KABUL, Afghanistan — One morning recently, a teenager named Bacha Zarina was collecting firewood on her family’s farm in eastern Afghanistan. About 30 yards away, as relatives 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 took her to the nearest hospital, a half-hour drive away, but she died en route, an accidental victim of the rapidly escalating U.S.-led campaign of drone strikes in Afghanistan. She was 14 or 15 years old.
The U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
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Though drone strikes represented a fraction of all U.S. air attacks in Afghanistan last year, their use is rising 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, D.C.-based analyst who has advised the U.S. 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 illustrated by the Sept. 23 strike that killed Bacha Zarina.
After Marine Gen. John Allen, the former coalition commander, issued an order limiting airstrikes in populated areas last year, U.S. and NATO forces reduced civilian casualties in air attacks by 42 percent in 2012, according to U.N. figures.
But after an airstrike this month that reportedly killed 10 civilians in addition to four Taliban leaders, Afghan President Hamid Karzai banned his forces from requesting coalition airstrikes in residential areas, a decree that also would apply to drones.
Defenders of drones say they are more accurate and less prone to causing civilian casualties than manned aircraft, because they can watch a potential target longer and often use smaller munitions.
When civilians are inadvertently killed, it is sometimes because they are near where an airstrike is carried out, one U.S. officer said. But there also are instances when troops on the ground mistakenly call for an airstrike against a target where only civilians are present.
The U.S. military has acknowledged multiple times that it has accidentally killed civilians in drone strikes, including in 2010, when 24 Afghans were killed in Uruzgan province after being mistaken for insurgents, based on drone camera images. They were later determined to be noncombatants.
Last year, five coalition drone strikes killed 16 civilians and injured three, according to the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, which documented just one such incident in 2011. It wasn’t clear whether those were strikes from U.S. drones; Britain’s Royal Air Force also flies armed Reaper drones in Afghanistan, although the vast majority of the coalition’s unmanned aircraft belong to the U.S.
Many of the recent strikes have hit eastern Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents retain control of many villages. In Marawara district of Kunar province, where
Bacha Zarina lived, the two Taliban commanders killed in the Sept. 23 strike led a group of hard-line fighters who had banned cigarettes and shaving for men, littered the area with roadside bombs, and threatened to kill Afghans who worked for the U.S. military at an outpost an hour’s drive away, villagers said.
The Obama administration has come under increasing pressure from Congress to disclose details and legal underpinnings for drone strikes, especially a 2011 attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American
citizen and a leader of the group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said U.S. drone strikes worldwide had killed 4,700 people, the first public estimate of the death toll by a U.S. official since the attacks began early in the George W. Bush administration.
“Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of al-Qaida,” Graham told the Easley Rotary Club in South Carolina, according to news reports.