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Afghan Children: Growing Up With Drones and Landmines360°ANALYSIS

Childhood in Afghanistan is about constantly living in fear of death from skies. 

A Predator drone can reach an altitude of 25,000 feet and hover at such heights for up to 40 hours. Yet, fair weather permitting, the buzz of its propellers can be perceptible to those who happen to fall under its flight path. At this point in Afghanistan, everyone has come to understand what that lawnmower-like buzzing represents: uncertainty.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), as drones are referred to in the US military’s nomenclature, have become a fixture of life in 21st century Afghanistan. The number of sorties flown by remotely piloted aircraft has grown with increasing frequency, as the US and its allies shift their strategy in the run-up to the removal of remaining international combat troops toward the end of 2014.

With the drawdown of NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) underway, and the July 2013 handover of national security to the Afghanistan National Security Force (ANSF) already complete, the remaining coalition forces are beginning to rely more heavily on air power, drones in particular, to stem the insurgency and help their Afghan partners achieve stability in the region.

Drones were originally developed for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes, but were quickly weaponized after their lethal potential was realized. Since the first airstrike from a UAV in Yemen in 2002, drones have increasingly been employed for surgical strikes on enemy combatants, owing to their increased accuracy and ability to remove the human element from violence; thus avoiding the political unpopularity that results from the loss of service men and women’s lives in the process.

These justifications, however, fail to account for the craters and bodies that decorate a blast site after a 100-lb Hellfire missile thunders out of the sky to strike a target from above. Nor do they account for the innocent civilians who perish by mistake or simply due to proximity to a legitimate target. At the same time, drones are a demonstrably more accurate method of waging war, producing far fewer casualties than conventional weaponry.

As the most vulnerable segment of the population, how exactly does the use of drone warfare affect the lives of children in Afghanistan? Secondly, do drones have a place in the future of the country?

Death From Skies

Life is certainly not easy for Afghan children. A 2009 UNICEF report named Afghanistan as the world’s worst place to be born. According to the World Health Organization, there is a 10% chance a child will not make it past the age of 5. That Afghanistan has one of the worst standards of health in the world comes as no surprise. In 2011, its Human Development Index ranking was 172 out of 187 countries. Malnutrition, poor access to clean water, and the spread of communicable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis all contribute to Afghanistan’s unfortunate health record.

Furthermore, extreme poverty, child labor, and limited health care services aggravate the already poor quality of life endured by Afghan children, who make up almost half (47.42% are 15 years or younger) of the entire population. These issues are exacerbated by the ongoing violence between coalition forces and anti-governmental elements (AGE). Vulnerability has become the defining feature of Afghan childhood.

The buzz of a drone in flight is a constant reminder that violence has yet to cease. This contributes to an overwhelming sense of insecurity for children particularly in rural Afghanistan. Every time they step outside the possibility of violence exists, whether it is getting caught in crossfire, becoming the victim of a suicide bombing, or accidently stepping on a land mine. After 12 long years of war, the concept of safety remains alien to many Afghan children.

In 2012, civilian casualties dropped for the first time since the United Nations (UN) began tracking such figures six years ago. Insurgent elements were responsible for an overwhelming 81% of those casualties. In 2012, the UN reported the number of child casualties at 1,304 (283 resulting in death): 30% of these casualties were due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), whilst only 5.6% of child casualties could be attributed to allied air-to-ground strikes.

As the empirical data demonstrates, the number of civilian casualties caused by UAVs pales in comparison with other sources of war-related deaths. The real-time surveillance ability of remotely piloted aircraft systems enables operators to track targets in order to confirm identities and corroborate intelligence, thus minimizing civilian casualties when a strike is launched.

As Harold Koh, a former legal adviser to the State Department, pointed out in a speech recently given at the Oxford University Union: "Because drone technology is highly precise, if properly controlled, it could be more lawful and more consistent with human rights and humanitarian law than the alternatives."

Unfortunately, the high profile nature of air strikes (death from above makes a better byline than death from malnutrition) and the tendency of media outlets to conflate American drone programs together (covert with overt) obscures the subtle effectiveness of drones in minimizing civilian causalities. It is important to make the distinction between the two types of American drone programs in existence.

The program employed in Afghanistan is publically acknowledged and is considered a legitimate tactic in an ongoing theater of armed conflict. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Joint Special Operations Command (JOSC) run the covert program of targeted killings underway in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. This program remains veiled in secrecy and continues to provoke controversy, as the US carries out classified extraterritorial strikes outside of the acknowledged conflict-zones as part of the global War on Terror.

Drones' Collateral Damage

Drone strikes may be the most indiscriminate use of lethal force in Afghanistan at the moment, but, for obvious reasons, this fact resonates very little among the civilian population. Recent reports have shown that the drone program has provided a recruitment boon for the Taliban and other AGEs around the region.

The buzz of a UAV flying overhead signals the ongoing infringement upon Afghanistan by foreign forces, which in turn has the potential to radicalize the local populace and/or produce resentment against the West. Insurgents have harnessed this sympathy by often inflating the number of civilian deaths in order to undermine counterinsurgency efforts.   

Psychologically, the persistent fear produced by drones is unmistakable. The anxiety generated by the knowledge that a strike could occur at any moment is traumatic and many Afghan children already suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It acutely affects daily life in rural Afghanistan.

It is difficult to separate the psychological damage caused by drones and the potential of another type of violence erupting at any moment. But the perpetual fear caused by drones in such an environment can dramatically affect a child’s future development, as they shy away from school or other social activities while potentially developing mental health issues.

The most obvious risk from drone strikes is the potential for casualties. When collateral damage is incurred, the human costs are incalculable (though NATO, for the first time ever, has begun to compensate victims). The most common victims of drone strikes are men, usually the primary breadwinners of Afghan families, and resulting in an estimated 1.6 million orphans. Beyond familial loss, homelessness and disability also profoundly affect children in Afghanistan today.

The Strategic Cost

But do the tactical advantages offered by drones outweigh the strategic costs? Al-Qaeda’s top leadership has been decimated through drone strikes but the insurgency continues. Do the short-term benefits of eliminating a threat outweigh the long-term damage in the relationship with the Afghan people?

The US has made the minimization of civilian casualties a key point of its new counterinsurgency field manual published in 2006. Both military and civilian leaders recognized that if they were ever going to succeed in establishing a stable Afghan state, they would need to win over the local populace by minimizing collateral damage. The ISAF now investigates every civilian casualty in order to recognize where the operation erred and rectify wrongs done to innocents.

However, is the stated goal of civilian protection enough to warrant the use of drones? The use of drones has become a perverse form of terror. If the US' ultimate strategy in the region is stability and the elimination of elements capable of striking at the West, then the use of drones is counterproductive. The small tactical victories achieved through the targeted elimination of insurgents do not outweigh the resentment bred by the drone program — not when it results in wholly unnecessary and tragic loss of lives and obliteration of its children’s future.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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