Opinion » Ted Rall

Drop the Drones

Remote attacks inflame Afghan anti-Americanism


SAN FRANCISCO--"The killing of Afghan civilians, usually caused by inadvertent American and NATO airstrikes, has become the most sensitive issue between the Afghans and their Western guests." So reports The New York Times Magazine in the latest installment of its ongoing "There's a new general in charge and he's cool and maybe he can win the war" series.

"Inadvertent" airstrikes? "Guests"?

Many of the botched airstrikes have been carried out by Predator drone planes remote-controlled by CIA and U.S. Air Force personnel thousands of miles away. One click of a mouse and a Hellfire missile bearing a 20-pound blast fragmentation warhead zooms toward its target. Despite numerous killings of civilians, drones are popular with the military because they keep soldiers out of harm's way.

Like a lot of ideas, it only seems like a good one until you think about it. America's obsession with protecting its people is at the heart of Afghans' contempt for the U.S. occupation. And Afghan resentment is the biggest reason the war effort has been doomed from the start.

To Afghans on the ground, drones symbolize American callousness and project a smug sense of superiority.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal knows that every "inadvertent airstrike" prompts a certain number of Afghans to join or support Afghan resistance forces. "Gentlemen," he told a morning briefing of NATO generals, "we need to understand the implications of what we are doing. Airpower contains the seeds of our own destruction. A guy with a long-barrel rifle runs into a compound, and we drop a 500-pound bomb on it? If we use airpower irresponsibly, we can lose this fight." The Times reporter who recorded that statement wrote that McChrystal said he planned on "banning bombs and missiles in populated areas unless his men were in danger of being overrun."

An improvement, no doubt. But in Afghanistan, all use of airpower is irresponsible. Whether piloting a B-52 at 35,000 feet or wiggling a joystick 8,000 miles away, fighting a war at a distance means chucking ordnance willy-nilly into people and situations you can't see or know anything about.

In the short term, remote drone warfare offers the tantalizing prospect of killing your enemies without risking your own forces.

In the long term, however, the geopolitical risks eclipse any short-term gains. Drone plane attacks brought Pakistani anti-Americanism to a boil and led to the collapse of the dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally. Meanwhile, like most cell-based guerilla organizations, al-Qaida's structure ensures no man is indispensable.

In an ideal world, President Barack Obama would sign legislation outlawing the manufacture, deployment or use of Predator and similar drone bomber technology, and urge other nations to do the same. In a somewhat decent world, he would withdraw from Afghanistan. And in the crappy world we call home, the least we can do is kill Afghans with flesh-and-blood soldiers rather than drone planes.

: Ted Rall is the author of : To Afghanistan and Back: , the first book about the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.