The Drones are Back

Less than two months after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, a U.S. drone fired at a motorcycle in the remote tribal region of Kurram near the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, killing two men. One of them was reportedly an Afghan Taliban commander. It was the first drone strike of Trump’s presidency and the first after a 10-month lull.

Since then, there have been 11 more drone strikes in Pakistan, targeting Haqqani, Afghan Taliban, and Pakistani Taliban militants, according to news reports and counterterrorism experts. Those strikes, while seemingly modest, signal a marked change in course under the Trump administration.

In the past, “the strikes in Pakistan were done purely for counterterrorism. There was not a broader counterinsurgency rationale for trying to weaken groups operating in Afghanistan,” Seth Jones, a former advisor to U.S. special operations forces, told Foreign Policy.

The Trump administration is “much more committed to fighting in Afghanistan,” including sending in several thousand additional troops, said Jones, who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re now targeting Afghan insurgents in Pakistan. This is a much more aggressive strategy to change the course of the war in Afghanistan.”

The drone operations in Pakistan are moving at a relatively moderate pace compared with U.S. strikes in Yemen or Somalia, where the numbers have spiked under Trump’s watch. (There were more than 100 strikes in Yemen last year, up from 44 in the last year of Obama’s presidency, according to U.S. Central Command and the Long War Journal.)

But Trump’s drone war in Pakistan is different from those of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama; those campaigns focused on al Qaeda. The current CIA operation appears aimed at taking out Afghan militants waging war against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul or Pakistani Taliban fighters who pose a threat to the government in Islamabad.

Although the Obama administration did sometimes target Afghan Taliban and Haqqani militants in Pakistan, the strikes were not designed to wipe out the insurgency’s havens in Pakistan, former intelligence and Defense Department officials said.

The drone air war in Pakistan began in 2004 under Bush as a way of taking out al Qaeda leaders and disrupting the terrorist network in Pakistan. The Obama administration dramatically expanded the air war, and intelligence officers believe the strikes succeeded in inflicting damage on al Qaeda’s core leadership.

Obama’s drone campaign reached a peak of an estimated 117 strikes in 2010. That number gradually declined, partly because the CIA began to run out of al Qaeda figures to kill and U.S. priorities shifted to threats in Yemen and Syria.

Al Qaeda leaders dispersed from Pakistan’s tribal areas, and the organization spawned branches elsewhere in the world. And as a large U.S. ground force drew down in Afghanistan, spy agencies shifted resources — including intelligence analysts, surveillance aircraft, and aerostats — elsewhere, so there were fewer “eyes in the sky” to track suspects, current and former Pentagon and intelligence officials said.

The Obama administration also scaled back the use of controversial “signature” strikes, which were drone raids against groups of military-age men believed to be militants from al Qaeda or associated groups. The tactic caused an unknown number of civilian casualties, angered the Pakistani government, and prompted opposition among some U.S. diplomats, who argued the practice was too indiscriminate.

Al Qaeda also got some unexpected help to counter the ever-present U.S. planes overhead.

In 2010, Iran agreed to supply al Qaeda some unspecified “anti-drone technology” in a bid to help secure the release of an Iranian diplomat held by the group in Pakistan, according to a book by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda in Flight. U.S. intelligence officers later discovered that several drones had inexplicably vanished or crashed. As a result, the CIA retaliated by striking an anti-aircraft battery in North Waziristan, according to the book.

The missile-armed, unmanned drone proved to be an ideal tactical weapon against a highly centralized terrorist organization in rural Pakistan. But it has proved less effective or even useless against insurgencies or more amorphous terrorist networks relying on volunteers radicalized online, former intelligence officers said.

“If our goal after 9/11 was to diminish terrorist organizations, we’ve been phenomenally successful,” said Andrew Liepman, the former deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center and a retired CIA officer. “If our goal after 9/11 was to eliminate extremist jihadism, then we’ve been phenomenally unsuccessful.”

Graphic designed by C.K. Hickey.

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