Columns

Remote, armchair pilots wage a new kind of warfare

KEEBLE McFARLANE

Saturday, February 02, 2013    

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THE words irony and paradox come to mind as I ponder what the newly re-elected President Barack Obama is doing. To the cheers of many around the world and the jeers of a few hard-line Neanderthals, he is disengaging his country from two wars -- one of which was based totally on hubris, manipulation, legerdemain and downright lies while the other was ill-thought-out and mismanaged in its later years.

The world applauded when George Bush the Second dispatched his legions to Afghanistan after terrorists converted civilian aircraft into weapons of mass destruction on September 11, 2001. Not only that, some nations actually joined in with forces of their own to hunt down Osama bin Laden, architect of the diabolical events of a day which has become forever engraved in the minds of Americans. It was a somewhat different matter when Bush began an extensive campaign of disinformation about that unsavoury character, Saddam Hussein and what he was up to.

We were told about a whole string of sites throughout Iraq where Saddam was refining uranium to make nuclear weapons and we heard about a campaign to concoct noxious chemicals which could wipe out vast numbers of people in one fell swoop. Bush's acolytes fanned out to disseminate scenarios intended to make Americans and others very, very afraid. They had no qualms about discrediting worthy people who pointed out, as in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, that the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes.

During his elongated campaign for the presidency, Obama railed against that war and promised to bring the troops home. As it turned out, that took some doing, with detours and setbacks, but the war is now over. But the conflict has left considerable carnage and uncertainty in a part of the world where such occurrences are, alas, all too commonplace. Millions of Iraqis are displaced, large numbers have been forced to flee their homeland, and the place is even more miserable than when Saddam ran his tyrannical regime.

After a promising start, the conflict in Afghanistan bogged down into a seemingly endless round of what military experts call asymmetrical warfare. The US and its coalition allies lurched from one crisis to another, resetting and re-defining the aims of the mission as they went along. Although you can't mention this in some circles, it bore an uncanny resemblance to the experience the Russians had in their disastrous decade in that benighted country.

Afghanistan has been the setting for a thousand conflicts over the centuries, with the outsiders always coming to grief in the face of implacable resistance from tribes people armed mainly with their dislike and distrust of foreigners coming in with all sorts of rationalisations for their intrusions. Well, the Americans are trying to make the best of a lousy situation and will be (mostly, and happily) out of there by next year. It seems that powerful, well-armed big countries never learn from history that no good comes out of interfering in other people's business. And these wars stem from the fact that when you have an army, you are inclined to use it. Only Japan and Germany, it seems, have learned that hard lesson from the ghastly reign of horror they rained down on the world in the middle of the last century.

Inaugural speeches by presidents of the past have trumpeted the resolve of the United States to fight foreign enemies -- communism was the main one for a half-century after World War II -- but Obama last month focussed almost entirely on domestic concerns. He devoted only one section to foreign engagement, and only in generalities. "We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully -- not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear" he proclaimed before a vast crowd in Washington last week. And, he continued "America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation."

America no longer has the stomach for war

What Obama didn't say, but clearly understands, is that even with all that military might at its command, there are limits to what that power can achieve. He is also painfully aware that his fellow citizens have lost the stomach for any more of these engagements, at least for the next little while. But Obama, American to the core as he is (despite all the insulting, bigoted nonsense spouted by his nutty and nasty political opponents at home), believes in his country's position as the world's pre-eminent power, and is determined to keep it so.

So, it's war by other means. Boots on the ground are no longer the way to wage war in the 21st century -- war by remote control is. Under Obama's watch so far, the US has been shifting its so-called "war on terror" from the military to its secret establishment, mostly the Central Intelligence Agency. Employing the latest devices the vast military-industrial complex can produce, technicians sit in air-conditioned control rooms in the US and operate unmanned aerial vehicles as far as 5000 kilometres away.

These vehicles, popularly known as "drones", are much smaller than conventional warplanes, can fly many, many hours at a time, make very little noise and, using high-tech sensors, can monitor considerable swaths of territory. They are very often used for surveillance, but some of them can carry a range of projectiles used to attack selected targets. The sensors include high-resolution television cameras, enabling the remote operators to see in real time exactly what they are doing and survey the damage they have done.

Since 2009, the US has conducted more than 300 remote-controlled bombings in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. Contrast that with 51 such attacks during the entire eight years of the Bush administration. Two American universities recently conducted a study which found that strikes by drones had killed as many as 880 civilians in Pakistan, including almost 200 children. In one case, a drone struck a meeting of tribal elders, killing 42 people. The attack is now the subject of legal action in Pakistan as well as Britain, which is accused of informing the Americans.

The US argues that the drone strikes are minutely targeted and affect only the "bad guys', and only a very few "good guys" are harmed. They used to say that about the so-called "smart bombs" which were supposed to hit only the intended targets. But we know all about what the military call "collateral damage", don't we? And the Americans aren't the only ones using these "drones" -- more than 70 countries have adopted them, mostly for surveillance, but some are arming these unmanned vehicles.

Holding prisoners at Guantánamo Bay without due process is one of the unfortunate legacies of the Bush administration; it seems that drone strikes will do the same for Obama.

Sigh.

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