Home | Global News | UK’s Drone Operation In Afghanistan Is Expanding

UK’s Drone Operation In Afghanistan Is Expanding

UK’s Drone Operation In Afghanistan Is Expanding

By Countercurrents.org

24 October, 2012

With tax payers money the UK is going to expand its drone operations in Afghanistan while its citizens’ wellbeing is below financial crisis level. A “strange” state!

Nick Hopkins’ report [1] said:

The UK is to double the number of armed RAF [Royal Air Force] “drones” flying combat and surveillance operations in Afghanistan and, for the first time, the aircraft will be controlled from terminals and screens in Britain.

In the new squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), five Reaper drones will be sent to Afghanistan. It is expected they will begin operations within six weeks.

Pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire will fly the recently bought American-made UAVs at a hi-tech hub built on the site in the past 18 months.

The UK’s existing five Reaper drones have been operated from Creech air force base in Nevada because Britain has not had the capability to fly them from UK.

After “standing up” the new squadron on October 19, 2012, the UK will soon have 10 Reapers in Afghanistan. The government has yet to decide whether the aircraft will remain there after 2014, when all NATO combat operations are due to end.

“The new squadron will have three control terminals at RAF Waddington, and the five aircraft will be based in Afghanistan,” a spokesman confirmed. “We will continue to operate the other Reapers from Creech though, in time, we will wind down operations there and bring people back to the UK.”

The use of drones has become one of the most controversial features of military strategy in Afghanistan. The UK has been flying them almost non-stop since 2008.

The CIA’s program of “targeted” drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal area was last month condemned in a report by US academics.

The most recent figures from the Ministry of Defense show that, by the end of September, the UK’s five Reapers in Afghanistan had flown 39,628 hours and fired 334 laser-guided Hellfire missiles and bombs at suspected insurgents.

While British troops on the ground have started to take a more back-seat role, the use of UAVs has increased over the past two years despite fears from human rights campaigners that civilians might have been killed or injured in some attacks.

The RAF bought the drones as an urgent operational requirement (UOR) specifically for Afghanistan, and the MoD confirmed that their purpose after 2014 was unclear. Under rules imposed by the EU and the Civil Aviation Authority, UAVs can be flown only in certain places in the UK, including around the Aberporth airfield in mid-Wales.

If the air-exclusion zone restrictions are not lifted by the end of 2014, the UK may have to relocate the drones to the US, or perhaps even to Kenya, sources said.

In the first three-and-a-half years of using the Reapers in Afghanistan, the aircraft flew 23,400 hours and fired 176 missiles. But those figures have almost doubled in the past 15 months as NATO seeks to weaken the Taliban ahead of withdrawal.

The MoD insists only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its strikes since 2008 and says it does everything it can to minimize civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment.

However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit.

The MoD says it relies on Afghans making official complaints at military bases if their friends or relatives have been wrongly killed – a system campaigners say is flawed and unreliable.

Heather Barr, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, has said: “There are many disincentives for people to make reports.

“Some of these areas are incredibly isolated, and people may have to walk for days to find someone to report a complaint. For some, there will be a certain sense of futility in doing so anyway. There is no uniform system for making a complaint and no uniform system for giving compensation. This may not encourage them to walk several days to speak to someone who may not do anything about it.”

In December 2010, David Cameron claimed that 124 insurgents had been killed in UK drone strikes. But defense officials said they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure and denied it was from the MoD.

A high court hearing on October 23, 2012 may shed light on any support the UK is giving to the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan. The case has been brought by Noor Khan, whose father was killed in an attack on a local council meeting in 2011. He is asking the foreign secretary, William Hague, to clarify the government’s position on sharing intelligence for use in CIA strikes, and is challenging the lawfulness of such activities.

His lawyer, Rosa Curling, said: “This case is about the legality of the UK government providing ‘locational intelligence’ to the US for use in drone strikes in Pakistan.

