling of terrorist groups and local insurgencies, but the U.S. shouldn't put its weapons in the service of foreign countries with dubious human rights records unless there is a clear danger to the United States.

(AP Photo)

November 19, 2012

President Obama: No Country Should Tolerate Missiles Raining Down on Them (Except the Ones We're Bombing)

"There's no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." - President Obama

As Mike Riggs wrly observes, "That is a very interesting thing to say at a time when the U.S. is regularly raining missiles down on Pakistan and Yemen."

Interesting indeed. President Obama is right, of course. Which is why the U.S. shouldn't be surprised when its own missile campaigns generate anti-Americanism and terrorism targeting U.S. interests.

November 13, 2012

Why Is al-Qaeda Thriving in Yemen? Saudi Arabia

In reviewing Gregory Johnsen's book on al-Qaeda in Yemen, Clint Watts describes how Saudi Arabia fueled the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP):

Going into this book, I expected to be convinced that drones were more central to AQAP’s rise. However, having read the manuscript, I actually am more confident in my assessment from this past summer that it is a combination of external and internal factors that have led to AQAP’s regeneration with the most important enabler being the Saudi purge of AQ members in 2006-2007. Greg does discuss this Saudi purge in the book and I believe it is critical to understanding where and when AQ grows and ebbs. Young Saudi foreign fighters have been the largest portions of recruits and leaders for years supplying one jihad after another. With the decline of Iraq, Saudi foreign fighters flowed into Yemen and today I imagine AQAP in Yemen is now competing with Syria for the collection of fresh recruits. Having read Greg’s book, I see the influx of Saudi foreign fighters, the failures of rehabilitation programs and repeated prison escapes as the driving factors in AQAP’s recent heights. Drones didn’t generate AQAP’s growth, drones responded to AQAP’s growth. [Emphasis mine.]

September 27, 2012

Debating Drones


Joshua Foust makes some good points pushing back against the Living Under Drones report, noting that the methodology was designed to produce a somewhat skewed report:

For starters, the sample size of the study is 130 people. In a country of 175 million, that is just not representative. 130 respondents isn't representative even of the 800,000 or so people in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the region of Pakistan where most drone strikes occur. Moreover, according to the report's methodology section, there is no indication of how many respondents were actual victims of drone strikes, since among those 130 they also interviewed "current and former Pakistani government officials, representatives from five major Pakistani political parties, subject matter experts, lawyers, medical professionals, development and humanitarian workers, members of civil society, academics, and journalists."

The authors did not conduct interviews in the FATA, but Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Peshawar. The direct victims they interviewed were contacted initially by the non-profit advocacy group Foundation for Fundamental Rights, which is not a neutral observer (their explicit mission is to end the use of drones in Pakistan).

Foust also asks an important question: if not drones, what? When the Pakistani army attempted to clear militants from the FATA, it resulted in massive destruction and tens of thousands of refugees - far worse than the toll inflicted by U.S. drones.

But does this mean the drone program, in its current form, is the "only" choice? Foust thinks so:

The targets of drone strikes in Pakistan sponsor insurgents in the region that kill U.S. soldiers and destabilize the Pakistani state (that is why Pakistani officials demand greater control over targeting). They cannot simply be left alone to continue such violent attacks. And given the Pakistani government's reluctance either to grant the FATA the political inclusion necessary for normal governance or to establish an effective police force (right now it has neither), there is no writ of the state to impose order and establish the rule of law.

But here's the thing: how many drone strikes are targeting international terrorists (i.e. those training or plotting to hit U.S. and Western targets abroad) and how many are hitting local insurgents who are fighting the U.S. because it's decamped in Afghanistan?

This seems like a critical distinction (although these two militant groups likely collaborate) because one group poses an enduring threat to the United States and the other ceases to be an American problem once Washington abandons its flailing nation building effort in Afghanistan. From publicly available information, it's not always clear which of these groups is being targeted. The tempo of the drone strikes suggests that it's less about hitting international terrorists and more about extending the Afghan war into the Pakistani sanctuaries that are out of reach of U.S. troops.

That leads to a second, far more important, question: is the U.S. targetting militants that threaten the Pakistani state, or those sponsored by the Pakistani state. It's rather perverse to argue that drones are critical to protect Pakistan from militant violence when that country's intelligence service believes it is at war with you and uses militants to advance its own interests.

Underlying these questions is a somewhat understandable/somewhat troubling lack of clarity (and outright falsehoods) from the Obama administration as to what's going on. While much of the concern over the drone war comes from questions about its effectiveness (or lack thereof) in curbing terrorist violence, we should be equally concerned about how the use of this weapon is enshrining some of the worst tendencies in Washington with respect to democratic accountability and the rule of law.

