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Associated Press/Photo by Mohammad Sajjad

Drone wars

On the anniversary of the Afghan war, a new kind of war heats up

Issue: "2010 Election: The Governors," Oct. 23, 2010

At least five attacks on NATO fuel trucks in a week pose new threats to coalition forces fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan, and additionally burden an already tense relationship between the United States and Pakistan, just as war in the region entered its 10th year on Oct. 7.

Gasoline-powered flames roared overhead and engulfed vehicles Oct. 6 at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border after gunmen torched more than 24 tankers carrying fuel to U.S. and other forces. A similar attack five days earlier incinerated 40 NATO transports. The attacks took place after Pakistani authorities closed a key border crossing in retaliation for a NATO helicopter attack in the area of the Khyber Pass that killed three Pakistani troops on Sept. 30. The closure left more than 6,000 transports stranded alongside highways leading to the border crossings-one leading to Kandahar where U.S. forces are fighting the Taliban, and another near Kabul, the capital. About 100 stopped vehicles in all were torched by gunmen during the first week of October, and at least four people killed.

The explosions signify an escalation of violent conflict following disclosures of terror threats leveled at European cities. On Oct. 3 the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany issued new terror alerts warning of possible commando-style attacks in major European cities. At the same time NATO stepped up attacks by U.S. Predator and Reaper drones in the northwest tribal region of Pakistan, an area now tagged the global headquarters of al-Qaeda.

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The unmanned drones, flown remotely out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada in a joint CIA and Air Force operation, remain a source of controversy. In 2009 there were 51 reported drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas, compared with 45 carried out during the entire Bush administration's supervision of the war. In 2010 there have been 81 reported drone strikes through Oct. 6.

A February report issued by the New America Foundation, using military and world press reports, found that drones killed up to 1,200 individuals, "of whom around 550-850 were described as militants in reliable press accounts," suggesting an across-the-board civilian fatality rate of 32 percent since 2004.

Some military experts find that civilian death rate unacceptable. "I realize that they do damage to the al-Qaeda leadership," David Kilcullen, an Australian Army officer who served as U.S. Gen. David Petraeus' top adviser in Iraq, told the House Armed Services Committee last year, reporting that drones had killed 14 senior al-Qaeda leaders, but also 700 Pakistani civilians. "The drone strikes are highly unpopular. They are deeply aggravating to the population. And they've given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism," he said, concluding: "We need to call off the drones."

While many favor the drones because they perform combat tasks without putting U.S. military personnel directly at risk, the program could come into question should Republicans prove successful at taking leadership of the House or Senate in next month's elections. At least $120 million in funding for the Predator program has come through earmarks-allowing lawmakers to avoid an open vote on the controversial program-and GOP leaders in Congress have vowed to end earmarks under their leadership.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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