An off-the-record GCHQ source stated that GCHQ assistance was being provided to the US for use in drone attacks and this assistance was ‘in accordance with the law.’

“We have advised our client that this is incorrect. The secretary of state has misunderstood the law on this extremely important issue and a declaration from the court confirming the correct legal position is required as a matter of priority.”

On the high court hearing Ian Cobain reported [2]:

The British government’s support for US drone operations over Pakistan may involve acts of assisting murder or even war crimes, the high court heard on October 23, 2012.

This is the first serious legal challenge in the English courts to the drones campaign.

Noor Khan, 27, is said to live in constant fear of a repeat of the attack in North Waziristan in March last year that killed more than 40 other people, who are said to have gathered to discuss a local mining dispute.

The British government has declined to state whether or not its signals intelligence agency GCHQ passes information in support of the CIA drone operations over Pakistan, although the court heard that media reports suggest that it does.

Martin Chamberlain, counsel for Khan, said that a newspaper article in 2010 had reported that GCHQ was using telephone intercepts to provide the US authorities with locational intelligence on leading militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The report suggested that the Cheltenham-based agency was proud of this work, which was said to be “in strict accordance with the law”.

On the contrary, Chamberlain said, any GCHQ official who passed locational intelligence to the CIA knowing or believing that it could be used to facilitate a drone strike would be committing a serious criminal offence.

“The participation of a UK intelligence official in US drone strikes, by passing intelligence, may amount to the offence of encouraging or assisting murder,” he said. Alternatively, it could amount to a war crime or a crime against humanity, he added.

Chamberlain said that no GCHQ official would be able to mount a defense of combat immunity, but added that there was no wish in this case to convict any individual of a criminal offence. Rather, Khan was seeking a declaration by the civil courts that such intelligence-sharing is unlawful.

With the number of drone strikes increasing sharply under the Obama administration, the London case is one of several being brought by legal activists around the world in an attempt to challenge their legality of the program.

In Pakistan, lawyers and human rights activists are mounting two separate court claims: one is intended to trigger a criminal investigation into the actions of two former CIA officials, while the second is seeking a declaration that the strikes amount to acts of war, in order to pressurise the Pakistani air force into shooting down drones operating in the country’s airspace.

During the two-day hearing in London, lawyers for Khan are seeking permission for a full judicial review of the lawfulness of any British assistance for the US drone program.

Lawyers for William Hague, the foreign secretary, say not only that they will neither confirm nor deny any intelligence-sharing activities in support of drone operations, but that it would be “prejudicial to the national interest” for them even to explain their understanding of the legal basis for any such activities.

For Khan and his lawyers to succeed, they say, the court would need to be satisfied that there is no international armed conflict in Pakistan, with the result that anyone involved in drone strikes was not immune from the criminal law, and that there had been no tacit approval for the strikes from the Pakistan government – another matter that the British government will neither confirm nor deny.

The court would also need to consider, and reject, the US government’s own legal position: that drone strikes are acts of self-defense. It would also need to be satisfied that the handing over of intelligence amounted to participation in hostilities.

The government also says that Khan’s claim would have a “significant impact” on the conduct of the UK’s relations with both the US and Pakistan in an “acutely controversial, sensitive and important” area, and also impact on relations between the US and Pakistan.

The case continues.

Citing a report by US academics, about a month ago, a press report said drone attacks in Pakistan are counterproductive [3]:

The CIA’s program of “targeted” drone killings in Pakistan is politically counterproductive, kills large numbers of civilians and undermines respect for international law.

The study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools blames the US president, Barack Obama, for the escalation of “signature strikes” in which groups are selected merely through remote “pattern of life” analysis.

Families are afraid to attend weddings or funerals, it says, in case US ground operators guiding drones misinterpret them as gatherings of Taliban or al-Qaida militants.

“The dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false,” the report Living Under Drones states.

The authors admit it is difficult to obtain accurate data on casualties “because of US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability, compounded by obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Waziristan”.

