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

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

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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.

Last week, an anonymous U.S. official stated: "If the main concern is sovereignty, the Pakistanis might want to deal with the al-Qaeda foreigners who are living within their borders and planning attacks on Pakistan, their neighbors, and the West. These are the true threats to Pakistani sovereignty." For the past ten years, the U.S. government has attempted to tell Pakistan what should be its security threats and how to conceive of their sovereign rights. This has failed.

The United States could attempt to broker an agreement with India to host a CIA drone base for strikes into Pakistan post-2014. However, it is highly unlikely that India would want to aggravate its relationship with its nuclear-armed neighbor and longstanding enemy. Moreover, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Pakistan could misinterpret a U.S. drone for an Indian cruise missile, potentially carrying a nuclear warhead.

The United States could also launch drone strikes from naval platforms in the Arabian Sea. This would be a long distance to the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), where most of the strikes have occurred, however, and again carries the risk of misinterpretation.

Recall in August 1998, when the United States launched sixty-six cruise missiles from Navy ships in the Arabian Sea against al-Qaeda's Zhawar Kili training complex in Khost, Afghanistan. Later, during interviews for my book, Between Threats and War, the head of U.S. Central Command, General Anthony Zinni, told me that when his operations staff war-gamed the attack, they thought Pakistan naval or coastal radars could mistake the U.S. cruise missiles for an Indian nuclear strike. Separately, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Ralston, revealed that the cruise missiles were actually programmed to fly over a suspected Pakistani nuclear site. To deal with this issue, on the evening of the attack, Ralston met with Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff General Jehangir Karamat for a friendly dinner in Islambad on the evening of the attack to warn him--as the missiles flew overhead--that "we did it."

There is also the option of basing future drone operations in China. There is precedence for Chinese cooperation with the CIA against a shared adversary. In November 1979, China permitted the CIA's Office of SIGINT Operations to build and operate two ballistic missile monitoring facilities in the Tien Shan Mountains in order to collect telemetry data from Soviet missile launches. But it is unlikely that Beijing would agree to host lethal attacks against Pakistan, its ally. And it is a long flight to the FATA region over high altitudes and poor weather, which would limit the time available for a drone to survey suspected militants and conduct attacks.

Many U.S. policymakers and policy analysts assumed that the Afghan government would give the U.S. military a blank check to use its territory and airspace for indefinite counterterrorism operations. Since the CIA's drone war began in the summer of 2004, the United States has conducted an estimated 295 strikes in Pakistan. Yet, as Afghan and Pakistan governments tire of being used as platforms for U.S. military operations, we will likely see substantially fewer drone strikes in the future.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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