What Happens if Afghanistan Shuts Down the US Drone Program There?
The Afghan government has suggested it might now allow American drones to continue operating after the troop draw-down.
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Nine days ago, I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy online, “We Can’t Drone Our Way to Victory in Afghanistan,”
in which I detailed a range of host-nation rules that govern the
behavior of U.S. military forces stationed in foreign countries.
Some governments are enthusiastic about the presence of American
troops. For example, this week Australia celebrated the arrival of two
hundred Marines, tasked with training and advising missions, to the port
city of Darwin. Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith declared, ”One thing is absolutely sure and certain here today–you are very welcome.”
Other governments grow weary of U.S. military presence and place
constraining rules of engagement on its operations. A prime example is
the the forthcoming U.S.-Afghan memorandum of understanding on night
raids. In contrast to previous raids, the new terms
will reportedly require operational approval in advance from Afghan
judges and detainees to be held in Afghan prisons (where U.S. personnel
may have access). According to Hamid Karzai’s deputy national security
adviser, “There will be some kind of support role by the United States,
but we will be in charge of all dimensions of the operations.”
In my piece, I raised an obvious, yet often overlooked, issue when
considering and planning for the role of the U.S. military 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.”
Yesterday, Al Jazeera interviewed Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasool on the prospect of U.S. drone strikes after 2014. He responded:
“Afghan soil will not be used against any country in the region. The
presence of the remaining forces in Afghanistan is for training,
equipping and securing Afghanistan’s security. It has been mentioned, it
is going to be mentioned, that this force is not for use against any
neighbors in the region.”
The Afghan government’s final decision on whether to permit U.S.
drone strikes and/or special operations raids could change several times
over the next twenty months. If Rasool’s statement becomes official
Afghan policy, however, it will be extremely difficult for the United
States to sustain drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban
militants in Pakistan in the future.
This shift could have serious consequences for CIA drone operations.
It is hard to envision the Pakistani government re-permitting drone
strikes from its territory. Last summer, Pakistan evicted the remaining U.S. personnel from Shamsi Airbase
in the Balochistan province, where drones were based since as early as
2006. In recent months, the prime minister, foreign minister, and a parliamentary committee on national security have repeatedly condemned U.S. drone strikes as violations of Pakistani sovereignty.
Last week, an anonymous U.S. official stated:
“If the main concern is sovereignty, the Pakistanis might want to deal
with the al-Qaeda foreigners who are living within their borders and
planning attacks on Pakistan, their neighbors, and the West. These are
the true threats to Pakistani sovereignty.” For the past ten years, the
U.S. government has attempted to tell Pakistan what should be its
security threats and how to conceive of their sovereign rights. This has
The United States could attempt to broker an agreement with India to
host a CIA drone base for strikes into Pakistan post-2014. However, it
is highly unlikely that India would want to aggravate its relationship
with its nuclear-armed neighbor and longstanding enemy. Moreover, it is
not outside the realm of possibility that Pakistan could misinterpret a
U.S. drone for an Indian cruise missile, potentially carrying a nuclear
The United States could also launch drone strikes from naval
platforms in the Arabian Sea. This would be a long distance to the
Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), where most of the strikes
have occurred, however, and again carries the risk of misinterpretation.
Recall in August 1998, when the United States launched sixty-six
cruise missiles from Navy ships in the Arabian Sea against al-Qaeda’s
Zhawar Kili training complex in Khost, Afghanistan. Later, during
interviews for my book, Between Threats and War,
the head of U.S. Central Command, General Anthony Zinni, told me that
when his operations staff war-gamed the attack, they thought Pakistan
naval or coastal radars could mistake the U.S. cruise missiles for an
Indian nuclear strike. Separately, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, General Joseph Ralston, revealed that the cruise missiles
were actually programmed to fly over a suspected Pakistani nuclear site.
To deal with this issue, on the evening of the attack, Ralston met with
Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff General Jehangir Karamat for a friendly
dinner in Islambad on the evening of the attack to warn him–as the
missiles flew overhead–that “we did it.”
There is also the option of basing future drone operations in China.
There is precedence for Chinese cooperation with the CIA against a
shared adversary. In November 1979, China permitted
the CIA’s Office of SIGINT Operations to build and operate two
ballistic missile monitoring facilities in the Tien Shan Mountains in
order to collect telemetry data from Soviet missile launches. But it is
unlikely that Beijing would agree to host lethal attacks against
Pakistan, its ally. And it is a long flight to the FATA region over high
altitudes and poor weather, which would limit the time available for a
drone to survey suspected militants and conduct attacks.
Many U.S. policymakers and policy analysts assumed that the Afghan
government would give the U.S. military a blank check to use its
territory and airspace for indefinite counterterrorism operations. Since
the CIA’s drone war began in the summer of 2004, the United States has
conducted an estimated
295 strikes in Pakistan. Yet, as Afghan and Pakistan governments tire
of being used as platforms for U.S. military operations, we will likely
see substantially fewer drone strikes in the future.
This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.
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