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In his first media appearance since visiting President Obama in Washington, Hamid Karzai announced that the United States had agreed to give his country a fleet of drones. The Afghan President didn't specify how many or which kind of drones Afghanistan would get, but he was careful to explain that the unmanned vehicles would be unarmed. American troops will even stick around and show Afghan forces how to use them. "They will train Afghans to fly them, use them and maintain them," said Karzai at a news conference. "Besides drones, Afghanistan will be provided with other intelligence gathering equipment which will be used to defend and protect our air and ground sovereignty." That includes 20 helicopters and at least four C-130 transport planes.
You could call it a parting gift. Karzai capped off his visit to the U.S. with a press conference in the White House East Room, where he and Obama stood side-by-side as they announced an expedited plan to transition power from the 66,000 American forces in Afghanistan to the Afghan army whose abilities were "exceeding initial expectations." More specifically, the two leaders said that the plan was for Afghan troops to be in full control by December 2012. Obama said that "this war will come to a responsible end," while Defense Secretary Leon Panetta later hinted at the equipment that the U.S. would make available to its allies to ease the transition.
Critics of America's drone program will surely take issue with the U.S. bequeathing a new fleet to Afghanistan. As Stanley McChrystal, the very architect of the war in Afghanistan, recently pointed out, our drone program isn't winning us many friends around the world. "[Drones] are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one," said McChrystal, adding that drones bolster the "perception of American arrogance that says, 'Well we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.'" It doesn't help that we don't exactly know how many people, including civilians, our drone strikes have killed.
Meanwhile, the Afghan army is completely inexperienced with drones. American troops actually made it a point not to let their Afghan counterparts fly drone missions or even learn how to operate the unmanned vehicles. The increasingly frequent green-on-blue attacks certainly didn't do much to enstill trust between the two armies. But remember: we're not giving Afghanistan armed drones. They'll get a neutered fleet that's only capable of running surveilance missions. It's unclear how the U.S. will keep track of the drones or keep the Afghans from arming them.
In a way, giving drones to Afghanistan was really America's only option. If these aircraft were important enough to the anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan for the Obama administration to weather worldwide criticism, it would be silly to bring the whole program home when we left. And the fact that we're taking the bombs off of them, quite frankly, is a sign of progress. Of course, the U.S. will undoubtedly keep some armed drones of their own in region.