Drone Knowns

‘Contrary to what Imran Khan has said, drone strikes are the best tactic available against al-Qaeda. Our government needs to spell that out’

Michael Burleigh

One day I will wake to hear the cricketer turned demagogue Imran Khan on the BBC programme, vociferously condemning the Taliban for planting improvised explosive devices that have killed innocent farmers. 

The next guest, the ubiquitous Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, will demand that the Pakistani government investigates whether or not the Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI) colluded with these Taliban, supplying them with the explosives, or pulled out security forces to enable them to plant them. Mr Stafford Smith will also be keen as mustard to get to the bottom of ISI activity across the border in Afghanistan, where Pakistan egregiously flouts Afghan sovereignty. A token MP will appear, perhaps the Tory Rehman Chishti, questioning the moral sense of the Taliban, in knowingly killing innocent civilians, thereby losing their hearts and minds campaign among ordinary people who mysteriously never vote for religious parties in any numbers. Touchingly, the family of Rashid Rauf, mastermind of 7/7 and an ensuing plot to destroy several transatlantic flights, will angrily reject attempts by ambulance-chasing activist lawyers to persuade them to sue over alleged MI6 collusion in their son’s death in a 2008 drone strike. Since this is a rolling bandwagon, the millionaire socialite Jemima Khan will bring all her investigative and PR skills — acquired and honed during years of partying — to bear on men who shoot teenage girls for presuming to attend school. She will distribute digital cameras so they can record Taliban atrocities. 

However, I am pretty certain I will never experience such a morning. Instead, the media will continue to be saturated with coverage of what is clearly a co-ordinated campaign (connected with Imran Khan’s political ambitions) to discredit the most effective tactic the West (and others) has to combat terrorists operating in the vast ungoverned areas of failed or failing states: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and, now, Mali and Mauritania. 

Chishti and his fellow-travellers claim that drone strikes are causing “anger” and “anti-Western attitudes” among Pakistanis. Leaving aside that such anger and attitudes seem easy to incite over any issue among a population susceptible to murderous enthusiasm at the opening of a mullah’s big mouth, would he and his co-protestors prefer a couple of F-15s to drop half-ton bombs, which could well obliterate an entire village as well as the target? Or a clutch of Cruise missiles launched hundreds of miles away by submarines? In the interests of gentlemanly conduct, perhaps he’d like teams of Special Forces operatives to risk their lives assassinating terrorists at ground level, albeit shadowed by huge Lockheed AC-130 flying gunships whose massed firepower can turn walls into dust?

There seems to be some peculiar distaste for remote killing by consoles operated from bases in New Mexico or Nevada, although such missions are flown by trained USAF and seconded RAF pilots. They rely on actionable intelligence garnered by brave CIA or MI6 field operatives, so it is not the risk-free tactic that its critics facilely claim. Although pilots can go home for lunch or supper, and switch between distant war zones while they are working, they are under no illusions about the lethal nature of what they do, whose effects on human beings they see in real-time footage.

Most killing in modern warfare is done remotely, so calling this “Nintendo warfare” is banal. The US started using drones back in the 1970s, after 5,000 aircrew were killed and a thousand were captured or went missing in action flying missions in Vietnam. 

Nowadays, drone strikes are used because Pakistan is manifestly not in charge of large parts of the north-west, will not allow US forces to operate against terrorists who regard the border with Afghanistan as porous, and is unwilling to dispatch its ground forces into these lawless zones. How can the US share intelligence with sister agencies that routinely tip off the targets?

Drones are also employed, with the permission of  the national governments (insofar as they exist) to hit al-Qaeda fighters in Mali, Somalia and Yemen, and quite possibly Colombia and the Philippines, their targets including personalities such as the ghastly Rashid Rauf or Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen and al-Qaeda preacher.

Rather than letting the self-publicising Khans and Stafford Smiths of this world  dominate the discussion, our government needs to spell out why this tactic is the best one available for societies which have become averse to large numbers of casualties being incurred in places our fellow citizens couldn’t care less about. Sometimes the cold truth does not hurt.

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