Why a UCAV-Driven Counterterrorism Strategy Will Prove Unsustainable in Afghanistan

Frieden & Sicherheit

Diplomatie & internationale Akteure



In Afghanistan, an offshore counterterrorism approach will prove unsustainable. With no link to a warzone to which the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) apply, an integrated network of drone bases lacks legal security and risks stripping counterterrorism of its moral mandate. Additionally, a dependence on the regime quality of collaborating states, major power interests in the region, and the effects of ‘counterterrorism hangover’ represent serious design flaws of a UCAV-based strategy.

Targeted killings are an effects-based policy that generates a great deal of activity. It produces its own, preferably quantitative, indicators of success while not necessarily achieving its proclaimed goals. Drones are not only incapable of precipitating a lasting eradication of terrorism. In the long run, they erode the strategic goals of their users which becomes clear when revisiting the ambitious goals of the Bush Administration. Twenty years later, the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations is incomparably longer, yet US Presidents sound a lot more moderate: “Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaida is degraded in Afghanistan”. America’s strategic vision has reached historic lows in terms of ambition while its employment of aircrafts such as the MQ-9 Reaper is going full throttle.

An offshore approach to counterterrorism will prove unsustainable in Afghanistan for three additional reasons. First, an integrated network of drone bases requires a source of legal security – the link to a warzone to which the LOAC indisputably apply. The ISAF mission in Afghanistan used to be that link. With the official end of hostilities back in 2014 and now the withdrawal, the US will find it increasingly difficult to justify their high frequency of strikes and the (low) enemy levels they pursue. Targeted killings also contribute to an erosion of American credibility. UCAV warfare disproportionately transfers risk from the military to civilians – stripping counterterrorism of its moral mandate and dragging it into a contested realm ‘short of war’.

Second, offshore counterterrorism relies heavily on cooperation with, at times, questionable and volatile regimes. In Yemen, regimes have alternately denied or embraced targeted killings for political purposes the US does not necessarily support. A regime may withdraw its consent for drone strikes on its territory – highlighting the violation of a country’s sovereignty as a legally highly problematic aspect. Regimes may also pursue interests diametrically opposed to those of the US – like in Pakistan and Iran. The collapse of the Ghani government leaves US counterterrorism operators without a security partner on Afghan ground. With the Taliban announcing to “not allow anyone to use our lands to target anyone” and because Afghanistan is land-locked, the US will ultimately depend on drones stationed in surrounding countries.

However, screening for locations in neighboring countries that would facilitate air corridors into Afghanistan unveils geopolitical challenges as another potentially disruptive factor. Politically viable candidates like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will be an unlikely choice due to their geographical distance from hotspots in Afghanistan’s Southeast. Tajikistan, while geographically suitable, has remained in Russia’s traditional sphere of interest. And then there is China which, in 2017, established a military base next to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, from where the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) conducts strikes. This signal at the perimeter of their Maritime Silk Road would suggest a significantly more robust answer to US activities in their ‘backyard’ especially after China moved quickly to legitimize the Taliban during the final weeks of their offensive. Russia, as well, has not ruled out an official recognition of the Taliban. These red flags point to perhaps the most serious design flaw of a UCAV-based strategy: the assumption that counterterrorism warfare takes place in a geopolitical vacuum.

Finally, a UCAV-driven counterterrorism strategy comes with the cost of operative impediment. Two decades of counterterrorism have left their mark on the way the US military fights wars. Operators voice concern about a “counterterrorism hangover” – possibly rendering the US military disadvantaged in a near-peer conflict. Additionally, Biden’s own CIA director warned of a generally diminished ability to collect intelligence. This negative effect of withdrawing forces from a theater were already observed in Somalia, for which Gen. Stephen Townsend, Commander of AFRICOM, recently reported “new layers of complexity and risk” stemming from a diminished understanding of the situation on the ground”.

Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is a long overdue attempt to craft a response to terrorism that matches the actual threat. Yet, the current UCAV-based strategy is flawed. It is therefore imperative to break the ‘strategic bottleneck’ and promote counterterrorism policies which are legally more sound and capable of delivering results beyond metric successes. A sustainable course ensures that uncompromised strategy and legal safeguards determine the means of counterterrorism warfare – not the other way around.


Image credits: Military_Materials on Pixabay.