Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Sitrep - 25 May, 2016

In a startling break of precedent and patience, the US targeted the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansoor with a drone strike in southwest Pakistan on May 22. It was the first time the US has operated an armed drone in the province of Baluchistan, a known Taliban safe-zone but out of bounds for US operations due to an understanding with Islamabad.

The context of the strike is important. The US, along with China and Pakistan, is negotiate with the Afghan government and Taliban for a power sharing deal when the US perhaps departs the country in 2018. During the negotiations, Taliban forces have continued deadly operations against coalition forces and Pakistan is frustrating the talks by dawdling, both of which may have forced Washington’s hand against Mansoor.

Nevertheless, the use of a drone to kill the Taliban leader has attracted outcries from anti-war activists. The issue however, is not whether drones are a moral weapon. For the US it is more important whether the weapon is strategically beneficial. There are downsides to the weapon, but its use over the past 15 years has helped limit the capability of Islamic extremists to conduct attacks, a key war goal for Washington.

Over the Mediterranean, EgyptAir flight 804 disappeared from tracking radar as it entered Egyptian airspace en-route to Cairo from Paris carrying 66 passengers. In 2016, the immediate assumption for many observers was of a terror attack, however no group has yet claimed responsibility – something both the Islamic State and al qaeda generally have done quickly after conducting attacks.

The lack of a responsibility claim however, doesn’t rule out terrorism. It is unclear if the aircraft was brought down due to mechanical  failure – which usually occurs near take-off or landing – or if it was struck by a surface-to-air missile. An IS group in Egypt attacked a Russian passenger jet in 2015, but used a smuggled explosive device not a missile, and the group is not suspected to possess weapons sufficient to hit a cruising altitude aircraft.

While investigators retrieve the wreckage to determine the cause, a process which could take years, the most sinister explanation is worth outlining. There is a possibility a competent bombmaker is on the loose and that this was a proof-of-concept strike. So rather than claim responsibility, he could choose to keep the method hidden – which may have bypassed all security – for future attacks. The exact cause of the crash will determine the veracity of this theory.

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