Biden likely to lean on drone warfare in Afghanistan
The Biden administration is expected to increasingly rely on drone surveillance and strikes for counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan following Monday’s U.S. exit from the country after 20 years of war.
President Biden this past week gave his top military commanders the authority to carry out several strikes on Islamic State affiliate targets in the country, a response to a suicide bombing near the airport Thursday that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghans.
The drone attacks — including a Friday strike in Jalalabad near the Pakistan border that killed two militants, and a Sunday strike in Kabul that destroyed an ISIS-K car bomb — appeared calibrated to send a message to militant groups that though U.S. forces were leaving the country, military operations are likely to persist.
“To ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet,” Biden said in a fiery speech at the White House on Tuesday, vowing a “tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy.”
But with boots no longer on the ground, the administration is limited in its options to deter terrorist threats, a situation complicated by limited intelligence and the reconnaissance needed to guide any future strikes.
“How many other ways can we exercise those sorts of operations? There’s not too many other options. We’re kind of stuck,” Barry Pavel, director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said of the administration’s new reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles.
“There’s not that many tools left in the tool kit if we don’t have people on the ground.”
Friday’s U.S. strike, carried out by a Reaper drone flown from the Persian Gulf region, killed two ISIS-K militants and injured a third individual, though the Pentagon has declined to release the identities of those targeted.
Sunday’s strike, meanwhile, targeted a vehicle that officials said was carrying “an imminent ISIS-K threat” to Kabul’s airport.
Biden on Tuesday touted the strikes, the first military actions against the terrorist group following Thursday’s deadly bombing outside the Kabul airport.
“Let me say it clearly to those who wish America harm, to those who engage in terrorism against us or our allies. Know this: The United States will never rest. We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth, and you will pay the ultimate price,” Biden said.
But the increased drone use, coupled with limited intelligence, also comes with a higher chance of civilian casualties.
That reality was on full display Sunday, with reports indicating that 10 civilians, including seven children, were killed by the U.S. drone strike.
U.S. Central Command acknowledged reports of the deaths, saying that a “large amount of explosive material inside may have caused additional casualties.”
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Monday that officials are “not in a position to dispute” the reports but emphasized that “no military on the face of the Earth works harder to avoid civilian casualties than the United States military, and nobody wants to see innocent life taken. We take it very, very seriously.”
A lack of U.S. forces in Afghanistan also means drones will be flown in from outside the country, requiring more resources to maintain them.
“If you’re launching a drone from in-country, you launch it, it does its thing and you recover it. If you’re launching it from farther away, it requires a lot more maintenance, sustainment. It deteriorates equipment more, it’s a significant resource drain,” Pavel said.
U.S. drone policy has been overhauled several times by recent administrations. Former President Obama, in taking over the war on terror from the George W. Bush administration, moved to tighten the metrics for how officials decided to conduct such operations.
But the Obama administration also preferred using drone strikes in non-battlefield settings rather than risk U.S. troops carrying out numerous counterterrorism missions.
In addition, Obama used a disputed method for counting civilian casualties for drone strikes outside the battlefield, tallying nearly all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, thus lowering the overall death toll as recorded by the Pentagon.
Former President Trump loosened rules around drones, giving more discretion to commanders in the region and allowing them to carry out strikes in all but the most extreme circumstances, such as Trump’s order to hit Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
Upon taking office, Biden initiated a review of drone strike policy outside of conventional war zones and imposed temporary limits on such strikes. But the new policy has yet to materialize.
Pavel said it’s unclear whether Biden will significantly increase drone strikes in the region since “it depends on the trend” of violence.
“If the threat continues, in particular ISIS-K against Americans in Afghanistan or allies in Afghanistan or American interests somehow more broadly, then we’ll have to keep looking for them using surveillance of various sorts and then hitting them,” he said.
“There’s a lot more work to do if we want to significantly degrade that network.”