The “best available information”, they say, is that between 2,562 and 3,325 people have been killed in Pakistan between June 2004 and mid-September this year – of whom between 474 and 881 were civilians, including 176 children. The figures have been assembled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which estimated that a further 1,300 individuals were injured in drone strikes over that period.

The study said: “Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best … The number of ‘high-level’ militants killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low – estimated at just 2% [of deaths]. Evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks … One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.”

Coming from American lawyers rather than overseas human rights groups, the criticisms are likely to be more influential in US domestic debates over the legality of drone warfare.

“US targeted killings and drone strike practices undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal protections and may set dangerous precedents,” the report says, questioning whether Pakistan has given consent for the attacks.

“The US government’s failure to ensure basic transparency and accountability in its targeted killings policies, to provide details about its targeted killing program, or adequately to set out the legal factors involved in decisions to strike hinders necessary democratic debate about a key aspect of US foreign and national security policy.

“US practices may also facilitate recourse to lethal force around the globe by establishing dangerous precedents for other governments. As drone manufacturers and officials successfully reduce export control barriers, and as more countries develop lethal drone technologies, these risks increase.”

The report supports the call by Ben Emmerson QC, the UN’s special rapporteur on countering terrorism, for independent investigations into deaths from drone strikes and demands the release of the US department of justice memorandums outlining the legal basis for US targeted killings in Pakistan.

The report highlights the switch from the former president George W Bush’s practice of targeting high-profile al-Qaida personalities to the reliance, under Obama’s administration, of analyzing patterns of life on the ground to select targets.

“According to US authorities, these strikes target ‘groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known’,” the report says. “Just what those ‘defining characteristics’ are has never been made public.” People in North Waziristan are now afraid to attend funerals or other gatherings, it suggests.

Fears that US agents pay informers to attach electronic tags to the homes of suspected militants in Pakistan haunt the tribal districts, according to the study. “[In] Waziristan … residents are gripped by rumors that paid CIA informants have been planting tiny silicon-chip homing devices that draw the drones.

“Many of the Waziris interviewed spoke of a constant fear of being tagged with a chip by a neighbor or someone else who works for either Pakistan or the US, and of the fear of being falsely accused of spying by local Taliban.”

Reprieve’s director, Clive Stafford Smith, said: “An entire region is being terrorized by the constant threat of death from the skies. Their way of life is collapsing: kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings, or anything that involves gathering in groups.

“George Bush wanted to create a global ‘war on terror’ without borders, but it has taken Obama’s drone war to achieve his dream.”

On the issues Clive Stafford Smith wrote [4]:

Nick Hopkins’ Guardian article [mentioned above] gives further proof of our leap into an opaque drone age.

Consider David Cameron’s claim that British drones have killed 124 insurgents in Afghanistan; Hopkins reports that “defence officials said they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure and denied it was from the MoD”. Does this mean that our kill-numbers are being conjured up by politicians?

There are many more questions that beg for an answer. One is the degree to which drones are to be used simply as a weapon of terror. In British Air and Space Power Doctrine, the MoD informs us that “air power is not employed solely for kinetic purposes. The psychological impact of air power from the presence of a UAV … has often proved to be extremely effective in exerting influence, especially when linked to information operations.” In plain English, the circling drones are used to terrify the citizens below into providing intelligence. Did not the Geneva conventions forbid such a war against civilians? Did we forget so soon how the material frightened out of people in the “war on terror” proved so suspect?

The most harrowing histories I heard in my recent trip to the Pakistan border regions involved the fear factor – 800,000 concededly innocent men, women and children in the region terrified by the sounds of drones overhead, 24 hours a day. To what extent is this to be an intentional policy? Is it regulated? Or even debated?

The British people need to be told the true reasons for this shift. One, no doubt, is the US predilection for what is called “chopping”, a 21st-century euphemism that means a “change in operational control”. A NATO or British drone might be on the Pakistan border when the US decides to kill someone in Waziristan – just another international war crime to the CIA, but an act that the UK would rather was committed with no British fingerprints. So the machine metamorphoses into an American drone and the US “pilot” slips into the comfy chair to let loose the Hellfire missile. Moving the controls to RAF Waddington may make this kind of blurred line easier to define, but it does not erase the moral and legal issues.

