New Delhi has long resisted using armed UAVs in counter-insurgency roles, but the discussion cannot be deferred forever.

The small, portly man was laid out in bed that autumn morning in 2009, wrapped in a shawl, the intravenous line in his arm carrying ever-waning hope that he might yet beat back acute diabetes and a crippling renal disorder. He had come home to his father-in-law’s home in the small village of Makeen just days earlier, family sources would later tell reporters, along the troubled South Waziristan Agency’s border with Afghanistan. He had just one last wish: to have a son.

It was not to be, because from a seat in a quiet room halfway across the world, someone was watching.

Baitullah Mehsud, alleged assassin of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, architect of the 2008 Islamabad Marriot Hotel bombing, commander of strikes that the Pakistan government said claimed over 1,000 lives, possibly never even heard the AGM114 Hellfire anti-tank missile that ended his life.

The November 1 killing of Baitullah Mehsud’s successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, has opened an agonised political debate across Pakistan. Inside the offices of national security force commanders and intelligence chiefs in New Delhi, though, it has set off a very different conversation: are technologies like drones — properly, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) — a way to resolve India’s counter-insurgency conundrum?

Force strength and results

This, we know: the counter-insurgency status quo is not working. In 2003, a Group of Ministers which reviewed internal security after the Kargil war, assigned the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) front line responsibility for counter-insurgency operations — backing up police forces across the country. The force, at the time of the war, had 167,367 personnel. It is now up to 222 battalions — over 222,000 armed personnel, and 300,000 including administrators and support staff.

Yet, the results haven’t been luminous. Even as the CRPF’s numbers have ballooned, the government’s own data show that the number of Maoist insurgents eliminated has declined year-on-year since 2009, from 317 to 114. The number of insurgents and unarmed supporters has stayed steady, at 25,000- plus.

Ever since 2010, some counter-insurgency commanders have advocated abandoning a more boots-on-the-ground strategy. India already has an Israeli-made Heron UAV fleet, the estimated cost of which is $220 million, operating over the Maoist corridor. It takes little to sling an anti-tank missile under a large UAV — and many counter-insurgency practitioners argue it is both inefficient and callous to make troops risk their lives in dangerous terrain when machines can do the job instead.

Helped by a year-on-year decline in insurgent violence levels across the country, the United Progressive Alliance government has long resisted making this high-stakes decision. Now, though, it is becoming clear that violence is seeing an uptick again, particularly along the Line of Control.

It is imperative that India has a wider debate on what the technology can do. We understand that these gains will come at a price. There are three questions to ask: what is the technology, what are its costs, and what will its implications be?

Drones — more accurately, armed UAVs — have come to represent all we most loathe about modern warfare. They make killing antiseptic, distancing combatants from the bloody reality of war. Human Rights Watch recently warned that drones were just part of a larger movement towards automated weapons. There are already gun systems which can use algorithms to open fire on targets

In principle, though, UAVs don’t do anything fundamentally different from every weapon that human beings — and our primate ancestors — ever invented: allow a fighter to strike from a distance from where his or her adversary cannot strike back. The spear and the catapult did exactly what the UAV does — as did the medieval crossbow, famously, if ineffectually, banned by Pope Urban II in 1096 for use against Christians because the technology levelled skilled knights of armour and peasant armies.

However, as the expert Joshua Foust argued, some of these arguments reflect little more than technophobia: counter-intuitive as it might seem, machines may prove better-able to make life-and-death judgments than emotional, terrified soldiers.

Civilian costs

The question of civilian costs is more ambiguous. There’s absolutely no consensus on what costs to civilian lives the drone campaign in Pakistan has imposed: Islamabad claims that just 67 civilians have died in five years, which would be a stellar achievement if true. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have proposed very different figures. In 2010, experts David Kilcullen and Andrew M. Exum asserted that drones had killed just 14 “terrorist leaders” at the price of some 700 civilian lives — numbers promptly challenged as bogus by subsequent studies.

The truth, as Georgetown University scholar C. Christine Fair notes, is impossible to find, because there is no functional apparatus in these regions to judge rival claims.

From available data, though, it is fairly clear that UAVs aren’t more dangerous than the other options on offer — among them, the conventional use of air power, which causes far more civilian casualties. Pakistan’s conventional counter-insurgency operations have led to thousands of fatalities, and large-scale exodus of populations.

It is worth noting that this is a problem in India, too, where counter-insurgency operations routinely claim civilian lives. Just a tiny fraction of CRPF counter-insurgency units, notably, get the 45 days of annual retraining called for by manuals — meaning fatigue, and breakdowns in discipline.

The most important question, though, is not whether civilians are killed —which is, the history of warfare tells us, an inexorable conflict of wars in populated areas. It is how the state decides to kill, and what makes that choice legitimate. The case of Baitullah Mehsud is an instructive one: he was, at the time of his death, of no direct threat to anyone. Hakimullah Mehsud was targeted using an expansive interpretation of United States statute, which allows assassination even if a terrorist is not actually attacking the country’s citizens — but aiding those who do.

Criminal justice

It is true that drones mitigate risks to soldiers and, arguably, even to civilian bystanders — but they rule out even the smallest chance of capture or surrender. They kill people who, at the time of their execution, pose no threat. They exclude, simply, the prospect of criminal justice.

That might be acceptable in war — but it is not in fighting insurgencies against citizens. There are alternatives, among them better-trained special forces, a robust intelligence apparatus, and criminal justice system that delivers.

India’s counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaigns are flailing not because they can’t kill effectively — but because the nuts-and-bolts of an effective state response have never been put in place. Tech-fixes might seem seductive, but the triumph they offer will prove an illusion.

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

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