There has been a flurry of news reports on drones in the last few days; let me crib from Lawfare’s collection of links: “The U.S. is building secret drone bases in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Read Tim Mak’s report in the Politico here, the Washington Post’s coverage by Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller here, and the Telegraph’s Mike Pflanz’ story here.” We can add the WSJ story, too, and a cool video accompanying the story (the WSJ links require subscription).
An important aspect of these developments is the invitation of the government of the Seychelles to the United States to base drones there. The WP story emphasizes that the purpose is addressing piracy, which has slammed ocean-going traffic and especially tourism to the islands. These drones are for surveillance and would require discussion and permission from the Seychelles government to deploy armed drones from the island base, but clearly the possibility at least for discussion of armed drones at some point in the future is on the table, according to the Post story. The WSJ reporting by Julian Barnes (it also has a useful graphic showing the drone range from the Seychelles and the other drone bases) adds something significant, and a somewhat different emphasis – the ability to strike at Al Qaeda as well as antipiracy missions, and more directly addresses armed attacks on pirates in at least some circumstances:
The U.S. military has long operated a base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, and has already used drones against militants in Somalia. The new Seychelles base, with the Reaper deployment, will allow for more flights and improved operational security, giving the military a better chance at uncovering and destroying al Qaeda training camps in East Africa, officials said. Militants can sometimes spot and track drones that fly over land from the base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti—something that will be more difficult at an island base.
The Seychelles’ capital, Victoria, is about 920 miles east of the southern tip Somalia, and about 650 miles northeast of Madagascar. The new base will help increase surveillance of pirates operating in the waters off Somalia. A senior defense official said the U.S. hasn’t yet used the Reapers deployed the Seychelles to conduct armed reconnaissance on pirate ships, but the option is open to use the drones to strike at pirates who have mounted attacks. “If there was a piracy situation gone wrong, the Seychelles are a good place from which to put something overhead,” said the senior defense official.
There are two basic ways to interpret these moves, though they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that as Al Qaeda comes under greater pressure from drone strikes in Pakistan, as well as in Yemen, developing groups of Islamist terrorists and militants are taking up the struggle, partly as new organizations and partly as the group in Pakistan spreads out into the Horn in search of new safe havens and new converts to the cause. In that scenario, the drone strikes have merely fragmented the group without necessarily destroying it. Which is to say, the first interpretation argues that the US, by its drones strikes against terrorist leadership, has merely spread the infection and its new operations are trying to deal with a mistaken policy.
The second is that Al Qaeda has been greatly weakened in its leadership by the drone strikes and other special ops, such as the Bin Laden raid, and the group is in retreat; the time to strike directly at the leadership is now, because there is an opportunity to decisively dismember Al Qaeda as it has been since 9/11. So, on this second interpretation of why bases in Africa:
- If the group can be effectively destroyed as a transnational terrorist group in Pakistan;
- if Pakistan can be pressured to prevent it from regaining safe haven there or in Afghanistan, irrespective of what the Taliban do inside Afghanistan once the US ground forces mostly leave;
- if the US can attack emerging ideologically affiliated, pick-up-the-banner groups in Africa; and
- if the US can prevent Al Qaeda operatives and leadership from fleeing to new safe havens in Africa – then:
- the Obama administration has a case for being able to wind down the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan as a consequence of victory against the terrorists – and pretty good reason to say that it has struck a decisive blow against Al Qaeda.
The two are not exclusive alternatives, but they are mostly inconsistent with each other. The administration has been saying that the best view is the second; I agree – viz., the counterterrorism strategy has pushed Al Qaeda into strategic retreat. Now is the time to aggressively pursue the retreating enemy, seeking new safe havens, and strike hard at them. There is a separate element of US drone basing strategy and indeed drones that is independent of these immediate motivations – a longer run shift in US security resources toward drones that would likely be occurring anyway, as a consequence of changes in technology, but the immediate moves seem clearly driven by a sense that Al Qaeda is in retreat and now is the moment to press the advantage.