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Despite Warnings, Military's Use of Drones on the Rise in Afghanistan

by Joshua Partlow

DELARAM, Afghanistan -- Using a pilotless Predator drone, the U.S. military this week fired a Hellfire missile into a crowd of suspected insurgents in Helmand province, killing 13 people and wounding three others, military officials said Tuesday. It was one of two such drone attacks on the same day.

A US Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile sets off from its hangar at Bagram air base in 2009. (AFP/File/Bonny Schoonakker) Since taking over as the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has cautioned his troops against relying on aircraft to bomb targets unless there is a clear insurgent threat, as such bombings have previously killed civilians and inflamed anti-American sentiment among Afghans. Still, the use of Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles to fire missiles, while not as frequent as in Pakistan, is increasingly common in Afghanistan, according to U.S. military officials.

"Not unusual at all," said Maj. Dale Highberger, the second in command of the Marine infantry battalion that has just opened a major operation in the Bar Now Zad area of Helmand province. "We use those more and more all the time as they become available."

The attack that targeted a crowd of insurgents took place about 4 a.m. Monday, a couple hours after two Marine companies dropped in by helicopter in Bar Now Zad, a Taliban-controlled area to the northwest of Now Zad, where about 1,000 Marines entered last month to try to wrest the town from insurgents. The Marine arrival early Monday -- intended to capture or kill Taliban leaders operating there, and those who fled to the area from the earlier operation -- came as a surprise, according to Highberger.

"We caught them sleeping," he said. "We caught them with their pants down."

But the Taliban responded, in groups of up to 50 people, using hit-and-run attacks with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, eventually prompting reinforcements to be flown in from the battalion headquarters in Delaram. Sporadic fighting continued Tuesday, but Marines said they have taken about three-quarters of the area they set out to control.

When military surveillance spotted a group of Afghans carrying guns outside of what was believed to be a Taliban safe house, they called in the Hellfire missile. Highberger said that 11 of the 13 people killed were confirmed Taliban members, and the other two were known associates. During the operation, the Marines have killed about 20 or fewer suspected insurgents, one Marine officer said.

The other Hellfire missile strike occurred Monday in the Nad Ali district of Helmand, killing three suspected insurgents carrying weapons, according to a U.S. military statement.

The CIA has made heavy use of pilotless aircraft to pursue Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where American ground troops are not allowed to operate. The bombings have angered Pakistani politicians and residents, who consider the attacks a violation of sovereignty, but U.S. officials defend their effectiveness. In August, a drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud. His death, in turn, was cited as the motivation for the recent suicide bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan by a Jordanian double agent.

In Afghanistan, military officials said the drones are regularly used during big operations when the aircraft are available.

"It has pinpoint precision and it limits collateral damage," said a Marine officer about the use of drones. "The other good thing is you can't see it or hear it."

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