A March 6 airstrike in Afghanistan killed at least five Afghan soldiers and wounded eight more - an egregious accident that prompted the U.S.-led military coalition to launch an ongoing investigation into what occurred. Afghan officials allege the attack was carried out by a drone, long the Obama administration's weapon of choice, while the U.S. says it involved a manned aircraft. Either way, the strike highlights an important -- and surprising -- shift: Both the amount of time drones spend over Afghanistan and the number of total coalition airstrikes are in steep decline, and that trend is likely to accelerate as the U.S. withdraws most of its remaining troops in the months ahead.
Statistics released to Foreign Policy show that the amount of time spent by U.S. drones over Afghanistan was down 22 percent between 2012 and 2013. The number of drone flight hours over Afghanistan dropped even more drastically over the last six months -- 30 percent over the previous half-year. Coalition officials declined to disclose the specific number of hours flown, but said the primary mission for U.S. drones - remotely piloted aircraft in military jargon -- remains intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance from the sky. The military also refused to say whether the numbers of drone strikes have been increasing or going down.
Drone usage declining in Afghanistan may catch some by surprise. The military has used them widely in other countries where the United States has a small presence of troops, including Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. It would seem logical, then, that with fewer U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, drones would be called on more. But it turns out the opposite is true: as the coalition military drawdown in Afghanistan continues, the amount of high-tech equipment used there also is declining. That goes not only for drones, but for ground-based surveillance equipment. One example commonly used by U.S. forces is the Ground Based Operational Surveillance System, typically known in military-speak as a "G-BOSS." It includes an 80-foot tower that has infrared cameras, radar equipment and other sensors on it, and is capable of watching insurgents from long distances.
Officials at the White House, Pentagon and the military coalition with headquarters in Kabul all declined to comment on the change. But retired Adm. James Stavridis, who served as the supreme allied commander of NATO until retiring last year, said that while technology has been helpful to U.S. forces, the gear wouldn't be as useful to the Afghans after coalition forces leave "because the enemy operates so often in a primitive context."
The Afghan forces' "knowledge of culture, language, geography, personality and so on means that they see the world in technicolor, while we are at best looking at a fuzzy black-and-white picture in so many scenarios," Stavridis said. "For counter-insurgency, the human and physical terrain knowledge is vital, the high-tech capability is helpful. While additive, high-tech is not crucial in my view."
The use of drones has continued to be controversial in Afghanistan, however, especially when it leads to civilians getting caught in the crossfire. In one recent example, a Sept. 7 airstrike in Kunar province, along Afghanistan's eastern border, killed 14 civilians, surviving family members later told the Los Angeles Times. The U.S. military coalition contended that 11 were killed, many of them insurgents, but villages later said the dead included women and children.
"There were pieces of my family all over the road," one 28-year-old farmer, Miya Jan, told the Times. "I picked up those pieces from the road and from the truck and wrapped them in a sheet to bury them."
The Air Force stopped releasing statistics about the number of drone airstrikes it conducted last year, causing outcry from transparency advocates. U.S. Central Command told Air Force Times last year that the decision was made because doing so placed a disproportionate emphasis on the strikes, rather than other drone missions. The change occurred as both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and some members of Congress increasingly called for scrutiny on them.
The military coalition in Kabul says that drones -- remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs, in military jargon -- are used judiciously, however.
"Only 3 percent of RPA sorties are involved in airstrikes," said Lt. Col. Will Griffin, a coalition spokesman in Kabul. "Our efforts to reduce civilian casualties are comprehensive and involve our civilian casualty mitigation board, as we as tightly restricted, meticulously planned, carefully supervised and coordinated use of aerial weapons applied by qualified personnel. This applies to both manned and remotely piloted aircraft."
The latest numbers released show that the overall air war in Afghanistan continues to decline. The Air Force dropped weapons 400 times between November and February, a 60 percent decrease when compared to the same period a year ago. The heaviest single month of the air war came in October 2010, as the United States flooded thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan and assaulted numerous areas of the country that had little coalition presence. The Air Force dropped 1,043 weapons that month alone - 82 percent more than it did this past October.
Defense Department photo