Yesterday, the CIA was suspected of conducting a drone strike consisting of three or four missiles that destroyed part of a madrasa in the Hangu district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. The strikes killed either five or six people, who were reported to be members of the Haqqani Network, which has been involved in many suicide and roadside bomb attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Of more than 350 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, yesterday’s strike was just the fourth outside of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
As I noted last month, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are down almost 40 percent this year compared to the same period in 2012. Within thirteen months, there is the possibility that the United States will be unable to conduct any drone strikes in Pakistan, if the government of Afghanistan enforces the bilateral U.S.-Afghanistan defense and security cooperation agreement. The text of this negotiated agreement has been agreed to by both countries, but it still requires the endorsement of the Afghan council of provincial leaders that were all approved by President Hamid Kharzai, known as a loya jirga. However, the agreement, as posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, is explicit about how the United States can use Afghan sovereign territory:
Desiring to continue to foster close cooperation concerning defense and security arrangements in order to strengthen security and stability in Afghanistan, contribute to regional and international peace and stability, combat terrorism, achieve a region which is no longer a safe haven for al-Qaida and its affiliates, and enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter threats against its sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity; and noting that the United States does not seek permanent military facilities in Afghanistan, or a presence that is a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbors, and has pledged not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries;
Since 2011, when Islamabad kicked the last remaining CIA personnel and contractors out of Pakistani airbases, all U.S. drone strikes have been flown from airbases across the border in Afghanistan. If the United States keeps its pledge and Afghanistan actually enforces the agreement (both big ifs), there is no other plausible alternative host-nation from which the United States would receive permission to conduct drone strikes into northwest Pakistan. Armed drones flying from U.S. naval platforms are a few years away, but the distance from the Arabian Sea to the FATA is significant, posing greater operational risk to drones themselves, and also potentially further exacerbating anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan by overflying populated areas.
I had predicted in March 2012 that this scenario could emerge. It is possible that continued U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan will be tacitly accepted by Karzai’s successor in exchange for bags of CIA cash, and the estimated three billion dollars in overt funding for Afghan security forces. Yet, enforcing sovereign host-nation basing rights, overflight rights, shutter control, and constrained rules of engagement are part of the normal behavior of an independent, sovereign country, which Afghanistan might finally be.