South Asia

'Deep in Taliban territory': A drone pilot's account

Mike C is a drone pilot who used to work in Iraq and more recently - from last November to May this year - in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Here he describes his job, in an interview conducted before the end of his assignment.

"We are deep in Taliban territory in one of the most dangerous areas of the country.

I have been observing the situation here with a bird's eye view: I fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.

I work directly with Isaf forces in the region and keep an eye on what's going on. The drones I fly don't carry weapons, they have a reconnaissance role.

The UAV I fly is launched, flown and recovered via a ground control station, which is attached to whichever military command I am supporting at the time of the deployment.

I can't specify where exactly we are located nor where our UAVs go to. All I can confirm is that it is locally, within Helmand province. I don't know where the drones in Pakistan are being launched from.

What we try to do is establish patterns of life or respond to troops engaged in combat or taking indirect fire from militants.

I watch out for anything suspicious. You can watch for hours and see nothing happen or be right over a fire fight.

We watch for indications of activities: men shovelling by the road, motorcycles zooming about with people. Spotting evil-doers in the midst of the everyday hustle and bustle takes vigilance.

Essentially the operator of a UAV co-ordinates with a mission commander. When we identify a target, we follow it, we relay the information to the mission commander and continue surveillance.

It's for the military to analyse the situation and take a decision about what should be done next.

It's a cat-and-mouse game. It's not like in the movies when you see something happening and then you go boom. You have to wait and figure out who's doing what, you pass on the information, you clear air space but you don't take decisions.


What makes this job difficult is that you can't easily distinguish a group of ordinary people doing their ordinary business from armed groups. In an insurgency, you are dealing with civilian-clothed opponents.

It's hard to tell who are the Taliban. I am sure there are hard-core elements but because of the nature of the society, one day you are aligned to the Taliban, the next day - to somebody else.

The trick for them is to blend in with the locals. The Taliban use communities to play hide and seek with us. Until they fire upon our troops it's impossible to determine their motives.

According to the rules of engagement (ROE), that's the only time when it becomes obvious who the enemy is.

Even when a hostile is identified, if he throws down his weapon or there is a risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties, the most troops can do is to ask for permission to search homes and compounds.

Once a hostile lays down his weapon, there's no more justification to engage him.

The limitations of what we can and cannot do boil down to the rules of engagement. In order to limit civilian casualties, the troops cannot fire until fired upon.

It's much simpler when they are targeting us. They probably know the rules just as well. In fact, I believe they are very skilled in using the rules of engagement to protect themselves and they often get away. This happens quite often."