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Book excerpt: Obama’s drone war in Pakistan was bigger than people think

Clearly the incoming Obama administration had come to see these drone strikes as a vital component of its war against terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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The following is an excerpt from Counter Jihad: America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, by Brian Glyn Williams, by permission of the author and publisher. Copyright 2017 University of Pennsylvania Press.

[T]he incoming Obama administration had come to see these drone strikes as a vital component of its war against terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration felt that the public relations fallout in Pakistan (where reports of civilian deaths from the drones were wildly exaggerated) was worth the disruptive effect the drones had on Al Qaeda and Taliban, who were planning new terrorist attacks from their FATA sanctuary. In fact Obama (who came to be known as “Obomba” in Pakistan) ordered 353 drones strikes in Pakistan by October 2015, compared to just 48 under President Bush (i.e. Obama launched more than seven times as many as Bush).

While his Republican critics described Obama as “weak” on counter-terrorism and accused him of being “anti-war,” former Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, pushed back on this notion stating, “President Obama has authorized more military actions in Muslim countries than any previous president and that the most conservative estimate identifies more than 3,000 drone strike fatalities during his tenure, including much of Al Qaeda’s leadership. He is the first president since the Civil War to authorize the assassination of another American — Anwar ­al-Awlaki, himself.” Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic similarly defended Obama saying, “this president who has this reputation [of being weak] is the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the American presidency. I mean, we just saw in the last week the 150 militants in Somalia wiped out by a U.S. strike. Who ordered that strike?”

Obama’s drone campaign decimated the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s ranks and kept them wondering who was next and hiding, instead of planning new terrorist outrages. The Taliban and Al Qaeda came to have a tremendous fear for the high-tech drones that struck out of the blue without warning and with uncanny precision

The CIA’s ability to hit its targets in Pakistan increased in 2007 with the introduction of a much improved drone known as the MQ-9 Reaper. The Reaper had a much larger engine, allowing it to travel three times the speed of the earlier drone, known as the Predator, and carry far more armament. This ordnance included GBU-12 Paveway II laser laser-guided bombs and Sidewinder missiles. Like the more primitive Predator, the Reaper could loiter over its intended target for over twenty four hours, using high high-resolution cameras to track militants’ “pattern of life” movements from up to two miles away. Then, when the target was tracked leaving crowded areas, it could fire its deadly mini-missiles (often at targets in moving vehicles) to destroy them in the open and thus avoid civilian bystander casualties known as “collateral damage.”

It has also been reported that the Predators and Reapers were aided by secret electronic transmitter chips placed on or near targets by tribesmen working for CIA bounties. These cigarette lighter-sized homing beacons helped account for the drones’ success in taking out dozens of high high-value Al Qaeda and Taliban targets, while usually avoiding civilians. In essence, the drones’ Hellfire missiles could home in on the beacons and precisely destroy Taliban and Al Qaeda cars or buildings where they were meeting.

It was clear from the success rate in killing high high-value targets that the CIA had excellent intelligence resources in the tribal areas. These locals tracked the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership, often for money or out of distaste for the extremists who beheaded many moderate maliks (Pashtun tribal heads) and terrorized the population. In addition to killing over a dozen high-ranking Taliban leaders, the strikes have taken out ten of Al Qaeda’s top twenty leaders and the heads of the Pakistani Taliban on three separate occasions. Thousands of Taliban foot-soldiers have also been killed.

Photo credit: Amazon.com

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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