Drones and the false allure of impunity

CFR’s Micah Zenko has a new piece in the Atlantic looking at what U.S. drone campaigns would look like in the wake of U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan:

Yesterday, Al Jazeerainterviewed 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 evictedthe 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 aparliamentary committee on national security have repeatedly condemned U.S. drone strikes as violations of Pakistani sovereignty.

Zenko then assesses alternative basing options for the U.S. drone programs directed against Pakistan, namely India and China. I largely agree with him about why these options are unrealistic, and that the implications of a loss of a neighboring state as a drone base for operations in Pakistan would have a significant impact on the campaign. Contrary to many assertions that drones allow the U.S. to strike with impunity or overcome geographic distance, drones remain dependent on basing in-theater to maintain high operational tempos.

The ability of the United States to conduct drone campaigns and other so-called standoff strikes is in fact heavily constrained by geopolitical and logistical considerations. Continue reading