John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, met with his Pakistani counterpart on thursday to discuss security issues. He told Pakistani television that the U.S. would soon end drone strikes. “I believe that we’re on a good track,” he said. “I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it.” He added, “I think the president has a very real timeline, and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”
There are numerous reasons for this drone drawdown, none of which have anything to do with respecting Pakistan’s sovereignty.
1. The U.S. military’s Afghan drawdown in 2014 will reduce the number of CIA bases operating in the region, and more generally, will of course reduce the overall priority given to the “Af-Pak” region in U.S. national security. A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, recently said: “As we continue the transition in Afghanistan, we will no longer have the same need for force protection in the Afghan war theater and the progress we’ve made against core al-Qaida will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.”
2. The “core” al-Qaeda threat in Pakistan – which was never really an “existential threat” in the first place – is now largely diminished in the tribal areas. This is reflected in the decreasing number of CIA drones strikes: from a peak of 122 in 2010, to 16 so far this year. But it’s important to note that the majority of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan do not, and have never, targeted al-Qaeda. The plurality of attacks have targeted the Taliban, followed by the Haqqani Network. Both of these organizations present a regional threat, rather than a “global threat”, and the reason the U.S. has targeted them likely falls into two main camps. The first, the most obvious, is that the Afghan Taliban presents a direct threat to the 68,000 American troops stationed in the country. This seems like a simplistic point to make (although it’s often left out of discussion), but if there were no troops stationed in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban would not be on Washington’s radar because it is incapable of directly harming U.S. citizens. The “students” were certainly not a primary concern throughout the 1990s, after the CIA withdrew from the region following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. The Taliban was a direct response to the warlordism that the U.S. helped create by funneling arms and materials to what were previously known by the Reagan administration as “freedom fighters”. Second, the Pakistan Taliban, or TTP, presents a direct threat to the Pakistani state. It is likely that as part of the “secret” deal between the CIA and ISI, the Pakistan spy agency has been able to request its own targets for assassination. Certainly, this was the case in the early days of U.S. drone strikes. In 2009, after embarrassing the Pakistan government over a “ceasefire” that never came to fruition, the green light was given for eliminating the leader and founder of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud.
3. Washington’s focus has shifted towards the continent of Africa, and Africa Command (AFRICOM) is beginning to shift its priority from East to West Africa. I have previous written about some of the elements that constitute this strategic drift, or more provocatively, the 21st century “Scramble for Africa”: (a) The most recent is the construction of a drone base in Niger that is used to launch Predators to survey militants in Mali and pass on geo-spatial intelligence to the French military (more on this below). (b) The scaling up of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti to pursue al-Qaeda-linked threats in Somalia (al-Shabab), Yemen (AQAP) and beyond. This base is backed up by Arba Minch Airport in Ethiopia, which hosts Reaper flights over Somalia. Manda Bay, Kenya, is also used as a hub for the U.S. military, including the navy. Drones have also flown from St. Victoria in the Seychelles since at least 2009. (c) There have been “covert” manned surveillance flights launched from Niamey, Niger, as well as those flights outsourced to contractors from Entebbe Uganda – the latter part of “Tusker Sand”, the codename given to the search for Joseph Kony.
Many in U.S. national security circles are also asking whether Nigeria will become the “next Pakistan”, given the instability across the Niger delta. Indeed, the drone base in Naimey, Niger may in fact already be used to gather intelligence on Boko Haram. Stuart Elden has provided an extensive bibliography on Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group based in the north east of the country. One of the references he recommends comes from the U.S. Naval War College in 2012. The author recommends pre-emptive intervention against Boko Haram (and its potential alliance with the Algerian-focused al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb):
West Africa presents unique and complex challenges to the security of the United States (US) and critical US interests abroad. Nigeria, the largest and most diplomatically, militarily, and economically progressive nation in West Africa, faces severe threats of instability promulgated by the burgeoning terrorist group, Boko Haram. East Africa is the traditional focus of U.S. Africa Command (US AFRICOM); however, there is a compelling need to address West African issues before the region becomes the next primary challenge in the counterinsurgency (COIN) dilemma. Detailed US AFRICOM engagement can prevent derailment of progress experienced by Nigeria in the last twenty years, protect the critical energy infrastructure the U.S. relies upon for over 8% of its oil imports, and prevent mass terrorist attacks both in Africa and directly against the U.S. and its allies by Boko Haram and other linkedterrorist organizations. This paper highlights the benefits of employing Engagement Teams (ETs) to mitigate vulnerabilities within Nigeria and provides recommendations for a scalable plan tailored to accomplish US AFRICOM strategic objectives within the turbulent nation of Nigeria.
In 2012, the head of AFRICOM, General Carter Ham, warned al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria were attempting to “coordinate and synchronize” their operations. The question of whether they are able to realize this ambition is of course a different matter. For now, AFRICOM is officially limited to its small, but growing footprint in Djibouti.