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. While the drone aircraft may be unmanned, they are just as dependent on bases, ground crews, and a logistical tail as their manned counterparts. So too are they dependent on permissive airspace. In Kosovo, the United States lost 24 UAVs, including many to Serbian fire. Assuming that Pakistan would idly sit by while America resumes drone strikes in a post-drawdown environment is untenable. Serbia’s air force was able to adapt unconventional platforms, take advantage of their knowledge of drone bases and flight routes, and use relatively primitive Soviet-era air defense systems to inflict casualties on drones, even in the context of an air war where manned platforms were presenting much more pressing threats. U.S. policymakers may be able to countenance the loss of a drone platform more than they would a manned one, but ultimately a downed drone is a drone that has probably not accomplished its mission, and at a potentially large political price.

The use of maritime-deployed drones, aside from the potential provocation that Zenko points out, would only exacerbate the vulnerability of a drone campaign to Pakistani air defenses. Unlike Pakistan’s western border, where Pakistan has for decades now faced an aeriall -incapable and often Pakistan-aligned Afghan state, air defenses in the south are more substantial and, as Zenko notes, on the watch for Indian attacks. Furthermore, armed drones capable of conducting missions from U.S. maritime assets are a ways from maturing, so the old standby of cruise missiles launched from Central Command assets would be the more likely choice anyway.

Strikes against al Qaeda and affiliated targets in Pakistan would need to be reserved for much higher priority targets. The days of conducting an air war with similar numbers of sorties as the drone campaign saw earlier are, logistically and politically speaking, likely over. While the tempo and scale of the campaign was enhanced by drone platforms, the so-called impunity of the drone campaign was a product of guaranteed, unconstrained basing at airfields such as Jalalabad, a Pakistani government that was at times compliant with U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and a robust network of cross-border covert assets which could provide the intelligence necessary to feed targets to drone operators. Drones allowed policymakers to increase the quantity of strikes, but the quality of impunity was maintained by political and logistical arrangements.

Of course, there are ways to preserve or substitute these qualities – but they would require not simply fewer strikes, but a genuinely covert campaign. The drone war, while for legal purposes, is a secret war, the drone campaign itself is hardly shrouded in secrecy. Pakistan and Afghanistan are aware of what bases are involved, and information about the results and frequency of strikes are relatively available to the public. The CIA’s running of a secret air forces is hardly a novel occurrence either:

By the Congo period, however, the men at Langley say they had learned that their earlier instincts to try to solve nasty political problems with money alone had been overtaken by the recognition of the need for far more sophisticated and enduring forms of influence.

“Purchased?” one American commented. “You can’t even these guys for the afternoon.” And so the C.I.A. kept growing in size and scope.

By the time Molse Tshombe had returned to power in the Congo through American acquiescence, it not design — it became apparent that hastily supplied arms and planes, as well as dollars and cars, would be needed to protect the American-sponsored government In Leopoldville.

The CIA used Cuban exiles with foreign mechanics and American contractors to create an aerial capability to serve U.S. interests in the Congo Crisis. These operated alongside South African and Rhodesian mercenaries, eventually employing CIA pilots directly. The Congo model is obviously only a rough guide, but it does demonstrate that there is a historical precedent for using a combination of local or deniable proxies and covert-sponsored and operated air power to conduct combat air missions with a degree of plausible deniability and risk insulation.

In Afghanistan, even if the Afghan government publicly denies compliance in a much more limited aerial campaign against AQAM in Pakistan, a roughly similar model may persist. The U.S. will likely retain the ability to conduct smaller-scaled operations, and the U.S. will also likely play an important role in developing Afghanistan’s light attack aircraft capability.

For example, Raytheon has – with much less fanfare than drones receive – expanded opportunities to employ Griffin missiles with manned platforms such as AT-6B light attack aircraft and C-130 based platforms such as Harvest Hawk and Dragon Spear. Whatever light aircraft Afghanistan actually ends up deploying, they will be capable of conducting precision airstrikes in difficult terrain. Colombia’s use of light aircraft in activities such as Operación Fénix provide a more recent possible model here. C-130 derivative aircraft such as Harvest Hawk and Dragon Spear could also potentially provide support for critical strikes without requiring the more obvious profile of a drone base. Nevertheless, these capabilities would still be need to use sparingly, as would any persisting CIA drone bases in Afghanistan.

