During the allied bombing campaign against Nazi Germany in the Second World War the United States dropped 2,700,000 tons of bombs which killed 300,000 people and wounded another 780,000. Targets such as a munitions factory were considered accurately struck if the bomb fell within a thousand yard radius of it; this was precision bombing in 1944.
The horrifically intricate ways in which human beings can kill each other has indeed come a long way since days of Dresden, Coventry, Leningrad and Tokyo; all of which were flattened by aerial assaults. The allies and the axis did not have the laser guided targeting systems that modern air forces have, nor did they have the complex sensory devices used by reconnaissance aircraft that are often deployed to seek out potential hostiles. The development of “unmanned aerial vehicles” or “drones” is perhaps one of the single biggest steps in aerial military development in recent years. Certain States can now send unmanned aircraft on twenty-two hour flights, without having to refuel or allow the pilot to sleep, shifts are taken by the “Combat Systems Officer”, often many miles away, or even on another continent. Moreover, if the Drone crashes or is shot down in hostile territory it is less likely that there will be a diplomatic crisis, although recent occurrences in eastern Iran suggests otherwise. The introduction of drones into modern warfare also gives conflict a veneer of cleanliness. These drones can fly as high as twenty-five thousand feet, stay over a target for over ten hours, pick out “hot guns” (firearms that have just been used) and strike a target to within a few yards radius. This all means that the proponents of drones can argue a case for a clean and morally incorrupt way of tackling “terrorists” and insurgents.
The biggest advocate of drone usage is the United States whose development of UAVs dates as far back as the Vietnam War. The Predator drone, perhaps the most recognisable of the rising fleet of aircraft due to its ominous sperm whale like nose, was first deployed in the Balkans during the conflict there in the mid-nineties. The US ratcheted up drone usage post 9/11 with revamped models of the predator being deployed in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the unrelenting hunt for Bin Laden and his associates. The violation of Pakistani sovereignty with the deployment of drones has long been a point of contentious discussion. On one side there are the drone lobbyists on Capitol Hill (Unmanned Systems Caucus) and the Obama administration, who approved more predator drone deployments in his first year then Bush did in his last three; on the other there are lawyers and Pakistani government officials. One inescapable point is often missed out amidst this four way debate and the subsequent media coverage of it; these weapons are killing innocent civilians.
The Bureau of investigative Journalism conducted a probing study into the Drone war and discovered some alarming details that were left out from the CIA’s reports on its covert operations. Findings conclude that at least 392 civilians have been reported killed since 2004 and this includes 175 children. These facts have been gathered through close analysis of credible materials: some 2,000 media reports; witness testimonies; field reports of NGOs and lawyers; secret US government cables; leaked intelligence documents, and relevant accounts by journalists, politicians and former intelligence officers. They do not correlate with Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan stating that the president has ‘insisted’ that Pakistan drone strikes ‘do not put… innocent men, women and children in danger’.
In many respects, the cat is very much out of the bag when it comes to drones and their infallibility. The Director of The Information Technology, War, and Peace Project in the Watson Institute’s Global Security Program, Professor James Der Derrian believes that their problem has two roots:
1. Fighting war at a distance removes human cost and disconnects the combatant, it’s like a Nintendo game.
2. For every al-Qaeda operative you take out with one of these drones fifteen more take his place.
The Drone war on the AfPak frontier does not take mitigating cultural contexts taken into account. Taliban leaders and Al-Qaeda operatives are often the only respected symbols of authority in Wazirstan, the lawless backwater of Pakistan where ethnically and culturally the people have more in common with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan then the Punjabi elites in Islamabad. Tribal disputes are often mediated by the Taliban who travel with weapons by their sides. With a culture of men being armed with AK-47s as standard procedure a question arises; if drones were flown over Dallas with the same mentality as they are over Wazirstan, how many dead bodies and fiery Humvees would dot the city?
