72% increase in drone strikes in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan — One morning recently, a teenager named Bacha Zarina was collecting firewood on her family's small farm in eastern Afghanistan. About 30 yards away, as family members recall, two Taliban commanders stood outside a house.
A missile screamed down from the sky, killing the two men instantly. Two chunks of shrapnel flew at Bacha Zarina and lodged in her left side.
Her family raced her to the nearest hospital, a half-hour drive away, but she died en route, an accidental victim of the rapidly escalating US-led campaign of drone strikes in Afghanistan. She was 14 or 15 years old. The US military launched 506 strikes from unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan last year, according to Pentagon data, a 72 percent increase from 2011 and a sign that American commanders may begin to rely more heavily on remote-controlled air power to kill Taliban insurgents as they reduce the number of troops on the ground.
Though drone strikes represented a fraction of all US air attacks in Afghanistan last year, their use is on the rise even as American troops have pulled back from ground and air operations and pushed Afghan soldiers and police into the lead. In 2011, drone strikes accounted for 5 percent of US air attacks in Afghanistan; in 2012, the figure rose to 12 percent.
Military spokesmen in Kabul and at the Pentagon declined to explain the increase. But officers familiar with the operation said it was due in part to the growing number of armed Reaper and Predator drones in Afghanistan and better availability of live video feeds beamed directly to troops on the ground.
The increase has coincided with a shift by the Obama administration toward a new strategy in Afghanistan that relies on a smaller military footprint to go after the Taliban and remaining al-Qaida fighters.
The use of armed drones is likely to accelerate as most of the 66,000 US troops in the country are due to withdraw by the end of 2014. The remotely piloted long-range aircraft, which kill targets with virtually no risk to American lives, carry an unmistakable attraction for military commanders.
"With fewer troops, and even with fewer manned aircraft flying overhead, it's harder to get traditional support in combat missions," said Joshua Foust, a Washington-based analyst who has advised the US military in Afghanistan. "Drones provide a good way to do that without importing a bunch of pilots and the support infrastructure they'd need to remain based there."
The strategy isn't without risk: Drone strikes can kill civilians, as underscored by the Sept. 23 incident that claimed Bacha Zarina's life.
After Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the former coalition commander, issued an order limiting airstrikes in populated areas last year, US and NATO forces reduced civilian casualties in air attacks by 42 percent in 2012, according to UN figures.