Will the drone war in Afghanistan go on now that US troops are goneWashington, DC, August 31, 2021 Hours after the last US soldiers leave Afghanistan, President Joe Biden declares the war ‘over’ Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan — the longest war in American history. A war that killed three-and-a-half thousand US and allied soldiers, 66,000 Afghan military and police personnel, 51,000 Taliban fighters, and more than 47,000 civilians. In the same speech, however, Biden announces that the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries will continue. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.
Over-the-horizon capabilities -- what exactly does this mean? Is the US going to continue its highly controversial drone program in Afghanistan? And, if so, is the war really over? Sort of, it depends on what you mean by over. Biden has to some extent spoken out of both sides of his mouth on this, where he has said things like people who are 20 years old, Americans who are 20 years old have never known a nation at peace, and now they will.
And that's not really true to things, because then at the same time, he says things like, the United States will continue using over the horizon capacity in Afghanistan. And so, if the United States is going to be actively trying to search for and kill people in Afghanistan, that means the US is kind of at war there. In recent years, with the increasing reliance on air power, it's been very easy for American presidents to either indicate that we do not have a troop presence in a country or declare that a war is over. And almost using drones or air power as kind of a subterfuge, something that is as though we are done only because we don't have boots on the ground. I think the use of drones then has this sort of antiseptic quality that it creates a kind of perception that there is no combat just because U.S. personnel are not dying. And what we saw with the recent drone strike a week or two ago is that civilians were killed. It's difficult to answer at the moment.
I mean, we saw the U.S. withdrawal. But what we also saw were two American drone strikes that took place after the ISIS attack at Kabul airport. Kabul, the day before Biden’s speech. My own little daughter who was two or two and a half years old was killed. Three children of my brother were also killed: two boys and a girl. My older brother's three children who had just returned from work were also killed. A young niece was also near the car and was killed too. The aftermath of a US drone strike, carried out following the IS-K suicide bombing outside Kabul airport. The strike was intended to target an IS-K facilitator. But the Pentagon later admitted that it killed only civilians - 10 innocent people, seven of them children.
We now had this extraordinary case where a drone strike took place in the middle of the city and it just killed civilians. And many people are now reacting and wondering what happened in the past. If you visit certain areas that have been affected by this kind of warfare during the last two decades, Afghan villages, you will always hear the same: People explain and describe how American drones terrorize them, how these drones killed a lot of farmers, a lot of cab drivers, a lot of other laborers instead of Taliban militants or al Qaeda militants. Over the course of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, four different US administrations have carried out several thousand drone strikes, ...starting with what is believed to be the first ever drone strike in history in 2001. It missed its target, Taliban founder Mullah Omar. He died of natural causes more than a decade later. The exact number of US drone strikes in Afghanistan or elsewhere is unknown. In 2016, the Obama administration introduced a rule requiring an annual public report on drone strikes, including civilian deaths. But this did not include Afghanistan - only strikes on targets outside of war zones, in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, later revoked the executive order. Information on drone strikes in Afghanistan only became public through a whistleblower, Daniel Hale.
Hale is a former US Air Force intelligence analyst. In 2014, after leaving the Air Force, he leaked 17 classified documents, detailing civilian casualties. Some of the documents show that during one five-month stretch of an operation in Afghanistan, 90% of those killed were not the intended targets. In July 2021, Hale was sentenced to 45 months in prison for the leak. The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism documented US drone strikes in Afghanistan between 2015 and 2019, showing an increase there during the Trump presidency. All recent US presidents have used drone strikes after taking office. The Biden administration may no longer consider Afghanistan an active warzone, but that doesn't mean it won’t deploy drones there. Somalia and also Yemen are the two countries that will likely be the model for continuing drone strikes in Afghanistan.
I would expect the drone program to continue because while various presidents have campaigned with different perspectives on it, they get into office and then all seem to continue it, which suggests that there is classified intelligence showing that the US government thinks that these are on balance successful. But drone warfare remains controversial... Many have argued that drone strikes might create more terrorists than they kill What the research shows is that drone strikes are successful at reducing terrorist groups’ capacity. The overall benefits, you know, just as a crude cost-benefit analysis, the overall benefits of it, I think, are higher than the downsides.
The United States is not going to have as good intelligence on Afghanistan. And we could see some of this of some of the problems, potentially with the final US drone strike in Afghanistan before withdrawing. That's also the big question: Where will the next American drones probably start to bomb targets in Afghanistan because they are not within the country anymore? Will they use Pakistan? Will they use Uzbekistan? Will they use Tajikistan? We know that in the past, for example, when the war on terror started, the Americans worked with Uzbekistan and some drones started from there. You have to either fly over Iran, which is a no, you have to fly over Pakistan, which is complicated, or have to fly over the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. And then some combination, either Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan and some combination of the countries, Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan, that are north of Afghanistan. And that means a variety of complicated relationships with complicated relations and diplomacy with those countries to get the permission. And it may sound unlikely — but there could be cooperation with the Taliban, too, especially when it comes to fighting common enemies like the so-called ‘Islamic State’. The Taliban will continue fighting ISIS. The United States wants to fight ISIS, and when it comes to things like this, when it comes to war, countries tend to prioritize interests over friendships. So the United States and the Taliban might have fought a long war against each other. They might disagree very strongly on some things.
They might be adversaries in various regards. But if they have a common enemy, they can work together. Afghanistan’s newly-appointed minister of the interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was once the target of a US drone strike himself. He escaped. It would be a strange turnaround of events if Haqqani ended up sitting at a Taliban-US negotiating table, deciding on further US drone strikes in Afghanistan.
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