Conflict & Justice

Afghanistan set to enter the drone age


U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai speak to the media during a joint news conference January 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.


Mark Wilson

Barely had Afghan President Hamid Karzai touched down in Kabul before he called journalists to a press conference at the presidential palace. He was intent on maximizing the benefits of his recent summit with US President Barack Obama.

The main thing that Karzai chose to crow about was the promised delivery of a fleet of unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, otherwise known as “spy drones.” In addition, the Afghan Air Force will receive 20 helicopters and a minimum of four C-130 transport planes.

The Afghan president might have jumped the gun a bit in announcing the deal. According to the Pentagon, the Defense Department is in talks to sell Afghanistan military helicopters, airlift transport planes and other hardware, but no delivery date has been set.

A military spokesman confirmed to Wired magazine that drones were in the mix: That weapons package “does include unmanned systems,” said Lt. Cmdr. William Speaks.

“Sell” may actually be a bit of an overstatement, since the United States, along with other international donors, funds most of the Afghan government’s public expenditures — up to 90 percent in 2006-2010, according to the Government Accountability Office.

But Karzai, it seems, can hardly wait for Afghanistan to join the drone club.

“(The Americans) will train Afghans to fly them, use them and maintain them,” he said.

While the term “drone” might conjure up images of sleek, shark-like aircraft raining death from the sky, this has little to do with what Kabul may be getting.

“I think the whole story has been blown out of proportion,” said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project who has written extensively on Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is being given a few unmanned, Raven-style drones, which are small and not complicated.”

Spencer Ackerman, writing for Wired’s national security blog, Danger Room, agrees.

He describes the Raven as “a four-pound, hand-launched surveillance drone that can fly for an hour or so … Replace the high-end infrared camera with something more modest, and you can buy something awfully similar yourself for a couple hundred bucks.”

But even this humble technology is likely to be beyond the capabilities of Afghanistan’s capacity-strapped security forces.

“The Afghan government lacks the training and skills to maintain and operate even a small drone fleet,” Foust said. “So it will either be run by the Americans or it will sit unusably on the runway once we leave."

More from GlobalPost: "The Drone Age," a Special Report 

The Pentagon has been at some pains to highlight progress made in training the Afghan military. In its semi-annual “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” the Pentagon did its best to talk up its accomplishments.

“Many security metrics have improved during the last two years … The ANSF has grown by 88,464 personnel, and has dramatically increased its capabilities,” reads the report.

But the gains in quantity do not necessarily translate into qualitative improvements. The same report states that only one out of 23 of the Afghan Army’s brigades is capable of operating independently without air or other military support from the United States or other NATO partners. Violence is also now higher than before the increase of troops ordered by Obama in 2009, according to the report.

But Karzai blithely ignored these realities in touting the advantages of the new drone fleet, “which will be used to defend and protect our air and ground sovereignty,” as he told reporters.

Some have raised questions about possible reaction from Afghanistan’s powerful neighbor, Pakistan.

Islamabad has been suffering under a sustained, covert US drone campaign targeting insurgent havens inside Pakistan.

Pakistan has its own fleet of Ravens from the United States, but may not be excited about its troublesome neighbor acquiring surveillance capabilities that might allow it to see across the border.

“This news will certainly not be welcome to Pakistan,” said Anatol Lieven, professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, and an authority on Pakistan. “But as far as I can make out the Pakistani military are not unduly worried. Possibly because of the usual Pakistani contempt for Afghans, they believe that in practice any action taken as a result of the surveillance would in any case have to be carried out by the US — which may or may not be around in Afghanistan in future.”

The United States is set to end its combat mission in Afghanistan this year, and to withdraw most of its troops by the end of 2014. The administration is in the process of deciding how many boots on the ground will be necessary, and is considering numbers from 10,000 all the way down to zero.  

Karzai brushed away the media’s obsession with troop numbers at the summit press conference, saying, “Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan. It’s the broader relationship that will make a difference to Afghanistan and beyond in the region.”

But the Afghan president is very prickly on issues of sovereignty. One issue dear to his heart is the handover of all prisons and that Afghan detainees will be handed over to Afghan control.

“I was happy to see that we have made progress on some of the important issues for Afghanistan,” Karzai said. “We agreed on the complete return of detention centers and detainees to Afghan sovereignty, and that this will be implemented soon after my return to Afghanistan.”

Not so soon as all that, apparently. The New York Times reported last week that the United States had stopped transferring detainees to some Afghan prisons over concerns that they may be tortured. 

Previously expressed concerns over prisoner transfers had centered on the fears that Taliban combatants might be freed by the Afghan government to return to the battlefield.

In any case, the US military has put the brakes on one of Karzai’s most cherished achievements.

For now, the Afghan president will have to content himself with the as yet notional drones.