Wednesday, 2 May 2012

US Drones Making And Breaking Friendships

It is clear that Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs) are swiftly changing warfare and intelligence-gathering across the world. Ranging from squad-level single use drones to the more well known Predator and Reaper drones used by the US and allied military forces. Recent news stories have demonstrated the wide geographical spread of drone use, in most cases by the US, from Yemen, to Somalia, to Pakistan. These UAVs have clear and impressive combat abilities, especially against individualised, non-conventional forces. However, what should be discussed more is the geo-political effects of the zealous deployment of UAVs. By glossing over the legal aspects of using unmanned vehicles, the US has annoyed and needled countries who are its allies in the Global War On Terror (GWOT). However, by deploying these UAVs to aid allies in their own battles can gain a great deal of political and public support. The lessons from the deployments need to be learned fast to limit any political damage in the USA's hunt for security on a global scale.
Perhaps the best example of the US being blinded by military possibilities and pursuing politically damaging actions is the controversial deployment of US drones into Pakistan to hunt Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters fleeing from Afghanistan into the lawless border regions. Militarily, this has many advantages. With little or no anti-aircraft capabilities these combatants are easy targets for UAV strikes and by following them across the border it keeps pressure on them, refusing them breathing space to reorganise and resupply. However, both the violation of the internationally recognised border and the continuing deaths of both civilians and, occasionally even Pakistani troops, has managed to anger Islamabad and strain the alliance with Washington to the point that  embargoes on various US military and other movements have been imposed, almost in an attempt to retake the power from the US. As well as angering an important allied government the effect on Pakistan's population must be considered. As Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, winning the GWOT depends on the question 'Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?' In the case of Pakistan, no radical cleric is needed to ferment anti-American feeling in the population. As James Joyner of The New Republic ( pointed out:
  • 'A major survey conducted in Pakistan by the New America Foundation found that "nearly nine out of every ten people in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] oppose the U.S. military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their region."' Also, more worryingly...
  • 'While only one in ten of FATA residents think suicide attacks are often or sometimes justified against the Pakistani military and police, almost six in ten believe these attacks are justified against the U.S. military.
It seems that, by not considering the political impacts, the US has managed to both alienate a potentially strong ally, at least in terms of the GWOT, and actually turning the population against them and towards the terrorists who would, under other circumstances, have been the alienated ones. In short, by enforcing the drone war in Pakistan they have hurt the terrorists but managed to simultaneously lose the battle for hearts and minds at both the local and state level.

However, the US has managed one political success with its UAV systems. By aiding Turkey and Iraq in their fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) America has reinforced a tentative alliance, especially with the former. The PKK are defined as terrorists by the EU, Turkey and the US and have been conducting a socialist, nationalist campaign for an independent Kurdish state since the mid-1980s. They are to Turkey what Al Qaeda are to the US and are a major part of Turkeys security environment. While they have been linked to Al Qaeda sponsored attacks against the US in Iraq, America has never paid a huge amount of attention to them. However, during both Gulf Wars the US has aided both Turkey and Iraq in combating the PKK. There has been some evidence of US weapons being used by the PKK and, along with the notorious 'hood' incident have made Turkey question the partnership. With the pull-out of forces from Iraq, Turkey feared that they were being abandoned by their ally and the popular perception of the US declined markedly. 
To lose such a valuable Islamic ally would have been criminally negligent of the US and it was its UAVs that were to prove a major part of the solution. As well as selling new Super Cobras to the Turkish military the US relocated four Predator drones from northern Iraq to Turkey. This made no real difference to the military capabilities of the US but made huge difference to Washington-Ankara relations. As Karen Kaya argued in the Small Wars Journal (, 'The drones are seen as a key weapon for the Turkish Armed Forces in fighting the PKK.  Enabling and improving Turkey’s capability for self-defense, modernization and regional security are important not just against the PKK; but also as a way to empower a regional Muslim ally to help influence the Arab countries in a volatile Middle East.' By helping in the fight against the nationalist Kurds it also undermines the accusation that the USA is waging war on Islam, and secures a powerful ally in a region dominated by Iran and Syria. 

In conclusion, the US drone war cannot simply be taken in military isolation, it has political consequences as well. As Pakistan exemplifies, blindly following a military strategy can do a lot of damage to allies whom you ride rough-shod over. It is important to show political wisdom as the UAV capabilities of the US, one of the worlds leaders in the technology can actually facilitate political support and alliances as the situation with Turkey demonstrates.  

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