Adapting to an unconventional war, the United States and its allies picked up some new tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the past few years, drone attacks and night raids have become staples of the effort to combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The announcement of a new counterterrorism strategy and the beginning of troop withdrawals from the conflict suggest that these methods are poised to become fixtures of how the U.S. combats global terrorist threats.
These measures demonstrate an ability to adapt procedure to difficult realities. But the United States continues to fail in its efforts to create a concrete strategy to end the war in Afghanistan. Its use of these questionable tactics does as much to lose the battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world as the more offensive tactics of pitched battles and indiscriminate application of force.
The Counterproductivity of Drones
The use of drones is changing the face of warfare. Most noticeably, their use does not require an air force to send its men into the line of fire. Both U.S. Air Force and British pilots fly missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan (the British assert that they have not done so in Pakistan) from the safety of Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada. The tempo of strikes has only increased under the Obama administration. Currently, there is a U.S. drone assault in Pakistan approximately every four days.
Despite its protection of coalition forces, the tactic is particularly devastating: 88 people were killed in drone strikes in June 2011 alone and an astounding 52 people were killed recently in a mere 24-hour period. Numbers like these, with absolutely zero American casualties, make drones a public relations success. It allows effective attacks to be carried out in areas difficult for soldiers to reach, such as the tribal areas of Pakistan that are alleged to be one of the launching points for insurgency activity.
Debate swirls around whether or not the use of predator and reaper drones, as well as many other robotic technologies, is a good omen for the future of mankind. There is a real fear that the gradual removal of human involvement will lower the inhibition to begin future conflicts because of the reduction of human and political risks associated with combat. If the revelation of U.S. drone strikes in other parts of the world, particularly Somalia, is any indicator, this is a cause for growing concern.
More importantly, the use of drones is counterproductive. Though they are capable of inflicting a lot of damage, drones effectively translate into political suicide. Covert drone programs not only operate in violation of international law, but their lack of precision means that approximately 15-20 percent of those killed in drone attacks are non-combatants. The killing of innocents causes the sort of “collateral damage” that costs the United States and its allies the hearts and minds of the local population. It is not surprising that those who face the sudden trauma of losing relatives and homes ascribe blame to those responsible and join those who fight them. “While violent extremists may be unpopular,” write David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum in The New York Times, “for a frightened population they seem less ominous than a faceless enemy that wages war from afar and often kills more civilians than militants.”
Considering these major drawbacks in the use of drone strikes, the pay-off is not high enough. Few of these missions are truly successful. Along with the aforementioned civilian deaths, drone strikes mostly kill nameless and easily replaced low-level militants rather than insurgency leadership. Only one in every seven attacks in Pakistan results in the death of a militant leader.
The Problem with Night Raids
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Though real soldiers on the ground carry out night raids, far fewer men are required than in traditional warfare. Based on intelligence and tip-offs, JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) troops accompanied by Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) infiltrate private residences throughout the country in search of enemy militants. The military establishment cites these night raids as indispensible tools in the effort to slow down the insurgency. It claims that, as of May 2011, the target is either killed or captured 50-60 percent of the time despite the fact that 80 percent of raids are conducted without a single gun fired. Reliance on this tactic as part of the kill/capture program has risen to the point where coalition forces conduct approximately 300 night raids each month.
Not conveyed in these numbers is that night raids come with a major psychological, human, and political price tag that cannot be ignored. Devastating as these attacks might be to the Taliban as it forces them to operate in smaller cells and in smaller spaces, the raids are now the number one grievance of the Afghan population. Locals and the U.S. military clearly have very different views of these night raids.
Afghans, for instance, insist that night raids have been accompanied by excessive use of force. They claim both physical and mental abuse from forced-entries and harsh interrogation. Property damage is often left unaccounted for. Bad intelligence influenced by personal grudges can often skew the process that determines which homes to raid. Further, these home invasions are an affront to Afghan culture. Attempts to clear up these transgressions date back to December 2010, when the top brass implemented rules that required ANSF personnel to accompany foreigners, to engage in a “soft knock” policy that would alert inhabitants of a raid rather than bombing open the front door, permitting only female units to interrogate women, and taking account of property damages for compensation. These changes have been mostly in theory, not in practice.
Like drone strikes, night raids are counterproductive. They may be effective tools for disrupting the Taliban, but they come at the price of losing the population and feeding the insurgency with droves of new recruits. Frustration with the number of civilians victimized and cultural trademarks trampled on has spilled over into anti-American sentiment. Episodes like the rally in Khost in July 13, 2011 protesting the 15 percent rise in civilian deaths in 2011 thus far show that this tactic serves to incite criticism of foreign involvement, deepen disillusionment with the Afghan National Government, and encourage people to join movements against them. As Mohammad Daudzai, Chief of Staff for Afghan President Hamid Karzai put it:
You have a village, has a very peaceful life, and then in the middle of the night, people come and surround the village and search a few houses and take a few prisoners, and in that scuffle a few of them are killed; women are disgraced. The next day, what do you expect? The entire village youth becomes Taliban.
The military is reluctant to give up on tactics that seem to be effective and economic uses of force. But in light of the real effects of drone strikes and night raids, the military has to stop them. On a human level, these raids serve to increase insecurity, destroy families, and trample on cultural norms. On a political level, the very groups the attacks intend to deter simply grow in strength and popularity.
These tactics may be deadly and serve to limit the number of foreign troops needed for attacks, but they are strategic failures. If the coalition’s primary goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to isolate and neutralize the influence of the insurgency and bolster the legitimacy of the local government, tactics that illicit fear of the government and drive people to shoulder up to the Taliban for protection against foreign attacks are clearly steps in the wrong direction.