All that said, what will likely be critical to maintaining a viable portfolio of covert and overt coercive and intelligence options in Afghanistan will be the use of proxy forces, irregular capabilities and similar assets. After all, even conducting the drone war requires boots on the ground, as Joshua Foust points out:

They require lots of people to make them effective, not just back in the piloting booths in the U.S. but also in the countries where they’re deployed. In Yemen, there are estimates that the number of U.S. troops on the ground (working under JSOC) is in the 300 to 500 range. Some of them train Yemeni counterterrorism forces and some of them go after terrorists. The CIA, for its part, built up a 3,000-man militia to target militants in northwest Pakistan.

Covert assets and proxies are necessary to support a drone campaign, but they can also be used outside the context of one. Indeed, the use of proxies, clandestine officers, and special operations is far more common than drone campaigns, as Foust goes on to note. Indeed, even ensuring the security of these covert bases in an Afghan government that now denies or rejects would require loyal militias or proxy forces capable of defending the bases from terrorist attacks or worse – and again, building secret air bases to support air campaigns and proxy forces, and further enhancing proxy forces to defend those air bases, was something the U.S. pioneered during its wars in Indochina. Airstrikes or not, though, stay-behind forces will be necessary for the U.S. to maintain effective coercive options against high value targets in Pakistan. Even were the U.S. audacious enough to launch a cruise missile barrage from the sea, it is highly doubtful such a strike could offer the same precision as manned or unmanned assets operating from closer bases. The loss-of-strength gradient endures.

The pilots of drones may be able to act with impunity, but the vehicles themselves and the very present human beings who support them on base, gather intelligence for them in the field, and defend the infrastructure which makes this possible from attack cannot. Ultimately even a remotely-operated vehicle requires a direct presence in hostile, or at least potentially vulnerable areas. Particularly as the U.S. cedes additional air sovereignty to Afghanistan, it will need an independent method of defending any lingering counterterrorism assets from being targeted by terrorist groups or their allies and patrons. While al Qaeda may have no interest in returning to Afghanistan, there are a great many actors who would be interested in disrupting the forces that would be staged there to target terrorists in Pakistan. Especially in a scenario where the U.S. wished to retain the ability to conduct strikes in Pakistani safe havens, the U.S. would need to maintain at the very least a very sizable covert and proxy presence in Afghanistan and the border region.

There is no happy medium by which the U.S. can conduct merely a campaign of counterterror with purely offshore assets without getting caught up with the deployment of potentially vulnerable in-theater infrastructure and logistical tails or the messy business of dealing with local politics. Particularly as many question the necessity or value of U.S. deployments in the Gulf or the need for an onshore capability to conduct military and covert counterterror strikes, logistical and diplomatic realities must not escape our notice. Without, at the very least, covert proxy forces in the Afghan-Pakistan border region or drone bases in Afghanistan, there is no practical means for the U.S. to conduct targeted killing campaigns in Pakistan save by the potentially escalatory deployment of major conventional forces in strikes on Pakistani soil. Similarly, even the staging of so-called offshore assets as a deterrent or over-the-horizon capability in fact requires significant local involvement. Even in Yemen, which has – and appears to retain – a government relatively supportive of U.S. counterterrorism policies, the U.S. still needed JSOC and CIA operatives on the ground, and had to train Yemeni military formations to provide additional targeting data.

Maintaining the ability to kill or coerce terrorists, let alone the states which harbor them, from thousands of miles away from one’s homeland is no easy task. A reactive, over-the-horizon force with minimal in-theater footprint can provide only illusory benefits. After all, in most geographic locales, the U.S. will need to still have a significant basing presence and exert diplomatic and military pressure to extract foreign compliance with military and non-military U.S. counterterrorism preferences – whether that means encouraging local forces to crack down against terrorist groups they might otherwise ignore or support, building up partner capacities to combat terrorist groups, developing proxy forces to sidestep local political preferences or support intelligence gathering and direct action campaigns, or attempting to deter or coerce regimes with interests in harboring or supporting hostile non-state actors. I am all for attempting to alleviate the constraints U.S. coercive options will face through more limited political objectives, restrained use of direct action, and the refinement of maritime-centric strategies and covert capabilities. Ultimately, though, even cure-alls such as drones, standoff strikes, and light footprints do not obviate the same geographic and logistical difficulties which dog the old ways of warfare and foreign policy.


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