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Opinion

After 20 years of drone strikes, it’s time to admit they’ve failed

The very first drone attack missed its target, and two decades on civilians are still being killed. Why can't we accept that the technology doesn't work?

October 7, 2021
surveillance drone in Afghanistan
surveillance drone in Afghanistan
John Moore/Getty Images

After the Taliban took over Kabul in mid-August, a black-bearded man with a Kalashnikov appeared on the streets. He visited former politicians and gave a sermon during Friday prayers at the capital’s historic Pul-e-Khishti mosque. But the man, passionate and seemingly victorious, was no mere Taliban fighter among tens of thousands of others: he was Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani, a Taliban leader prominent in the Haqqani Network, the group’s notorious military wing. 

Ten years ago, the US placed a $5 million bounty on his head, so his appearance generated plenty of commentary about how he was openly traveling around Kabul—indeed, in September the Taliban even made him Afghanistan’s minister of refugees. 

But what the gossip and the op-eds didn’t mention was that the real surprise wasn’t Haqqani’s public appearances—it was that he was appearing at all: Multiple times over the last two decades, the US military thought they’d killed him in drone strikes.

Clearly Haqqani is alive and well. But that raises a glaring question: if Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani wasn’t killed in those US drone strikes, who was?

The usual bland response is “terrorists,” an answer now institutionalized by the highest levels of the US security state. But the final days of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan showed that is not necessarily true. A day after an attack on troops at Kabul’s teeming airport, for example, the US responded with a “targeted” drone strike in the capital. Afterward it emerged that the attack had killed 10 members of one family, all of whom were civilians. One of the victims had served as an interpreter for the US in Afghanistan and had a Special Immigrant Visa ready. Seven victims were children. This did not match the generic success story the Biden administration initially told.

Something different happened with this strike, however. For years, most of the aerial operations the US has conducted took place in remote, rural locations where few facts could be verified and not many people could go to the scene. 

But this strike took place in the middle of the country’s capital. 

Journalists and investigators could visit the site, which meant they could easily fact-check everything the United States was claiming—and what had actually happened soon became clear. First, local Afghan television channels, like Tolo News, showed the family members of the victims. With so much attention being paid to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, international media outlets started to arrive, too. A detailed report by the New York Times forced Washington to retract its earlier claims. “It was a tragic mistake,” the Pentagon said during a press conference, as it was forced to admit that the strike had killed innocent civilians with no links to ISIS.

In fact, American's last drone strike in Afghanistan was eerily similar to its first one.

In fact, America’s last drone strike in Afghanistan—its last high-profile act of violence—was eerily similar to its very first one. 

On October 7, 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in order to topple the Taliban regime. That day the first drone operation in history took place. An armed Predator drone flew over the southern province of Kandahar, known as the Taliban’s capital, which was the home of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the group’s supreme leader. Operators pushed the button to kill Omar, firing two Hellfire missiles at a group of bearded Afghans in loose robes and turbans. But afterward, he was not found among them. In fact, he evaded the allegedly precise drones for more than a decade, eventually dying of natural causes in a hideout mere miles from a sprawling US base. Instead, America left a long trail of Afghan blood in its attempts to kill him and his associates.

“The truth is that we could not differentiate between armed fighters and farmers, women, or children, ” Lisa Ling, a former drone technician with the US military who has become a whistleblower, told me. “This kind of warfare is wrong on so many levels.”

More than 1,100 people in Pakistan and Yemen were killed between 2004 and 2014 during the hunt for 41 targets, according to the British human rights organization Reprieve. Most of those targets are men who are still alive, like the Haqqanis, or Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who just published another book while thousands of people have been murdered by drones instead of him. As far back as 2014, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that only 4% of drone victims in Pakistan were identified as militants linked to Al-Qaeda. It also underlined that the CIA itself, which was responsible for the strikes in the country, did not know the affiliation of everyone they killed. “They identified hundreds of those killed as simply Afghan or Pakistani fighters,” or as “unknown,” the report stated

And yet many US military officials and politicians continue to spin the drone narrative. Even the targeted militant groups have joined in: for a couple of years, the Taliban have been using armed commercial drones to attack their enemies, portraying drones as technologically superior—just as American officials had done before them. “The drone’s targeting system is very exact,” one member of the Taliban’s drone unit recently told Afghan journalist Fazelminallah Qazizai

The Taliban don’t have the same drone resources as the US. They aren’t backed by a global assassination network of operators and weather experts. Nor do they have a satellite relay station like the one at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which was described as the heart of the US drone war in documents supplied by Daniel Hale, a former intelligence analyst who became a whistleblower. 

(Hale, too, has revealed evidence showing that most drone victims in Afghanistan were civilians. His reward was 45 months in prison.) 

But even though they don’t have the same means as the US, the Taliban too have been convinced that drones are the perfect weapons. “We work for our ideology,” a Taliban drone operator told Qazizai. 

Even though they know strikes regularly miss their targets, it seems that they—just like the US—have a blind faith in technology. 

—Emran Feroz is an independent journalist, an author, and the founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims. 

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