Drones may have originally been thought of as a tool for covert warfare, but they have rarely been successful in that regard when they are firing missiles. Long before the U.S. government finally admitted to frequently carrying out drone strikes in Pakistan in January 2012, news reports carried announcements of the attacks usually on the day they occurred. With most of the strikes in Pakistan having taken place in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, anticipation of a U.S. strike certainly lead to quick confirmation of the source when one happened. Besides, sometimes U.S. drones are seen and heard from the ground. This could all be in the past, as no drone strikes have taken place so far this year in Pakistan. While the U.S. hasn’t announced an end to the drone program there, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan this year makes the attacks not as necessary, with less ISAF personnel to protect in Afghanistan as time goes on. It’s certainly a huge turnaround from the heyday of the drone over Pakistan in 2010, with about 117 strikes taking place that year according to The Long War Journal.
With all the press covering the Pakistani drones, it’s easy to forget that more drone strikes have occurred in Afghanistan, along with the sorties carried out by fixed wing aircraft, truck launched rockets (HIMARS), and helicopters. In a designated battle ground, it’s harder for people reading the news back home to tell what is happening. It can also be difficult to tell who is responsible for some drone strikes. According to the Drone Wars UK website, 39 British drone strikes weren’t reported to parliament, as they simply involved a British operator flying a borrowed U.S. Reaper Drone. In this case, the British people are being deceived. If the U.S. government was deliberately allowing these strikes to be perceived as essentially British, I can find no clear evidence of it, but the responsible party of some strikes is clearly clouded.
In Yemen, the evidence of the U.S. government concealing our air strikes is crystal clear. In December of 2009, the U.S. launched two Tomahawk cruise missiles at an alleged Al Qaeda training camp. 41 civilians were killed in the error, but the credit was claimed by the Yemeni government. The airstrike was announced to have been carried out by their jets. It took the hard work of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye and a Wikileaks cable to prove to the world that the strikes were American missiles. In August of 2010 Shaye was arrested and accused of being associated with Al Qaeda. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but according to The Nation’s famous journalist Jeremy Scahill, he was due to be pardoned when President Obama interceded. Shaye stayed in prison until July 2013, but still has to finish his sentence while under house arrest.
The 2009 Tomahawk strikes weren’t the last time that Yemen claimed credit for a U.S. action either. According to The Washington Post, a September 2012 drone strike killed innocent civilians, and again the Yemenis promptly took credit. In this case, the Yemeni government was forced to back down by an angry public, and the Yemeni and U.S. governments had to admit the truth of who carried out the attack.
While the era of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan might be over, they are still going on in Yemen at a fair rate. There appears to have been about 7 drone strikes in March, and another on the first of this month. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, not all the strikes taking place are confirmed as American by U.S. or Yemeni officials, so accounts of attacks have to be relied upon. Still, worldwide media has a fair impression of which attacks are U.S. drone strikes. This brings us to the latest reported effort by our government to conceal its air power: apparently, the U.S. is going to give Yemen simple, propeller driven planes that can fire Hellfire missiles and other ordnance. The plan is for Yemenis to fly the aircraft while working with U.S. Air Force personnel, and integrating the simple aircraft with American precision strike capability. I think that strikes carried out this way have a good chance of evading the radar of the Main Stream Media, even though word of the plan is already out.
I don’t think any phase of American airstrikes in recent years has caused more confusion than U.S. involvement in the 2011 Libyan Rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi. In March of 2011; while the revolution was well under way, the U.N. authorized enforcement of a no-fly zone, and supported any necessary measures to protect civilians. A group of NATO allies quickly turned this into essentially becoming the air force of the Libyan rebels during Operation Unified Protector. During the NATO operation which lasted over seven months, I remember reports of the airstrikes being reported as NATO operations, aside from the opening sorties by U.S. Stealth Bombers and mostly U.S. Tomahawk missiles. What was also confusing was the media repeatedly referencing the enforcement of the no-fly zone, when some reports had NATO hitting pro-regime snipers on rooftops. With NATO personnel actually being embedded with the rebels to coordinate airstrikes, the U.N. mandate was clearly being overstepped. Even if the action isn’t condemned, the misinformation and confusion should be. While this was going on, along with the reports of Yemen taking credit for U.S. airstrikes, I first developed the opinion that the U.S government was working hard to conceal our application of air power.
Even now, if you read Wikipedia’s description of Operation Unified Protector, it misleads the reader a little on what occurred. It lists the results of the operation as still being the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya and sanctions against Gaddafi’s government. Near the end of the article, contributions from the major participants in the air campaign are listed. For the United States, it gives 1,210 strike sorties with munitions deployed 262 times. I suppose this could be accurate if it was talking about fixed wing aircraft only, but it can easily be proven we hit Libyan soil with more ordnance than this. With a minimum of 112 U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles used at the start of the operation, and the 145 Predator strikes reportedly carried out in Libya by the time the war ended, it comes to at least 257 strikes without even taking into account any U.S. manned aircraft that were used during the war. It’s even been reported that one U.S. drone strike took place in the final attack on Gaddafi’s convoy after the official end of the NATO operation.
North Africa today seems to be the worst trouble spot in the world. Events in Nigeria; Mali, the C.A.R., Somalia and Egypt are putting the world on edge. The U.S. has increased its presence in the region; and besides the rare U.S. drone strikes in Somalia, it was reported that one U.S. drone strike may have taken place in Mali in 2012. This was before the French intervened there in early 2013, driving out Islamic radicals in the North who were threatening to take over the whole country.
I don’t consider the U.S. government’s concealing of airstrikes to be anything too abnormal outside of Yemen, but there was a time when even a single U.S. bomb dropped on anyone was considered newsworthy. Today, with an irresponsible media, and a public that largely doesn’t notice anything that’s not run on a repetitive news cycle, it’s easy for the big picture to escape the notice of the masses. Soon, we’ll be out of Afghanistan, and people will proudly exclaim that America is finally not at war for the first time in over a decade. This might be true, but Al- Qaeda and its branches are spreading around the world; and this isn’t likely to stop, especially with a newly exposed Afghanistan. The United States, or even Barack Obama isn’t likely to sit still while dangerous radicals make serious gains, even though Obama wants to be seen as the President who brought to a close two wars he didn’t start. If the U.S. is still frequently forced to carry out airstrikes in this new time of supposed peace, only then will we find out if perpetual conflict is the new norm.