Washington Merry-Go-Round

Drone wars

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Drone wars

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – In a world full of danger and national security threats, the latest hot spot is Mali, a Northwest African nation not quite twice the size of Texas. Sparsely populated, it has become fertile ground for a group of jihadists known as AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Alarmed by the gains made by AQIM in Mali, a former French colony, French President Francois Hollande dispatched 2,500 troops to help the Mali government resist the incursion, and he requested assistance from the U.S.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. would provide logistical support and intelligence to the French, but would not help with training the Mali military because the government is not a democracy; it’s a military junta that seized power a year ago. Panetta said the U.S. would provide unarmed drones for intelligence gathering to the French.

The operative word is drones, and it’s not too big a leap to imagine that if the situation deteriorates, the opening is there for the U.S. to arm those drones. And the situation has deteriorated.

News broke Wednesday that terrorists had occupied a BP natural gas complex northeast of Mali in Algeria and taken hostage a number of foreign nationals, Americans among them. The perpetrator, a well-known jihadist known as “Mr.Marlboro” for his smuggling of cigarettes and other sundries, took credit for the attack which was intended to punish Algeria for allowing French airplanes use its airspace to reach Mali.

An Algerian Army assault on the gas plant freed the hostages the next day, with varying accounts of the number of casualties, ending the crisis while underscoring the volatility in the region. The reason the U.S. is supporting French involvement in Mali is because of Al-Qaeda, and the fear that jihadists will take root there and turn Mali into a staging area for attacks around the world like Osama bin Laden did in Afghanistan.

Panetta has ruled out ground troops to assist in the fight in Mali, and that’s not what the French want anyway. Several African nations are sending troops to assist the French, and that’s how it should be. But the U.S. has a commodity that no one else yet has, and that’s a fleet of drones, which are the weapons of choice in the modern world.

Drones are controversial, and because President Obama’s choice to head the CIA, former White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, is the architect of the administration’s drone policy, they are about to get a whole lot of publicity during Brennan’s confirmation hearings. One thing is certain and beyond question, drones are at the core of Obama’s national security and counter-terrorism strategy.

The advantages are obvious. Thanks to armed drones, the top leadership of Al-Qaeda has been decimated and no Americans have lost their lives. Drones fly in, and they fly out, making it easier to engage militarily without leaving a heavy footprint and risking the lives of young men and women. Sending in troops is easy; withdrawing them is hard. A reliance on drones avoids that dilemma.

The disadvantages are less obvious but just as real. Drone attacks no matter how carefully targeted inevitably kill civilians, usually because terrorists are hiding among them. U.S. relations with Pakistan have significantly deteriorated because of drone attacks on Pakistani territory. Then there’s the question of what happens when America’s enemies develop drones, and figure out how to beat us at our own game. That challenge is for another day; for now, drones are popular as a tool of modern warfare because they’re so much better than the alternatives of either doing nothing or sending young men and women to war.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

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