Patrick Cockburn: America is deluded by its drone-warfare propaganda

World View: The use of unmanned aircraft to assassinate its enemies is guaranteed to backfire on Washington

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As the US and its allies ponder what to do about Syria, one suggestion advanced by the protagonists of armed intervention is to use unmanned drones to attack Syrian government targets. The proposal is a measure of the extraordinary success of the White House, CIA and Defense Department in selling the drone as a wonder weapon despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The attraction of the drone for President Obama and his administration five months before the presidential election is self-evident. The revelation that he personally selected targets from the top ranks of al-Qa'ida for assassination by remote control shows the President as tough and unrelenting in destroying America's enemies. The programme is popular at home because the cost appears not to be large and, most importantly, there are no American casualties. The media uncritically buys into claims of the weapon's effectiveness, conveniently diverting voters' attention from the US army's failure to defeat puny opponents in two vastly expensive campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Republicans cried foul, alleging that the administration is selectively leaking highly classified secrets to portray Obama as a man of decision untroubled by liberal qualms in his defence of his country. The White House expressed itself deeply shocked by such a claim of political opportunism, and last week the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, appointed two lawyers to track down the leakers, though without giving them special powers to do so.

Almost unquestioned in all this is the utility of the drone strikes and whether they really are the wonder weapon they are claimed to be. After all, air forces have been over-selling precision bombing as a way of winning wars on the cheap since Lord Trenchard ran the RAF in the 1920s. Politicians of all nations have been attracted by new war-winning armaments or commando-type organisations. Examples include Churchill in the Second World War and President Kennedy, who favoured the Green Beret special units and helicopter-borne forces in Vietnam. The media has traditionally gobbled up and publicised tales of magically effective arms or the derring-do of elite detachments, often ignoring their lack of long-term military success.

The most striking but understated feature of the drone strikes in the North-west Frontier districts of Pakistan is that they could not take place without the co-operation of the Pakistani army and its all-powerful military intelligence branch, the ISI. Some government co-operation is essential in Yemen, too, though less so than in Pakistan because of the weakness of the Yemeni state.

The problem is that high-precision weapons still need ground-based intelligence to identify targets. In Pakistan, the ISI says privately that its agents provide the details without which the drones would not know whom to pursue and eliminate. The difficulty for those guiding the drones from command posts far away has not changed much since "precision bombing" in the Second World War or the far more accurate missile strikes in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Large, immovable facilities or power stations are easy to identify; individuals are not. In 2003, President Bush brought forward the start of the bombing and missile strikes because US intelligence believed it knew the exact location of Saddam Hussein in south Baghdad. This was destroyed by missiles, but research after the war showed that Saddam had never been near the place.

Up-to-the minute intelligence about who is in what house, and when they are there, requires a network of local agents who can communicate their information immediately. It is very unlikely that the ISI would allow the CIA to have this sort of network in Pakistan. The crucial information that enabled the US to find and identify Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad reportedly came from the ISI itself.

Of course, an assassination target might be stupid enough to give away his or her position by using a mobile, satellite phone or some other form of electronic communication. But few insurgent groups today are likely to give away their position so easily.

The result of reliance on the ISI is that it is Pakistani military intelligence officers, and not President Obama or his security and military staff, who really determine what sort of person is killed by the unmanned drones. This is in keeping with Pakistan's cynical but successful approach to dealing with the US since 9/11. This is to be, at one and the same time, its best ally and worst enemy.

It means allowing the US to kill or capture members of al-Qa'ida in Pakistan, successes that have important electoral benefits for any administration in Washington. At times, Pakistan may look to the US to eliminate a troublesome member of the Pakistan Taliban such as its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, who over-reached himself in the eyes of the Pakistan authorities and was killed by a drone strike in 2009. Over the years, the White House or the CIA has been able to claim successes, such as the elimination of the second in command of al-Qa'ida or the killing of most top al-Qa'ida commanders, as if Bin Laden's old organisation were the same size as the Pentagon.

What we have not seen is the effective use of US drones against the Afghan Taliban and its allies, who rely on their safe havens in Pakistan. It is here that the Afghan Taliban's leadership is based, and its ability to retreat into Pakistan has ensured the US military failure in Afghanistan, just as it ensured the Soviet Union's inability to wipe out the insurgents fighting its forces in the 1980s. The lack of good US intelligence on the Afghan Taliban leadership is striking. How else would a shopkeeper from Quetta be able to extract a large sum of money and pose as a Taliban leader in peace negotiations in Kabul?

Unmanned droned strikes are all about American domestic politics rather than about the countries where they are used. They cater to illusions of power, giving Americans a sense that their technical prowess is unparalleled, despite the Pentagon's inability to counter improvised explosive devices, which are no more than old-fashioned mines laid in or beside roads. The drones have even been presented as being more humanitarian than other forms of warfare, simply by claiming that any dead males of military age killed in a strike must have been enemy combatants.

The downside to these exaggerated successes is that the White House and the US security agencies believe more of their own propaganda than is good for them. Ramshackle insurgent movements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are not like regular armies, in which the elimination of officers or senior cadres might be a crippling blow to the organisation. Just as important, in the long term, assassination campaigns do not win wars, and they create as many enemies as they destroy.

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