The Obama administration is facing complete collapse of its counterterrorism strategy in South Asia as it fails to ratify a new status of forces agreement with Afghanistan. Yet many intelligence insiders consider the failure to be a good thing.
The administration erred in constructing its capability to counter the terrorist threat largely around the use of drones, which are politically appealing in that they do not require placing soldiers in harm’s way and are relatively cheap. In order to be effective, however, drones have to be close enough to target areas to enable them to spend considerable time hovering, and they are dependent on their bases, a fact that produces its own logistical and political complications. The maintenance of the bases depends on the connivance of host countries in the region, and the security of the facilities has to be guaranteed by the presence of thousands of American soldiers, numbers that might not be available by the end of the year. There is also strong Pentagon opposition to stationing thousands of combat troops in a country largely to protect other U.S. government facilities.
The U.S. is leaving nearby Kyrgyzstan in July and closed its drone base at Shamsi Air Base in Pakistan in late 2011, though it continues to have limited access to Pakistani military facilities, including a former drone site near Jacobabad. But the political winds in Islamabad have also shifted against Washington, and it is unlikely that the U.S. will be allowed to retain any operational presence inside Pakistan after it leaves neighboring Afghanistan. This means that the closest friendly base to launch a drone from would be in the United Arab Emirates, and a drone would have to traverse considerable hostile airspace to arrive on target, where it would only be able to remain briefly.
Inside Afghanistan there are currently six military-operated drone bases that primarily deploy surveillance aircraft and one CIA base at Khost that flies the lethal Predators. CIA also occasionally launches drones from the military air fields at Jalalabad and Bagram. Drones are increasingly a political liability, as they have been responsible for numerous civilian casualties—one reason why Islamabad has reduced its cooperation with Washington and even Afghanistan has proven unwilling to continue to give the U.S. carte blanche for their use.
The drone strategy was based on an overly robust assessment of the al-Qaeda presence in South Asia, in the belief that the group continued to pose a serious threat in the region and might be able to reestablish itself.
Intelligence assessments now regard that conclusion as based on an erroneous conflation of local insurgencies with transnational ones. Analysts regard the danger of a resurgent al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as minimal and are focusing on more serious metastasizing threats in places like Iraq and Syria.
There have, in fact, been no new attacks in Pakistan since Christmas. As it is increasingly difficult to identify genuine terrorist targets in the Pakistani tribal areas, a growing percentage of Predator attacks have been signature lifestyle strikes against loosely profiled targets, which produce high levels of civilian casualties. Analysts are suggesting that an end to the use of lethal drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan would actually be desirable.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.