What Happens if Afghanistan Shuts Down the U.S. Drone Program There?

The Afghan government has suggested it might not allow American drones to continue operating after the troop draw-down.

drone april9 p.jpg

Protesters in Pakistan burn a model drone. Reuters

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.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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