Over the last several years there’s been talk – rising and falling and rising again – about “pulling out the troops” from places like Afghanistan, places where Washington’s post-9/11 wars continue years after the terrorist attacks. Sometimes the talk even includes the need to “end the wars” by pulling out the troops.
And yes, certainly the 3,500 U.S. ground troops currently on the ground in Afghanistan should definitely be withdrawn. They’re illegal (both in terms of U.S. and international law), they’re not keeping Afghans safe, and they’re certainly doing nothing that makes people in the United States safe. But – U.S. forces are still involved in killing civilians in Afghanistan, it’s just that it’s not those ground troops, but rather air strikes and especially drone attacks that are responsible for escalating levels of civilian casualties. Between 2017 and the end of 2019, the number of civilians killed by U.S. and allied airstrikes and drone strikes increased by 95%.
U.S. drone strikes in Yemen go back to 2002, long before the U.S. began aiding the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen. The first was part of so-called “counter-terrorism” operations, and killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harithi, whom the U.S. claimed had been involved in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Five others were killed too – one of whom was a U.S. citizen. But it was considered a counter-terrorism strike, not an act of war, so there were no consequences. There were no more drone strikes in Yemen until Barack Obama became president and re-started the drone war there. Trump escalated drone and air attacks, and the result is that since 2009, U.S. drone and air attacks have killed as many as 150 civilians in Yemen. (Thousands more of course have been killed in the war, and millions face starvation because of the Saudis’ U.S.-backed blockade.)
Overall, U.S. drone strikes between 2010 and 2020, just in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia have resulted in as many as 2,200 civilians killed, 454 of them children.
But still now, with all the talk about “ending the war” and pulling out the troops, no one is talking about ending the drone strikes. Rather, drone attacks are hidden from the discussion by insisting that drone strikes are part of the “counter-terrorism” efforts in Afghanistan – or Yemen, or Somalia, or Iraq, or elsewhere. So they are not included in the discussion about the Endless War or the Global War on Terror or the Long War or whatever other nicknames powerful forces in this country like to use to describe Washington’s military assaults against people across the globe.
Militarized drones have been part of the U.S. military arsenal for years now. They were used by the U.S. military in Viet Nam, largely for surveillance, but the serious military investment in the technology started in the 1980s and ‘90s – much of it in collaboration with Israel. Israel had used drones much earlier; in the 1973 war Tel Aviv used an early U.S.-produced surveillance drone as decoys to defeat Egypt’s anti-aircraft system.
The two most well-known versions, the Predator (that has a Hellfire anti-tank missile attached) was created in the mid-1990s and the Reaper in 2007, they have played major roles in the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. The Pentagon has spent billions of dollars on drone development. The U.S. military’s drone spending was budgeted at a five-year high in 2018 with nearly $7 billion dedicated to drone expenses.
The popularity of drone warfare has everything to do with being able to fly the attack instrument without a pilot – even from thousands of miles away. U.S. military drone “pilots” flying over and bombing targets (sometimes including hospitals, wedding parties, funerals, bakeries…) are based at a military center outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. They spend their days flying their drones and dropping bombs while staring at computer screens and operating a joystick – and are easily at home in time for dinner.
So drone warfare creates no casualties – for the attacker. There are no pilots at risk of being shot down. And armed drone attacks are not the only war-related use of the technology. When Iran shot down a giant U.S. Global Hawk drone in June 2019, it was widely seen as threatening a serious escalation in already sky-high U.S.-Iran tension. The Global Hawk has a range of 16,000 miles, hovers at 60,000 feet, and can stay aloft for 34 hours. So drones don’t have to be based in or even close to the target country.
But civilian casualties, in Afghanistan and beyond, are high and rising. The protection of the pilots means that there are no U.S. casualties. And no U.S. casualties means there is no regular press attention – since the media only rarely covers Afghan or Iraqi or Yemeni or Syrian civilian casualties if there is no U.S. blood also involved. And with little or no press coverage, it is all too easy for drone wars to continue in secret – secret from the American people, that is, certainly not secret from the people who live under the threat and terror of those drone-dropped bombs.
So, when we talk about ending the wars, it has to mean more than just pulling out the ground troops. It has to mean ending the airstrikes, and the drone wars that continue to kill civilians. Killing children and women and elders and men in Afghanistan or Iraq still has to matter – even if those countries are considered official “war theaters” and thus not covered by new restrictions on other drone attacks under consideration by the Biden administration. If our goal in ending the war is to stop killing Afghans, or Yemenis or Iraqis or Syrians or Libyans or Somalis, we’ve got to do way more than pull out the ground troops.
And don’t forget, I’m just talking here about U.S. drones. There are somewhere around 70 or so countries that have military drones of various sorts by now (many of them supplied by Israel and the United States). But the U.S. remains the most powerful — and, unfortunately, the most influential — military power in the world. The weapons Washington legitimizes, get used even further afield. That’s why we need an international treaty to ban all military drones — prevent their development, deployment and use. By military and all police agencies. ALL of them. And that’s why we in the U.S. have the biggest responsibility to make sure such a treaty gets signed and ratified here in Washington DC. We have a lot of work to do.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, and co-author with David Wildman of “Ending the US War in Afghanistan”.