The CIA is building what The Washington Post described yesterday as a “constellation” of bases in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Today, at Checkpoint Washington, Greg Miller identified the location of three of the four bases (note, we’ve known about the bases in Djibouti and the Seychelles):
When the new bases are complete, the United States will have at least four drone airstrips in the Horn of Africa region: a long-standing military base in Djibouti; a secret new CIA facility being built in the Arabian Peninsula; an installation on the Seychelles; and a fourth facility in Ethiopia.
The bases will be used to target al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, but also position the United States to patrol other areas to which militant groups might migrate.
“We’re posturing with the right capabilities [in Africa] to be able to move against targets if they start to develop rather than wait four or five years like we did in Pakistan,” said a former senior U.S. military official familiar with special operations mission in both regions. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons in the last eight or nine years with respect to basing rights.”
I’ve said this numerous times: The “drones” are an excellent tactic to keep al Qaeda and allied groups off balance, but their use is not a substitute for denying terrorists from physically holding ground. Despite eight years of Predator strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Taliban remain firmly in control of the region.
Below is a summary of my thoughts on this subject, which I wrote and published at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where I am a Senior Fellow:
In the 10 years since the United States has been fighting al-Qaeda across the world, Washington’s view on how to attack the terror group and its affiliates has changed radically.
As U.S. conventional forces fight protracted, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the strategy of attacking states that harbor or support terror networks has fallen by the wayside. The Obama administration believes we can defeat al-Qaeda by killing its top leaders in pinprick strikes in their safe havens in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas.
The CIA regularly employs unmanned Predator and Reaper drone aircraft to strike at al-Qaeda leaders in North and South Waziristan. Since operational tempo rose in the summer of 2008, these strikes have killed some of al-Qaeda’s top leaders, including Abu Laith al-Libbi, Mustafa Abu Yazid, and Abu Khabbab al-Masri. Obama administration officials now believe that al-Qaeda can be defeated if only three to five more of its leaders are killed.
Yet as a senior U.S. intelligence official who is skeptical of the strategy often reminds me, Washington’s over-reliance on drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas is a major tactical weakness. The drones, he says, are “efficient in killing leaders based in those areas, but not sufficient in dismantling al-Qaeda.”
Even though the strikes kill senior leaders, tribal areas remain firmly under the control of al-Qaeda allies such as the Haqqani Network, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (TTP), and other independent Taliban leaders.
And al-Qaeda’s leaders are not based solely in the Waziristans. U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden himself in Abbottabad, far from the tribal areas, and many of the top al-Qaeda top leaders captured in Pakistan since 9/11 have been found in its major cities. Pakistani cooperation is vital both to capturing al-Qaeda operatives in those cities, and sustaining the drone strikes. Without Pakistan’s permission, the CIA would be hard-pressed to strike outside the tribal areas, and the intense domestic fallout after the bin Laden raid shows how difficult it is for U.S. forces to stray outside of approved areas.
Yet Pakistan is literally infested with terror groups, many of which its military and its notorious Inter-Services Intelligence directorate support. While many analysts dismiss the importance of so-called “domestic” Pakistani terror groups, they often ignore the fact that these groups provide important support to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s alliances with the Haqqani Network and the TTP, and other terror groups enable it to replace leaders who are killed in the drone strikes.
The bottom line is that the drone strikes can only do so much. They are efficient at hitting al-Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas and keeping them off balance, but with key elements based outside of the Waziristans, they cannot deal a death blow to the group. And as Pakistan distances itself from the U.S. in the wake of the bin Laden raid and other dust-ups, our ability to round up al-Qaeda operatives inside Pakistan proper diminishes.
In the past, U.S. leaders have been quick to declare al-Qaeda dead or irrelevant, only to discover that it has adapted to our new methods. That’s why drones remain only one of many weapons in the arsenal we deploy against al-Qaeda. They are not, in themselves, a strategy.
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