- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
NATO no longer has a monopoly on drones on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Because now insurgents are using them.
“In the past, seeing a UAV once or twice a month would be normal,” spokesman for the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan Capt. William Salvin told Stars and Stripes, using the acronym for unmanned aerial vehicles. “Now, we’re seeing them once or twice a week.”
The drones are small, commercial-use and cheap. But they’re effective. With eyes in the sky, insurgents can conduct spy on coalition forces and target them in mortar attacks with real-time live feeds of the battlefield. In October, the Taliban even used a drone to record a suicide bombing attack for propaganda purposes.
But what’s more worrying is the possibility of insurgents arming drones with bombs — and it’s already happening in Iraq and Syria. Numerous videos of militant group purportedly dropping explosives from jerry-rigged drones have already populated YouTube (see here and here). And in October, the Islamic State attacked French and Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq with an exploding drone that killed two Kurdish soldiers.
After the incident, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq said drones-turned-bombs were alarmingly easy and cheap to come by. “They can just buy them as anybody else would,” Col. John Dorrian said, as AP reported. “Some of those are available on Amazon.”
There haven’t been any reported incidents of insurgents using drone explosives in Afghanistan yet. But the Afghan military isn’t taking any chances. The Afghan Air Force posted flyers around its bases urging troops to be on the lookout for quadcopter drones, warning they “could be bombs.”
“We’ve seen this before,” Chris Woods of Airwars, an organization that monitors casualties from airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, said, per Stars and Stripes. “Back in 2006, (improvised explosive devices became) were unheard of in Afghanistan. Eventually, IEDs became the primary cause of loss of life for U.S. and Afghan forces.”
The Pentagon is scrambling to deploy counter-drone technology to troops to respond to the threat. In October last year, Lt. Gen. Michael Shields, the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Threat-Defeat Organization (JIDO) said at a media event his organization would test state-of-the-art tools to rebuff drones in January or February.
Still, Salvin said NATO wasn’t losing any sleep over the drone threat in Afghanistan yet. “It’s something we watch for, [but] we believe their use will have very little impact to our operations,” he said.
Photo credit: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images