Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: Following what has happened in Algeria and the news that the terrorists involved in hijacking that gas plant were Mali based, Mali is probably viewed in Washington now as the new Afghanistan. During the past 72 hours, US drone schedules included targets in Sahara and the sub-Sahara. The US is going after Islamists in that region and telling the Maghreb and neighbourhood Islamists to look out.
The few remains of other al Qaeda-linked Islamists including leaders such as Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, Abdulrahman, in Yemen, have been smeared across the burned wrecks of too many supposedly safe houses and vehicles for them not to get the message: the US military are coming after them.
As the new breed of drone operators chalk on the anti-al Qaeda and Taliban briefing sheets: God May Be Great – Predators Spitting Hellfire missiles are Greater.
Equally this is not where President Barack Obama wanted to be, especially during his inaugural week. It certainly turns the iconic Don’t Ask What America Can Do For You into Just Think What America Can Do To You. Obama’s next four years won’t all be economy fixing. But with John Brennan as his drone hitman set to head the CIA, Obama will be signing off more drone attacks than health care bills.
Although drone technology has been around since World War II, the priority technology programmes developed especially by the US and Israel – and often in collaboration – turned what was second line weaponry into the most talked about system. The big kick in the programme came in the 1990s when the Department of Defence (DoD) signed a three way contract with Israel’s Maziat and America’s AAI Corporation of Maryland to produce a new generation of unmanned airborne vehicles.
One of the systems that came out of that deal was the still-in-use AAI Pioneer. Then came General Atomics MQ-1, known as Predator and living up to its name. Putting an air-to-ground Hellfire missile aboard changed the effectiveness of this form of theatre attack warfare.
Take all this on board because America is not stopping there. There is almost no weapon system apart from heavy cruise missiles that cannot be carried by the latest systems and there is hardly any target that can hide once data transfer from human to satellite information is patched in. Most importantly, Obama’s people are saying here that there is no sovereignty issue that will stop them attacking a suspect target. That’s important because until recently, say the past five to seven years, the idea of attacking a target in another country unless you were at war in that place, was very delicate diplomacy and didn’t pick up too much support even from allies.
All that changed in Afghanistan when Taliban targets were droned in Pakistan. A ball park one thousand people have been killed by US drones – Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk – in Pakistan during the past five or six years. A few, maybe 20 were al Qaeda-Taliban leaders. But not all the victims of the drones were on any wanted lists. The best estimate suggests that innocent people – including children – were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So when the US says they’re going for the al Qaeda leadership it means that by-standing is unwise. And back in Main Street USA, you won’t see too many Human Rights Watch activists getting too many petitions going to stop the drone. Americans had heard of Osama Bin Laden, but that’s about it.
Names abroad mean nothing and what happens to them and those caught in the target radius is of little interest. If the President says he’s a Bad Guy, then the answer is blow the black Stetson to pieces. In a society that has more privately held weapons than voters, America won’t blink on this one especially as ground troop commitments are zero. The bonus is the evidence of the past 72 hours that there are many Bad Guys on the run.
And the President knows that mostly, American allies have the same view. No one, not even the French, wants to sign up for the new Afghanistan. Maybe they say, just maybe Predator will do the truly dirty work for them.
Could be they’re right, but when the place is clean it has to be assumed that the new Bad Guys will be back. Then the reality is that boots have to be on the ground – and they won’t all be African.