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The mirage of clean ‘over-the-horizon’ air strikes

We know targets will be less accurate without on-the-ground intel, resulting in more civilian casualties and greater backlash.

The United States military has an informal term for air strikes that originate from outside the targeted country. They’re called “over-the-horizon.” President Biden has brought that term into more daily parlance in his defense of the type of air strike that may now be more likely in Afghanistan given his withdrawal of U.S. forces. “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities,” Biden recently explained, “which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground.”  

This explanation connotes a neat and clean way of conducting counterterrorism operations with little overhead. It assumes that America can strike terrorists anywhere at any time while reducing the costs of doing so, especially in terms of soldiers’ lives. Lift the hood, however, and a much more complicated story emerges for Biden’s apparent decision to double-down on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, against terrorists in Afghanistan.

Successful drone strikes entail both targeting the suspected terrorist and minimizing civilian casualties. Both tasks require multiple forms of intelligence, but especially human intelligence, all of which left Afghanistan along with the withdrawal of American assets in August. The botched strike on August 29, 2021 should reveal the perils of failing to positively identify a target, which is normally a key requirement for counterterrorism strikes. The individual the United States thought was an Islamic State member involved in the killing of 13 American military personnel was actually Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for a U.S. aid organization and had zero connection to terrorism. Ahmadi’s ostensible terrorist safe house was actually his home. And the alleged explosives were water bottles. Had anyone been on the ground, this all would have likely been known. Because the United States has virtually no personnel in Afghanistan, however, the prospects for another misfire are now much higher. 

A strike that goes awry and kills no combatants and many civilians is not only not “righteous,” as one senior U.S. official initially characterized the strike, it is also counterproductive. Killing civilians risks delegitimizing the use of drone strikes as an acceptable wartime practice. It can also become a vehicle for the recruitment of more terrorists, according to survivors of prior drone strikes.

Relatedly, the use of an armed drone for an OTH strike is actually just the figurative tip of a much longer spear. The drone itself is tethered to an entire global infrastructure. The Biden administration’s OTH strategy assumes that without regional bases across Central and South Asia, the United States will still be able to conduct drone strikes at will against terrorists in Afghanistan. Given the resources and personnel required to enable drone warfare, this seems dubious.

America’s armed drones are now launched from the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar severely limiting their ability to loiter in Afghanistan. According to Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), “those drones have to fly all the way around Iran and all the way up to Pakistan and lose 70 to 80 percent of their fuel before they even get anywhere near a target” in Afghanistan. Given the fuel limitation, we may be reverting back to a world of drone strikes based on coincidence where missiles are launched based on the “signature” of terrorist behavior rather than concrete evidence of such wrongdoing. The lack of proper surveillance and reconnaissance, therefore, increases the likelihood for more errant strikes.  

The drones themselves are also not a costless proposition. In 2019, the Defense Department requested nearly $10 billion to procure an additional 3,500 drones to enable remote-warfare, according to a report filed by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. Compared to the previous year’s budget submission, these figures constituted a 25 percent increase in requested funding and over a 300 percent increase in the number of requested platforms. 

At the same time, the United States’ expanding use of drone warfare is also resource and labor intensive, which is much less understood by the public. Indeed, the public is often oblivious to the use of strikes abroad. This lack of awareness is largely a function of how experts frame America’s use of armed drones in the media and scholarship on drone warfare. Analysts are comfortable grappling with the operational merits of strikes, even if they have yet to reach a consensus on how best to measure the effectiveness of drones. In doing so, they discount the wider scope of resources and personnel that provide the backbone of strikes. 

Taken together, the use of OTH strikes might seem like the perfect way to fulfill Biden’s promise of both protecting Americans against terrorism while extricating U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Upon closer inspection, the reality appears a lot costlier and risker. 

The implication is that the United States should rely more on partners in its emerging counterterrorism strategy. To that end, Washington should broker more collaborative arrangements with countries across the region. The Wall Street Journal reported in September that General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the possibility of using Russian bases in Central Asia with his counterpart in Moscow. Recent reports suggest that other talks with countries that border Afghanistan and host Russian bases, such as Tajikistan, have also continued.

The prospect of using bases in this and adjacent countries, which collectively comprise Russia’s “tacit sphere of influence,” is fraught. Yet, America may now have no other choice than to pursue a compromise with Russia in establishing a more proximate perch from which to overwatch Afghanistan. Access to a base in Central Asia would address the logistical burdens imposed by flying armed drones from Qatar, which would help the U.S. military maintain a higher “near certainty” standard of no civilian casualties when conducting strikes. As General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified, “our strikes in Afghanistan going forward will be under a higher standard. That’s a policy matter, not a purely military matter.” Meeting that standard will require partnerships with some countries that might otherwise seem unsavory or contrary to U.S. interests. 

In addition, the United States should pursue a counterterrorism strategy that encourages allies and partners to bear more of the costs of fighting terrorists in Afghanistan. The United States has now sold France MQ-9 Reapers and provided intelligence for France’s ongoing counterterrorism operations in Mali. France, then, has the capability to shoulder some of the burdens of monitoring terrorists in Afghanistan. Doing so would allow France to keep tabs on especially the Islamic State, which is a direct threat to France’s security. India, as well, has already leased two MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones from the United States for surveillance in the Indian Ocean and appears to be negotiating a $3 billion deal to acquire 30 more platforms from the manufacturer, General Atomics. India could easily recapitalize these drones to surveil and strike terrorists in Afghanistan. 

In sum, the use of armed drones for an over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan is an effective sound-bite. It implies conflict elsewhere. It also has the virtue of placating the public’s desire for riskless and humane war, which encourages people to focus more on drones themselves rather than the elaborate array of bases and personnel that enable strikes in the first place. Without a base in Afghanistan, or anywhere across Central Asia, OTH strikes are less than meet the eye. Their use going forward may lack corroborating intelligence otherwise required to balance the targeted killing of terrorists with the protection of innocent civilians. The strategic appeal of using drone strikes in Afghanistan, then, may now become a strategic liability.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or Government.