(AP Photo)

September 26, 2012

The Costs of the U.S. Drone War

A new report, Living Under Drones, goes on the ground in Pakistan to document the U.S. drone war. I've just started reading it, but the above teaser video does a good job setting up the overall thrust. Long story short: the U.S. line on drone strikes as being surgical appears to be vastly overstated.

August 30, 2012

Tracking U.S. Drone Strikes? There's No Longer an App for That

Apple doesn't want you to know when a U.S. drone kills someone:

It seemed like a simple enough idea for an iPhone app: Send users a pop-up notice whenever a flying robots kills someone in one of America’s many undeclared wars. But Apple keeps blocking the Drones+ program from its App Store — and therefore, from iPhones everywhere. The Cupertino company says the content is “objectionable and crude,” according to Apple’s latest rejection letter.

It’s the third time in a month that Apple has turned Drones+ away, says Josh Begley, the program’s New York-based developer. The company’s reasons for keeping the program out of the App Store keep shifting. First, Apple called the bare-bones application that aggregates news of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia “not useful.” Then there was an issue with hiding a corporate logo. And now, there’s this crude content problem.

Begley is confused. Drones+ doesn’t present grisly images of corpses left in the aftermath of the strikes. It just tells users when a strike has occurred, going off a publicly available database of strikes compiled by the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which compiles media accounts of the strikes.

June 7, 2012

How Obama Undermines the Drone Program


The question of civilian casualties is one of the more important metrics in the use of terrorist-targeting drones. If U.S. targeting has a very high degree of accuracy with very few civilian deaths, the use of drones is more defensible. If drones are killing large groups of civilians or it's unclear who's dying and how important they are in the al-Qaeda hierarchy, then it's harder to justify - at least on a widespread basis.

The Obama administration has had a difficult time squaring up on this issue, so now they have a new, simplified formula. To wit: a combatant is anyone killed by a U.S. drone. Or as the New York Times writes:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

So not only do we not know who's getting killed by the drones, we now know that the administration is cooking the books in a way to deliberately confuse matters. Unfortunately, by doing so they're undermining the fundamental legitimacy of the drone program. It's not only that the public doesn't have enough information to judge the program's efficacy (that's unavoidable, given its nature) but it is now impossible to trust what information the government is providing. That's hardly the basis for a legitimate, sustainable policy.

This approach is also likely to impress upon any young man downwind of U.S. drones that America places a very low value on their life. For a country whose political class engages in endless self-congratulatory paeans to "American values," it sure is an odd message to send.

(AP Photo)

June 6, 2012

Going to War with Pakistan Won't Stabilize Afghanistan


Max Boot wants to send drones after the Taliban inside Pakistan:

There have been a few drone strikes on the Haqqani Network in and around Waziristan, Pakistan, but none, so far as I am aware, on the Taliban leadership headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan–nor on the operational Taliban hub at Chaman, Pakistan, just across the border from southern Afghanistan. These groups are actively killing Americans all the time–more than al-Qaeda Central can boast of these days. Yet we have not unleashed the CIA and Special Operations Forces to do to them what they have done to al-Qaeda. Why not? Largely because of the sensitivities of the Pakistani government which is an active sponsor of the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

But so what? The Pakistanis have declining leverage over us; they have kept their supply line to Afghanistan closed since last fall and it has not seriously disrupted NATO operations. The administration needs to figure out whether it’s serious about leaving a more stable Afghanistan behind when the bulk of U.S. troops are withdrawn. If it is, it will unleash the Reapers against the Taliban and Haqqanis–not just against al-Qaeda.

It's just as likely that U.S. efforts to expand the number of drone war targets would lead Pakistan to destabilize Afghanistan even more than it has already done. Drones can't defeat the Taliban insurgency. What they can do, at best, is pare back the leadership. But if that comes at the expense of enraging Pakistan, the gains would be quickly undermined. As Anatol Lieven has noted, Pakistan has indeed supported the Afghan Taliban but it has not equipped them with very powerful weaponry nor directed them to wage the kind of proxy war they could fight if the Pakistani military decided it wanted to (aka what happened to the Soviets during their Afghan occupation).

The end result of this strategy would be to turn Afghanistan into a proxy-war battlefield between the CIA and ISI at a time when the CIA should be focused on keeping whatever's left of al-Qaeda from rearing its head. Utopian schemes of an Afghanistan free of Taliban or Pakistani influence shouldn't get in the way (again) of a more limited and achievable goal.

A wider drone campaign against sensitive Pakistani targets also enhances the risks of destabilizing Pakistan, which would be an absolute disaster for U.S. interests for reasons that should be clear to everyone.

(AP Photo)