Micah Zenko

We Can’t Drone Our Way to Victory in Afghanistan

It’s time for the United States to think of new ways to combat terrorism in Southwest Asia.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Marc Thiessen wrote a column in the Washington Post last week warning of "five disasters" waiting to happen if the Obama administration accelerates the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Topping his list of terribles: "The drone war against al-Qaeda in Pakistan would likely cease." Thiessen notes correctly that given the distances to Pakistan’s tribal areas from naval platforms in the Arabian Sea or the Kabul airport, "If we want to continue the drone war against al-Qaeda, we must have a U.S. military presence in the Pashtun heartland."

Thiessen raises an obvious but often overlooked issue when considering what the U.S. military’s role will be in Afghanistan beyond 2014: The sovereign Afghan government holds the decisive veto power — and any U.S. officials who believe that President Hamid Karzai or his successor will give the United States carte blanche to use Afghanistan as a platform for CIA drone strikes or Special Forces raids into Pakistan will be sorely disappointed.

Across the globe, foreign governments have adopted a range of positions when faced with a request to host U.S. military forces. Some host nations openly embrace U.S. military forces — and the accompanying U.S. overt and covert aid — and allow military aircraft to use their territory with few limits. For example, a leaked State Department cable described a meeting that took place on Aug. 19, 2009, where Seychelles President James Michel requested — twice — that the inaugural launch of U.S. drones be documented with a photo-op or celebration.

The leader of this small archipelago also told then U.S. Africa Command chief Gen. William Ward, "I am happy to see this resurgence of American military activity in the Seychelles" and welcomed the introduction of drones "as a comfort." Although U.S. drones operating out of the Seychelles were not initially intended to conduct strike missions, in another cable Michel appeared open to such a request. We know the Seychelles has continued to support U.S. drone operations, because a Predator skidded off a runway and into the Indian Ocean in December.

Other host nations, however, have quickly withdrawn such permission if it becomes publicly known. In January 2007, U.S. Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunships conducted at least two attacks against suspected Islamic militants in Somalia by flying out of an Ethiopian military base. After the New York Times revealed the use of the AC-130s the following month, the Ethiopian government quickly terminated the U.S. military presence there for the time being.

Regaining a host nation’s permission to base U.S. military assets on its territory after such public revelations can take years of painstaking diplomacy. In October 2011, it emerged that the U.S. military had reestablished its presence in Ethiopia: American Reaper drones were flying out of a civilian airfield in the city of Arba Minch for surveillance missions over Somalia. According to a former U.S. official, the negotiations between Washington and Addis Ababa over deploying those drones lasted four years, and were only completed with the repeated intervention of high-level officials. An operational concern raised by the Ethiopian government was to limit the collection capabilities of the drones while they flew from over the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, where the government has conducted an intermittent counterinsurgency campaign against the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front.

Ethiopia isn’t alone in placing constraints on the rules of engagement (ROE) for U.S. aircraft. For example, from April 1991 until March 2003, the United States led the enforcement of the northern no-fly zone (NFZ) over Iraq from the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The ROE the Turks imposed on U.S., British, and French planes included: what aircraft could fly and what munitions they could carry, how many times they could fly per week, how long the flights could last (never at night), and how quickly any aircraft targeted by Iraq’s air-defense radars or missiles could respond against a preapproved list of targets. To ensure that the patrolling aircraft would not violate Turkey’s ROE, a Turkish military official was always on board a U.S. Air Force AWACS monitoring the airspace.

Marc Grossman, the former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey (and current U.S. special representative for Afghanistan), told me in an interview that brokering the ROE between U.S. commanders and Ankara "was a constant and main focus of our attention," which took up "hours, and hours, and hours, and hours." Grossman said that the goal of the restrictions was ultimately to "remind us that we should not allow an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq," which Ankara feared could damage its own war with Kurdish insurgents in eastern Turkey.

Finally, some governments, after shedding U.S. military occupation, decide they do not want any substantive foreign military presence on their soil. In Iraq, Obama administration officials worked furiously to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)  that would have allowed a small number of U.S. troops and critical enablers — helicopter and fixed-wing airlift, and manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms — to remain in the country to conduct special operations raids against Iranian-backed Shia militias and Sunni extremists in Iraq and beyond. Eventually, the government of Iraq gave a firm "no." Today, only 500 U.S. soldiers are in the country to oversee the sale of U.S. military equipment, contractor-led training of Iraqi security forces, and the selection of Iraqi officers for U.S. military schools.

You don’t have to be Henry Kissinger to grasp that the future U.S. relationship with Afghanistan will more closely resemble its current ties to Iraq than with the Seychelles. The United States has already reportedly agreed to make concessions to Karzai over the Special Forces night raids conducted against suspected Taliban leaders — including subjecting such operations to prior review by Afghan judges. That’s a major concession: U.S. commanders have significant operational security concerns about a warrant-based approach to the night raids. In June 2008, for example, the CIA gave advance notice to the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) of a planned drone strike against members of the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, and then intercepted calls revealing that the targets were tipped off. Seeking pre-approval from Afghan judges for night raids increases the likelihood that Afghan officials could tip off targeted Taliban suspects.

But night raids enrage Afghans, and Karzai faces political pressure to significantly reduce their occurrence and frequency. At some point, as U.S. troops continue their withdrawal from Afghanistan, Karzai will broaden his demands beyond the limitation of night raids and insist on further constraints on the ROE for any residual U.S. military or CIA assets in Afghanistan.

On March 20, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, told the House Armed Services Committee, "The Afghan government is on a path toward sovereignty, and we should encourage that sovereignty." Part of that journey toward sovereignty is to take into account the constituencies that government will need to court if it is to survive. U.S. officials and the Karzai administration continue to tout their efforts to integrate the Taliban-whose principal demand is the withdrawal of all foreign military forces from Afghanistan-into the government. It is a fool’s errand to pursue that goal and then expect that regime to endorse the stationing of Navy SEALs and CIA officers in the Pashtun heartland.

That’s a reality some American policymakers have had difficulty grasping. On March 22, Sen. Lindsey Graham asked General Allen: "Do you agree with me that you will never allow that [night raids] program to be terminated?" General Allen responded: "I will. Yes, sir."

It’s not only Afghanistan where the U.S. military has increasingly become an unwelcome guest. Last week, Pakistan’s Parliamentary Committee on National Security completed its guidelines on revised terms of engagement between the United States and Pakistan. It calls for the United States to cease drone attacks within Pakistan and forsake any "boots on the ground" in the country. While the Pakistani military has the final say over U.S. military and intelligence capabilities on Pakistani soil, the overwhelmingly negative public opinion toward U.S. military intervention could compel it to seek a further reduction in the scope and intensity of U.S. drone strikes. Indeed, U.S. officials reportedly offered to curtail "signature" drone strikes against Taliban suspects in Pakistan this year, but "the offers were rejected flatly" by Pakistan’s ISI chief, according to the Associated Press. Islamabad will also eagerly press Karzai to reject any requests to allow Afghanistan to play host to a significant U.S. military presence.

For all these reasons, U.S. combat capabilities will inevitably wane in Afghanistan beyond 2014. It’s time for U.S. officials to stop trying to swim against the tide of the public opinion of sovereign governments in Southwest Asia, and start developing a strategy for combating terrorism that does not overwhelmingly rely on unending Special Forces night raids and CIA drone strikes.

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