Spy balloons are now an ordinary part of Afghanistan landscape

The traders crouched beneath the walls of an old fort, hunkered down with the sheep and goats as they talked, eyes nervously flitting up from time to time at the blimp that has become their constant overseer.

“It is there every day except the days when it is windy and rainy,” said Suleman, 45, who goes by only one name.

“It watches us day and night,” said another trader, Mir Akbar, 18, his eyes following the balloon as its nose swiveled with the wind from east to west…

The dirigible, a white 117-foot-long surveillance balloon called an aerostat by the military, and scores more like it at almost every military base in the country, have become constant features of the skies over Kabul and Kandahar, and anywhere else American troops are concentrated or interested in…

In recent years, they have become part of a widening network of devices — drones, camera towers at military bases and a newer network of street-level closed-circuit cameras monitoring Kabul’s roads — that have allowed American and Afghan commanders to keep more eyes on more places where Americans are fighting.

The dirigibles are now such a common feature in daily Afghan life that some people here shrug and say they hardly notice them…But other Afghans describe a growing sense of oppression, the feeling that even as the Americans are starting to pack up to leave, the foreigners’ eyes will always be on them…

For others, the cameras are an outrageous intrusion into private lives, putting women and children on display for foreigners whom they see as immoral…

This aerostat is based just outside Deming, New Mexico

American commanders love them, for giving them a perpetual full-color view of important thoroughfares and helping to catch insurgents planting roadside bombs. They cost less than the multimillion-dollar drones that get headlines.

“It has been a game changer,” said Ray Gutierrez, who trains the civilian crews, all Americans, who operate the cameras, and the military units who use them. One recent afternoon, he stood in the small control room beneath the old fort where two men with joysticks scanned close-up views of the hillsides several miles away, practically as if they could reach out and touch them. “It lets us see the battlefield as we have never been able to see it before…”

The street cameras in Kabul have had a similarly positive effect, officials say…

Though the balloons may not stay after the last American combat troops are gone — that is still being negotiated — they will have an even more important role amid the withdrawal of military forces, as planners hope the technology will help a dwindling force stay effective. And the military is building a bigger, 300-foot, untethered airship with more powerful surveillance capabilities intended for use here…

…And then there is the target practice.

Often when crews bring the balloons down, for maintenance or to protect them from storms, says Eddy Hogan, who manages the aerostats, they find bullet holes all over, attesting to the balloons’ role as an object of resentment…

“You can tell when, you bring it down and see hundreds of bullet holes in it, that they don’t like it,” he said. But, he added, “It takes hundreds and hundreds of rounds to bring them down.”

The appropriate question for an American is – apart from our wars – what happens when this technology comes home? I don’t mean projects like border patrols – where aerostats have been used for a few years, now. What happens when local police departments, say, in New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles decide to turn their admiring glance at the intelligence derived from toys like this into budget line items?

Do we count the cost to privacy as prime – or the “benefits” derived from more thorough security? Security derived from surveillance?

Poisonally, my feelings are mixed. Even living in a rural community I wouldn’t mind having the occasional bit of all-seeing hardware in place to keep on eye on things. No one has a budget to match up sufficient police versus the gangs infesting more of the United States than anyone cares to admit. As long as drug use is managed by one or another politically-profitable “war” – the range of violent crimes from burglary to carjacking will not diminish.

A junkie from the next community over in our rural world was murdered last week. His body dumped on the mesa just across our little valley. One good high resolution camera rotating through an arc covering a couple of intersections of county and forest roads probably would have recorded the vehicle used in the body dump. Or the murder itself.

OTOH, my peaceable neighbors and I wouldn’t relish a blimp permanently stationed at the edge of the mesa. Part of our landscape changed to eyes that watch all of the community 24/7. Tough questions that will have to be answered sooner or later. Because regardless of how civilians feel – in Afghanistan or New Mexico – coppers will want to have military goodies especially if it appears to make their tasks easier to achieve.

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