bird watching

A headline from the front page of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal: “CIA Escalates in Pakistan”. Sub head: “Pentagon Diverts Drones From Afghanistan to Bolster Campaign Next Door”.[1]

Somehow we need to re-label this war, but it’s awkward to take the names of those two countries, with a total of seven syllables between them, not counting one syllable for “War”, and come up with a easy-to-use blend that is likely to get traction in conversation.

Afghanistan-Pakistan War? Correct, but too long; ungainly.

Pak-Afghan War? Pakistan too abbreviated.

Afpakstan War? Nah. Superficially clever, but blatantly contrived… Besides, what if the war slops over into one or more of the three “stans” to the north? Anyway, someone will come up with something I’m sure. Neither “Afghan War” nor “War in Afghanistan” capture the real situation any longer.

There is a subtlety in that WSJ sub head, possibly unintentional, but it struck me as nicely done: the name “Pakistan” does not appear at all. It’s the “Campaign Next Door”. Indeed, “Next Door” to Afghanistan, to the east, is an area that is also Next Door to Pakistan to the northwest, an area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is roughly what Kipling called “Kafirstan”[2]. It’s an area where Pakistan has influence, perhaps because the mountains have caused trade to lean toward Pakistan, and people in the area will tend to use Pakistani airports when they go abroad. This area is certainly not part of Pakistan in the way that Florida is part of the United States, or Cornwall is part of the UK.

However, I meant to talk about bird watching, not 21st century feudalism.

When the CIA adds more drones to the war (a.k.a. “campaign”), there is a mixed nationality coterie of military professionals and engineers, mostly to the east of Afghanistan, who are delighted. I’ll call them “bird watchers”.

Remember that these American drones represent an impressive military innovation, and military people throughout the world, especially in nations that feel they could, potentially, some day, come to blows with the U.S., or with some other nation that could deploy drones, are very interested in these aircraft. They want to know how they work, what logistical support they need, what their limitations are. But there are two things especially the bird watchers want to figure out:

1. How to see them.

2. How to destroy them.

If you assume people on the ground are most interested in hiding from them, you’re thinking of Osama bin Laden and his ilk, hot-footing it from cave-to-cave, not daring to turn on their satellite phones, wondering if it’s safe to light a cigarette or a hash pipe (hint: it’s not).

The bird watchers take notes on how to hide from drones. But they’ve got bigger fish to fry. And they don’t lack for cash money, vehicles and electronics.

The bird watchers are not “for the Taliban”, although they consort with the Taliban, and even help the Taliban trivially from time to time. They need access to the ground over which the drones fly, so they make accommodations with whoever controls the ground — in some areas that may even be Pakistani army units.

Both “seeing” a drone (knowing it is present and where exactly it is in the sky) and figuring out how to destroy a drone are challenging technical problems. I have some ideas about how these problems (especially the seeing) will be tackled, but the main thing to note is that the bird watchers can’t figure out how to see drones, much less destroy them, if there aren’t any drones.

The bird watchers want drones to study.

When the U.S. decides to increase the drone presence over Pakistan and Quasi-Pakistan, that’s good news for the bird watchers.

For the United States, one of the costs of a drawn-out war is that we expose our highly technical weapons — things like drones — to parties not necessarily our friends, who want to learn everything they can about what we have and how we use it.

How long will we linger in Afghanistan and Pakistan, letting all-and-sundry study our drones and develop anti-drone technology? Hard to say. It could be a long time. What began as an easy-to-understand effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and capture or kill everyone who helped him, has morphed into an incomprehensible educational project: American Civics 101 for the Historically and Culturally Challenged.

Afghans are not bright students.

But it’s not obvious who’s presiding in the classroom. Perhaps they’re treating us to a course in Afghan Historical Continuity 101.

We’re not such bright students either.


[1] Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, October 2-3, 2010
[2] “It’s a place of warring tribes, which is to say, a land of opportunity.” [approximate quote from The Man Who Would Be King]

About pmbarry

One of these days a man's gonna walk up to you with a shoe on one foot and a boot on the other, and he's gonna tell you 'bout things you ain't never heard of.
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