As US wars wind down, drones gain new prominence

WASHINGTON,  (Reuters) – In many ways, it’s the  perfect weapon for a war-weary nation that suddenly finds  itself on a tight budget.

Missile-armed drones are playing a greater role than ever  in U.S. counterterrorism operations, as President Barack Obama  winds down land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Washington’s  focus expands to militant havens such as Somalia and Yemen  where there are no U.S. troops permanently on the ground.

The CIA now operates Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft,  armed with Hellfire missiles, over at least five countries:  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya.
The agency does not publicly acknowledge the program. The  U.S. military uses drones, primarily for surveillance, in Iraq  and elsewhere.

And there’s every likelihood the use of drones to attack  suspected anti-U.S. militants will spread further, current and  former U.S. officials told Reuters.

“The CIA’s role could very well expand over the coming  years as the government deals with emerging terrorist threats,”  said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the latest strikes, at least 48 militants were reported  killed in drone attacks Monday and Tuesday in Pakistan’s tribal  regions.

That brought to about 260 the number of drone strikes in  Pakistan since 2004, including nearly 50 this year, according  to a tally kept by the New America Foundation think tank.

By far most of those drone strikes, more than 225, came  after July 2008, when the United States decided on a more  aggressive and unilateral pursuit of militants in Pakistan, a  U.S. official said.

Analysts and former U.S. intelligence officials generally  approve of the increasing reliance on drones, but warn they are  not without drawbacks. Those include civilian casualties,  resentment of America’s warfare-from-a-distance in Pakistan and  elsewhere — and the likelihood the technology will be turned  against the United States some day, they said.

“We currently have a monopoly, or effective monopoly, on  armed drones,” said John Nagl, a retired U.S. Army officer and  president of the Center for a New American Security think tank.  “This technology will spread, and it will be used against us in  years to come.”

on the wane?

The use of drones — remotely piloted aircraft — against  militants began in the years after the September 11, 2001  attacks, was ramped up in President George W. Bush’s final year  in office and has been embraced enthusiastically by Obama.

“When threatened, we must respond with force — but when  that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large land  armies overseas,” Obama declared in a June 22 speech announcing  a faster-than-expected withdrawal of the troops he surged into  Afghanistan last year.

Obama’s speech appeared to signal the end of the era of  large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns, championed by a cadre  of officers that included Nagl, involving tens of thousands of  U.S. and allied troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The troops did  more than fight. They protected civilian populations, built  schools and roads, trained armies and police forces.

The White House’s new counterterrorism strategy emphasizes  a lighter footprint, as advocated by Vice President Joe Biden.  Combat brigades are being replaced by Special Forces strike  teams, capture-and-interrogate operations — and drones.

A senior U.S. official said Obama has made no “strategic  shift” to favor using drone strikes.

“There are probably some times when they are the most  appropriate tool given the nature of the target you may be  going after, and there are other times when they won’t be,”  said the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by  name.

Indeed, Obama rejected an option for a drone strike to kill  al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in early May, sending in a Navy  SEAL team instead. In April, he authorized yet another  approach, capturing a leader of the Somali militant group al  Shabaab, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, at sea and interrogating him  for two months before transferring him to a U.S. prison.

Still, the official acknowledged that drones are an  attractive option outside declared theaters of war, where “you  want to be even more discriminating and more careful in your  application” of deadly force.

That, analysts say, is precisely where the militant threat  is moving, as al Qaeda’s core group declines relative to  affiliates like al Shabaab and Yemen-based al Qaeda in the  Arabian Peninsula.

As the Iraq war winds down, more drones equipped for  intelligence gathering and other purposes have been freed up,  the senior official said. The overall U.S. drone arsenal has  also increased. “It’s something that in some ways is a natural  evolution: as you have more assets to draw on, you tend to use  them more,” he said.

Kill or capture

Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor and former  top CIA analyst, said drones are a “more effective and better  focused way” of using military force against militants.

“But … we must bear in mind as we make each individual  decision about a drone strike that the immediate positive  results always have to be weighed against the potentially  longer-term consequences, given how it’s perceived and possible  resentment,” he said.

Former U.S. intelligence officials said one downside to  drone strikes is the loss of potential intelligence from  interrogating a suspect or finding telltale “pocket litter.”

The senior U.S. official called that a false choice —  capture often isn’t an option — and also rejected criticism of  civilian casualties. Drones, he said, are often more precise  than other counterterrorism weapons.

Innocent bystanders have frequently been killed in drone  strikes, but such deaths appear to have dropped dramatically in  recent years.

A source familiar with the program said about 30  noncombatants and 1,400 militants have been killed in Pakistan  since Bush expanded drone use in July 2008. The New America  Foundation analysis found the “non-militant fatality rate”  dropped from about 20 percent in 2004 to 5 percent last year.

Nagl credited former defense secretary Robert Gates and  Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan,  with pushing hard for better links between intelligence  gathering and drone operators, resulting in more accurate  strikes — and fewer civilian casualties.

While counterinsurgency may be out of favor now, Nagl —  who emphasized that he did not back the 2003 Iraq invasion —  said the United States should not jettison those skills. “We  may be done with counterinsurgency, but insurgency may not be  done with us.”

Both the Predator and Reaper drones are produced by the  privately held General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.  [], based in San Diego, California.

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