The US’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan represents the completion of a strategic metamorphosis, resulting in counterterrorism being driven by Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). A ‘strategic bottleneck’ that was normalized through extensive legitimation efforts and enabled by the restructuring of targeting decision-making. This technology-induced reduction will manifest as an integrated network of drone bases from which the US will apply an offshore, one-size-fits-all approach to counterterrorism.
From a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency perspective, President Biden’s withdrawal of the remaining US troops from Afghanistan is symptomatic of a strategic metamorphosis long underway: UCAVs or drones have come full circle as the defining characteristic of US counterterrorism strategy. The ascent of UCAVs coincided with the failure of classic counter-insurgency tools in Afghanistan. The 2009 surge had brought the number of US soldiers at the Hindu Kush up to almost 100,000. Unsurprisingly for counterinsurgency theorists, the years of the surge show the highest casualty rate among US soldiers in the entire run of the Afghanistan campaign. For US presidents, though, regularly televised images of fallen soldiers returning home constituted a political price they were increasingly unwilling to pay.
The concerted efforts to legitimize drone strikes in light of rising mission costs installed a tightening bottleneck on counterterrorism strategy and resulted in a staggering rise of strikes and expansion of theaters. “Killing simply became easier”, as Douglas London, counterterrorism strategist for the Middle East Institute, puts it. While President Obama normalized targeted killings, it was President Trump who restructured institutional and operational conditions for drones to ultimately drive US counterterrorism strategy: By scaling down executive accountability for target authorization and transferring responsibilities to the Pentagon and the CIA. And by making generous use of Obama era categories that give commanders more discretion (“areas of active hostilities”) while burying those that demand more restraint (“near certainty” requirement). The “burden of proof as to who could be targeted and for what reason changed dramatically”, according to retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, former Head of US Special Operations Command Africa.
This ‘bottleneck’ transformation of counterterrorism strategy through UCAVs shows a path dependency across the levels of tactics, operations, and strategic vision. When applying metrics-based definitions of success, drone strikes naturally emerge as a superior tactic– delivering clear-cut results without the risks of a ‘capture-over-kill’ mission design. The observable consequence: Operators streamline missions across theaters with little regard for regional variance, character of the terrorist organization pursued, or an individual target’s actual capacity to harm. American UCAVs clock hours in the context of UN-mandated missions like in Syria or Iraq. They also have been used to carry out assassinations of members of foreign governments and they increasingly kill in countries like Yemen, Somalia, or Niger with which the US technically are not at war.
The decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan therefore marks a watershed moment in the prioritization of targeted killings – the reduction of counterterrorism strategy to striking the hydra, quite literally, whenever and wherever a new head of hers grows. In a sense, there is no more ‘real’ strategy least a strategic goal there – but merely one tactic which Bruce Riedel of the Brookings institution likens to a lawn mower: “You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.” Will Joe Biden further pursue this route or critically re-evaluate UCAVs’ benefit for US counterterrorism?
To assess the priorities of the early Biden presidency, it is worth taking a look at recent budgeting decisions. The White House’s 2022 discretionary request for the State Department and programs like USAID is $63.5 billion. In comparison, they requested $715 billion for the Department of Defense (DoD). Technology-specific allocations of funding for 2022 are not yet available. However, the numbers for 2021 give an impression of the staggering tilt toward ‘kinetic solutions’: Roughly $372 million were provided for foreign assistance in Afghanistan, supporting the installation of public institutions, essential health and education services, and strategic partnerships with local security forces. Yet, the DoD’s budget included an estimated $7.5 billion! for the development, evaluation, and procurement of unmanned systems technologies alone. A look at the numbers thus makes it very clear that technology has gained significant prioritization over other elements of counterterrorism.
Given this financial outline and Biden’s active support of a UCAV-driven approach during his time as Obama’s Vice-President, the most likely scenario for future US counterterrorism is the completion of an integrated network of drone bases. The US already maintains such capabilities from afar in the Arab Peninsula, the Levant, and the Horn of Africa. The idea is that also in Afghanistan, “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent Special Forces units”.
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