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.

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Other host nations, however, have quickly withdrawn such permission if it becomes publicly known.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.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


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National Security

10 Things You Didn't Know About Drones

When drones were created, how they're used, and what their future looks like.

1. The first armed drones were created to get Osama bin Laden.
In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration shut down an operation to kill the al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan with cruise missiles, given collateral damage estimates of 300 casualties and only 50 percent confidence in the intelligence. As the 9/11 Commission noted, "After this episode Pentagon planners intensified efforts to find a more precise alternative." In 2000 and 2001, the U.S. Air Force struggled to reconfigure a Hellfire anti-tank missile to fit onto a Predator surveillance drone. Meeting one week before the 9/11 attacks, the National Security Council agreed that the armed Predator was not ready to be operationally deployed. The first known killing by armed drones occurred in November 2001, when a Predator targeted Mohammed Atef, a top al Qaeda military commander, in Afghanistan.

2. So far, drones tend to crash.
On Dec. 4, an RQ-170 Sentinel surveillance drone crashed in Iran; a U.S. official involved in the program blamed a lost data link and another unspecific malfunction. Two weeks later, an unarmed Reaper drone crashed at the end of a runway in the Seychelles. "This should not be a surprise," a defense official told Aviation Week & Space Technology, saying the United States had already lost more than 50 drones. As of July 2010, the Air Force had identified 79 drone accidents costing at least $1 million each. The primary reasons for the crashes: bad weather, loss or disruption of communications links, and "human error factors," according to the Air Force. As Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, has noted with refreshing honesty, "Some of the [drones] that we have today, you put in a high-threat environment, and they'll start falling from the sky like rain."

3. Drones are coming to America.
Worried about the militarization of U.S. airspace by unmanned aerial vehicles? As of October, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had reportedly issued 285 active certificates for 85 users, covering 82 drone types. The FAA has refused to say who received the clearances, but it was estimated over a year ago that 35 percent were held by the Pentagon, 11 percent by NASA, and 5 percent by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And it's growing. U.S. Customs and Border Protection already operates eight Predator drones. Under pressure from the congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus -- yes, there's already a drone lobby, with 50 members -- two additional Predators were sent to Texas in the fall, though a DHS official noted: "We didn't ask for them." Last June, a Predator drone intended to patrol the U.S.-Canada border helped locate three suspected cattle rustlers in North Dakota in what was the first reported use of a drone to arrest U.S. citizens.

4. The scope of U.S. military drone missions is expanding…
Drones have come a long way in little more than a decade of military use in strike operations. Five-pound backpack drones are now used by infantry soldiers for tactical surveillance and will soon be deployed for what their manufacturer calls "magic bullet" kamikaze missions. Special operations forces have developed a warhead fired from a Predator drone that can knock down doors. K-Max helicopter drones transport supplies to troops at forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Balloons unleash Tempest drones, which then send out smaller surveillance drones -- called Cicadas -- that glide to the ground to collect data. And now the U.S. State Department is flying a small fleet of surveillance drones over Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy there. Bottom line: More and more drones have been rushed into service, and their use and application by the U.S. military is seemingly infinite.

5.But not as fast as civilian uses.
Safety inspectors used drones at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to survey the damage after last year's tsunami. Archaeologists in Russia are using small drones with infrared cameras to construct a 3-D model of ancient burial mounds. Environmental activists use the Osprey drone to track and monitor Japanese whaling ships. Photographers are developing a celebrity-seeking paparazzi drone. GALE drones will soon fly into hurricanes to more accurately monitor a storm's strength. And Boeing engineers have joined forces with MIT students to build an iPhone app that can control a drone from up to 3,000 miles away. Last summer, using a laser 3-D printer, University of Southampton engineers built a nearly silent drone that can be assembled by hand in minutes.

6. Most military drones don't bomb.
Although decapitation strikes may get all the headlines, the vast majority of the time, drones are used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance -- what the military calls ISR. The U.S. Navy's first high-altitude drone can relay black-and-white photos covering roughly half the Persian Gulf; the Global Hawk's advanced radars make detailed images of the Earth and attempt to sniff out chemical or biological agents for telltale signs of weapons of mass destruction. Soon, the Gorgon Stare drone will "be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we're looking at, and we can see everything," according to Maj. Gen. James O. Poss.

7. Attack drones require more boots on the ground.
Most unmanned aircraft flown by the U.S. military require not just a ground-based "pilot," but also a platoon of surveillance analysts (approximately 19 per drone), sensor operators, and a maintenance crew. Some 168 people are required to keep a Predator drone aloft -- and 180 for its larger cousin, the Reaper -- compared with roughly 100 people for an F-16 fighter jet. To keep up with the demand, the Air Force has trained more drone operators than pilots for the past two years. The upside is that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, drones "are usually less expensive than manned aircraft" ($15 million for a Global Hawk versus about $55 million for a new F-16), though costly sensors and excessive crashes can negate the difference.

8. Drones are becoming a lethal weapon of choice, but nobody's in charge.
Over the past decade, there have been some 300 drone strikes outside the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Of these attacks, 95 percent occurred in Pakistan, with the rest in Yemen and Somalia; cumulatively, they have killed more than 2,000 suspected militants and an unknown number of civilians. Although U.S. President Barack Obama recently acknowledged that "a lot of these strikes" have been in Pakistan's tribal areas, who can be targeted and under what authority can only be guessed from a few speeches and statements by anonymous U.S. officials. There are believed to be multiple drone-target "kill lists" among government agencies. The 2011 book Top Secret America revealed "three separate 'kill lists' of individuals" kept by the National Security Council, the CIA, and the military's Joint Special Operations Command. In Yemen, the Pentagon is the lead executive authority for some drone strikes (which are reported to the congressional armed services committees), while the CIA is in charge for others (reported to the intelligence committees). As for the Obama administration's claimed power to assassinate U.S. citizens, such as Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the Justice Department refuses to declassify the memo that provided the legal authority to kill him with a drone. So, although 85 percent of non-battlefield drone strikes have occurred under Obama, we have little understanding of their use.

9. Other countries are catching up to the United States.
As with most military programs, the United States is far and away the leader in developing drone technology, and the country is projected to account for 77 percent of drone R&D and 69 percent of procurement in the coming decade. Nevertheless, estimates of how many other countries have at least some drone capability now range from 44 to 70, for an estimated 680 drone programs around the world, up greatly from 195 in 2005. China is escalating its drone program, with at least 25 types of systems in development. Iran has also touted its program, including the armed "Ambassador of Death" drone, which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled by declaring: "Its main message is peace and friendship."

10. The drone future is already here.
The Pentagon now boasts a fleet of approximately 7,500 drones, up from just 50 a decade ago. According to a congressional report, "manned aircraft have gone from 95% of all [Defense Department] aircraft in 2005 to 69% today." Over the next decade, the Pentagon expects the number of "multirole" drones -- ones that can both spy and strike -- to nearly quadruple, to 536. In 2011, the Teal Group consulting firm estimated that worldwide spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will nearly double over the next decade from $5.9 billion to $11.3 billion annually. In the future, drones are projected to: hover just behind infantry soldiers to watch their backs; carry airborne lasers to intercept ballistic missiles; perform aerial refueling; and conduct long-range strategic bombing missions. Given that drones will become cheaper, smaller, faster, stealthier, more lethal, and more autonomous, it is harder to imagine what they won't do than what they will. Whatever limits drones face will be imposed by us humans -- not technology.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Iran's Revolutionary Guard website via EPA

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

George Rolhmaller/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images


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