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1. Drone Wars in Pakistan

The phrase 'war on terror' might have been quietly dropped from the United States' military lexicon – to be replaced (according to a memo to Pentagon staff) by 'overseas contingency operation'. But it is clear that to some degree there is continuity in practice in the tactics being pursued by the coalition in Afghanistan and Pakistan. An example is the relatively little reported campaign in western Pakistan characterised by what (in another euphemism) are commonly termed 'drone incidents', but which would be better called air-raids.

The term 'drone' has a serviceable analytical use, but the suggestion it conveys – of a very small pilot-less aircraft that is more of a scaled-up version of a model aircraft – is misleading as a description of what is happening in parts of Pakistan. For the technology of the 'drone', which is developing at an extraordinary rate, is as sophisticated as its effects are becoming more intensive and destructive.

The present reality of these 'drone' deployments is that United States forces are flying large and heavily armed aircraft over Pakistan for virtually every hour of every day, frequently accompanied by actual attacks. These air-raids have killed hundreds of people, many of them civilians, and including scores of women and children.

Three aspects of this major development in the war are worthy of note: the size and power of the weapons being used, the rapid increase in their use, and the impact in terms of civilian casualties …

The weapon of choice for United States forces was until recently the Predator, manufactured by General Atomics. The much larger and more powerful MQ-9 Reaper is now becoming their favourite. The Reaper's turboprop engine is nearly eight times as powerful as the Predator; it carries fifteen times the weapons load and yet travels three times more quickly.

Because these planes have no pilots and are operated remotely, often by technicians at bases in the United States, there is a huge 'weight gain'. This, combined with the sheer size of the Reapers, means that they can easily carry a range of weapons on a par with a conventional strike aircraft.

A recent version of the Reaper has a wingspan of over twenty-five metres (about the same as a Boeing 737 passenger-jet), and can carry sufficient fuel to stay airborne for thirty-four hours. If fitted with two drop-tanks and 300 kilograms of weapons, it can fly a forty-two-hour sortie; as pilot fatigue is not an issue, shifts of operators can be used to sustain this length of time in the air.

In practice, however, bombing attacks are more likely to be undertaken by Reapers with a much shorter range, and carrying more weapons. These can include Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, Paveway laser-guided bombs, or GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs).

The Reaper is a bomber in all but name. A comment in September 2006 on the designation of this 'unmanned aerial vehicle' (UAV) from the then chief-of-staff of the United States Air Force (USAF), General T Michael Moseley, is indicative of official attitudes: 'We've moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter role with the Reaper'. An even better indication of its growing role is that, in 2008, the New York Air National Guard 174th fighter wing began to make the change from flying F-16 strike aircraft to 'flying' Reapers.

A recent customer for the Reaper is Britain's Royal Air Force, which has deployed the aircraft in Afghanistan since autumn 2007. Its initial deployment was as an unarmed reconnaissance vehicle, but the armed variant is now in use. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) acknowledges the MQ-9's '[complementary] mission' to be 'a persistent hunter-killer against emerging targets to achieve joint force commander objectives'. The MoD has, however, been notably reticent about publicising actual cases where the Predator has engaged in combat, or about any casualties resulting from this.

These military and technical advances, in the context of the difficulties experienced by western coalition forces in Afghanistan in the war against the Taliban, help explain why the escalation in the number of air-strikes in Pakistan (regarded as the source of much Taliban activity and weaponry) has been rapid.

US forces struck just twice in 2006, three times in 2007 and seven times in the first eight months of 2008. A surge in the last four months of 2008 saw twenty-nine air-raids, and there were fourteen between January and 8 April 2009. Pakistani sources assess the number killed over this near forty-months period at 701, including 14 al Qaeda leaders; 152 of these have lost their lives this year. These sources also claim that the great majority of people killed are civilian, though US military sources often dispute this. The pattern here is that the Pentagon or US spokespersons closer to the action tend to discount claims of civilian casualties immediately after a raid, only for independent evidence later to appear that confirms the initial local reports. It is therefore plausible in many cases to be sceptical of the denials …

It is also relevant that the air war in Pakistan has accelerated in a manner largely unrecognised in the western media, though this is widely covered in the Middle East and South-West Asia. This goes a long way to explain the anti-western mood in Pakistan, and the difficulty that the current government in Islamabad has in supporting US actions …

Paul Rogers

Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University. His full text is available online (opendemocracy.net). This shortened version is reprinted with grateful acknowledgements.