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Answers and Analysis: Airstrikes and Drone Strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Trivia Answers: 149 Afghan civilians were killed by NATO airstrikes in 2009.  

Discussion: How do airstrikes and drone strikes affect conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Are either types of strike legal?  

Air strikes and drone strikes are two of the most controversial subjects in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, air strikes are utilized by NATO forces to target militants or provide air support when troops are in battle with insurgents. They are used infrequently and have led to many civilian casualties, prompting several inquiries into the nature of their use. New strict guidelines, put in place by Gen. McChrystal, commander of the joint NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, have attempted to stomp out this problem by limiting when air strikes may be called. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, drone strikes are used by the U.S. government to assassinate Taliban and al Qaeda militants and batter their hideouts. They have been relatively successful at eliminating mid-level targets and forcing the Taliban in North Waziristan to seek refuge deeper underground or in vast caves. The United States has found drone strikes such an effective tool that the frequency of their use has spiked from several per month to almost one each day.   

As tools of war, air and drone strikes affect the conflicts in different ways. Because the Pakistani government has not given the United States explicit permission to use drone strikes in its territory, the practice has been heavily criticized as illegal and few have deemed it a legitimate use of force. Pakistan’s government says the United States is infringing on its sovereignty by conducting drone strikes without seeking its consent, but other government officials say Pakistan’s intelligence agency has helped the United States locate terrorists to strike, thus delegitimizing Pakistan’s claims. Nevertheless, the Pakistani population views the drone strikes as an arrogant abuse of power by the United States and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and has protested that the strikes kill civilians as often as militants. Pakistan has requested drone technology from the United States in order to develop its drone capacities to strike militants on its own, but while the United States has offered to share some information, it has refused to give Pakistan the technology for unmanned strikes.  

The success of drone strikes in Pakistan has also brought an unexpected danger to civilians: as more militants are killed by the strikes, those that survive have begun using civilian homes as shields to drone attacks. If the attack still occurs, scores of civilians can be killed.  

Yet the Obama administration has found the drone strikes to be legal and has strived to distinguish them from assassination, which is illegal. The Justice Department’s top lawyer has said that because the strikes are proportionate, targeted killings of militants planning terrorist attacks against the United States, they are permissible under international law. Other countries have been reluctant to recognize this principle, and many scholars argue that the strikes are ethically indefensible, especially when they have a chance of killing civilians instead of militants.  

In Afghanistan, air strikes have killed hundreds of non-combatants, generating widespread outrage at their use. Such strikes have previously turned the tide of popular opinion heavily against NATO forces – so much that when mistakes have occurred and air strikes have accidentally killed civilians, Gen. McChrystal has offered his personal apologies to the Afghan government and population. These strikes, however, are legal since U.S. forces are actively engaged in war in Afghanistan (whereas they are not in Pakistan; the United States considers Pakistan a friendly, relatively stable government). Their unpopularity among the Afghan population has also been used by the Taliban as a recruiting tool – militants seek out the families of air strike victims and persuade them to join the fight against pro-government and foreign forces. This in turn puts more civilians in danger of insurgents’ attacks.  

For the most part, airstrikes in Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan have negatively affected civilian populations suffering from conflicts in those regions, increasing the number of casualties and leading many to support militant groups. As long as these methods remain legally questionable and unpopular with the civilian populations of the countries in which they are used, they will delegitimize U.S. efforts to bring peace to the regions and bring further death and destruction to innocent non-combatants. 

-Carolina Chacon, National Conflicts of Concern Education Coordinator


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