This question will have very little effect on the US industrial military complex, which will enjoy a much needed spike in its turnover in the coming years as Washington’s belligerent actions on the global stage require more subtlety. There will be no halt in the US Air Force procurement program for up to 329 MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles which is set to end late next year. A more troubling situation has arose out of the milieu of this video game style warfare; those states embroiled in even more protracted conflicts have attained drones and are deploying them against their own civilians.
The Republic of Turkey has been engaged in a conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since the early 1980s with intermittent ceasefires, more than 45,000 people have lost their lives since then. The core of the conflict is the question of the Kurds in relation to the existence of a homogenous Turkish state with rigid borders that were constructed in 1922. The PKK initially made demands for a sovereign Kurdish state incorporating all the Kurdish peoples across the historically Kurdish regions, although since the capture of the PKK’s charismatic leader Mustafa Ocalan thirteen years ago the demands have rescinded to more practical dimension. These include the formal recognition of the Kurdish language and the removal of Turkish troops from Kurdish areas. Since 2007 there has been a resurgence of attacks by the PKK against Turkish military outposts in Kurdish Turkey which have been launched from PKK bases in the Qandill mountains of northern Iraq. The ability for this resurgence of attacks has been pinned to a number of reasons, from the instability in Iraq following the US led invasion to the slow and cumbersome reforms of Turkey and their inability to properly devolve an element of power to the Kurdish region and prevent human rights abuses. Whatever the reasons for the assault by the PKK, Turkey is still relying on military might to solve the Kurdish problem, calling on the “hot pursuit” policy that was forged with the old Bath’ist regime during the eighties. This policy enabled Turkey to chase PKK fighters into Iraq and Saddam to chase the Pesherga into Turkey without any legal ramifications. In 2007 Turkish law-makers gave Erdogan permission to order strategic strikes and large-scale invasions of Iraq for a one-year period, in October of last year a new mandate was endorsed to maintain these cross border raids. Turkey believes that the goals of its military operations in the Qandill mountains is to isolate the PKK and prevent it from launching attacks, however it is creating friction with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
The cross border raids and the hit and run tactics of the PKK draws up similarities to the Taliban and the situation the United States finds itself in in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Rather than learn from the hopeless situation the US finds itself in, Turkey has instead decided to adopt some of their tactics. Last year Washington delivered four Predator drones to Turkey in a gesture of support for Ankara’s fight against the PKK. The Obama administrations generous gift appears to be part of an upgrade of military ties between Turkey and the United States with the two countries discussing the possibility of Ankara purchasing its own Predator drones or more sophisticated Reaper drones.
Whether this deal goes through will grind down to the matter of whose influence on Capitol hill is greater, AIPAC or the Unmanned Systems Caucus; the former inevitably wanting to block the deal due to the recent downgrading of relations with Israel by Ankara. However, you won’t have to wait till then to see if events in Afghanistan will replicate themselves in Kurdistan. They already have.
The Qandill mountains fall on the tripoint between Turkey, Iran and Iraq and has often been the transit route for armies, from the Armenians to the Persians to the Greeks to the Ottomans. Its harsh terrain and unforgiving climate means that it is a very difficult place to be monitored or controlled; exactly why the PKK launch their attacks from there. The Qandills are also a perfect cover for Kurdish smugglers who form the backbone of the Kurdish economy in Eastern Turkey due to weak infrastructure and high rates of unemployement. The ostracisation of Kurds from regular work due to their language and decades of neglect means that these routes are vital, especially in light of the recent earthquakes in Van. On the 28th of December 2011 this route was bombed by Turkish Warplanes killing 35 Kurdish smugglers. According to the Turkish newspaper Aydinlik, who quoted “credible sources” a drone fired the first missile attack with Turkish F-16s arriving 16-18 minutes later. Whats more, the surveillance used was from UAVs flying overhead.
The promise of a government probe into the catastrophe and unfettered apoligies from Ankara will not stem the inevitable outpouring of anger and frustration by Turkey’s Kurds, who, even in Istanbul, staged mass demonstrations at this war crime. Policy in Washington, Ankara and anywhere else that decides to use these drones needs to change and a drastic rethink of their “cleanliness” needs to be considered, or they will add to the recruitment rotas of the PKK and Taliban.