The blurring of lines is a drone speciality. The US could not fly F16s to bomb an unwilling ally but – for a number of reasons – the CIA feels no compunction about sending drones over Pakistan. A recent MoD paper called Future Air and Space Operational Concept speaks of a world that is “free of the constraints of physical barriers and national boundaries”. In other words, might give us the right in our robot world. Perhaps the UK does not yet run its Reaper drones across the Durand Line, the indistinct border between Pakistan and Afghanistan concocted by the British in 1893.

On Tuesday, we have a case in the high court about British fingerprints at the crime scene. The judges will decide whether the government may blithely refuse to reveal its “policy” when it comes to sharing intelligence with those who commit international war crimes – for that is surely what the US is doing in Pakistan. The government is paying three QCs to assert its right to silence – every time they share a cup of coffee it costs the taxpayer hundreds of pounds.

Why, you may well ask, should politicians, military men and corporations make these decisions in such secrecy when we will all live with them in the decades to come?

While this war-reality dominates scene, on the opposite, in the UK, the citizens’ wellbeing is below financial crisis level. Citing government data Larry Elliott, economics editor, and Randeep Ramesh reported [5]:

A mix of deep recession and high inflation has left national wellbeing in Britain more than 13% down on its level before the global financial crisis.

The Office for National Statistics said the hit to real living standards caused by the worst downturn of the postwar era had been almost double the fall in national output as measured by GDP.

Data released in the report on wellbeing showed that net national income per head (NNI) – considered the best guide to real living standards – held up in the early stages of the recession but has continued to drop as a result of the squeeze on family budgets from rising prices.

The ONS said that NNI per head fell by 13.2% between the first three months of 2008 – when the economy peaked – and the second quarter of 2012. Over the same period, GDP per head fell by 7%.

According to the study, the decline in living standards has been more pronounced and longer lasting than in the UK’s two previous recessions in the early 1980s and early 1990s.

NNI dropped by around 6% in the slump of the early 1980s but was back to its pre-recession peak within three years. In the early 1990s, the decline was a more modest 4% fall, and the lost ground had been recouped in two-and-a-half years.

Even if the data is adjusted to include the welfare state – especially important in Britain with the NHS – it still reveals a bleak picture. This figure, known as real household actual income per head, dropped in the second quarter of 2012 by 2.9% below its peak in the third quarter of 2009.

The data release marks a significant shift in the way Britain sees how economic changes affect people’s wellbeing.

Since 2008, when a report for the French government by three eminent economists – Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi – argued that when evaluating people’s “wellbeing”, governments should look at people’s income and consumption rather than at production to assess progress, countries have begun to use such measures to size up a nation’s happiness.


[1] The Guardian, “UK to double number of drones in Afghanistan”, Oct. 22, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/22/uk-double-drones-afghanistan

[2] guardian.co.uk, “UK support for US drones in Pakistan may be war crime, court is told”, Oct. 23, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/23/uk-support-us-drones-pakistan-war-crime

[3] The Guardian, Owen Bowcott, September 25, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/25/drone-attacks-pakistan-counterproductive-report

[4] guardian.co.uk, “We need to know the truth about UK drones policy”, Oct. 23, 2012,

[5] guardian.co.uk, “UK wellbeing still below financial crisis levels”, Oct. 23, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/oct/23/uk-wellbeing-fails-to-recover-financial-crisis

Check Also

Uighur Muslims say it’s ‘unbearable brutality’

  China calls it re-education, but Uighur Muslims say it’s ‘unbearable brutality’ Oct 4, 2019 …

Iraq Rising: Nearly 100 killed as unrest enters fifth day

The streets of Iraq have been shaken by days of protests, as thousands of Iraqis …