US building a ‘constellation’ of drone bases


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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • gerald says:

    If it keeps them off balance the drones will have served their purpose. It is difficult to plan and carry out major operations when your leaders and operatives are constantly being picked off.

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    Did the Post include GPS for the bases?

  • Neonmeat says:

    IMO Drones and other similar technologies are the future of Modern Warfare.

  • joeamerica says:

    IMO Drones and other similar technologies are the future of modern terrorism as well. It is going to become very difficult to delineate the moral high ground.
    The myopic focus on this strategy by the current administration is not only debatable from a standpoint of effectiveness and cost efficiency but also one of contextual and pragmatic morality, impact on civilian safety and support, long-term impact on enemy recruitment and diplomatic capability.
    Each drastically new weapon technology is subject to such debate as warriors, politicians and citizens determine how & when to utilize same.
    Unfortunately this debate is not occurring. It is the elephant in the room. I find that to be very disturbing. I hope some of the other hawks here do likewise.

  • Tom Kelleher says:

    “Obama administration officials now believe that al-Qaeda can be defeated if only three to five more of its leaders are killed.”
    I find this to be an incredible and unlikely assertion. President Obama is not a wide-eyed babe in the woods concerning his administration’s goals and expections for this war; nor is he surrounded by such people. Far more likely is Geralds belief we are doing “whatever is necessary to keep them off balance”.
    This commentary also neglects to take into account the scale of the numerous and often unknown-to-us Special Forces raids upon targets, which have played such a huge part throughout this asymetrical war; instead, this commentary would have us believe this administrations arsenal only contains ‘pinprick strikes’. Not the case.
    “…their use is not a substitute for denying terrorists from physically holding ground.”. Well, sure, but what would you have us do, Bill? Move our Army & Marines into Pakistan’s tribal areas on a permanent basis? Really?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    A senior administration official made the 3 to 5 remark. This isn’t something I manufactured. As far as special operations raids, outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, there are few and far between. I’ve never called for a US invasion of the FATA, so please don’t put words in my mouth. But hitting with infrequent drone strikes and hoping for the Pakistani tiger to change its stripes and move against the terror groups, as we’ve been doing for the past decade, isn’t a solution.
    I’m not arguing against the use of the drones, but the over-reliance on them. There is a big difference. There are people who truly believe the drones are the solution tot he problem, not a tool in the kit.

  • Neonmeat says:

    @ Joe America
    I’m not sure where morality comes into it? What is the difference between a Drone targeting a terrorist compared to an F16 or something similar?
    I do not mean to say we should ignore morals in war and in how we fight them I just don’t understand the specifics of your point.
    When you say modern terrorism do you mean Al Qaeda et al or do you mean the manner in which the US will use them?
    I see your point regarding the lack of debate on the subject though, there did seem initially to be some discussion in the media on the effectiveness and the rate of civilian casualties they cause but now Drone use just seems accepted as standard.

  • Ian says:

    Drones cannot be used as a “magic bullet” in GWOT. Pinprick strikes can only do so much. On the other side of the coin, massive amounts of troops are not the solution either. Terrorist and insurgent groups have adapted to our current strategy and they always will. We must adopt the same approach and use our technological superiority to augment that. As terrorists and insurgents operate in small, manueverable, and independant groups, so should we. I hope that this and the next administration won’t think that only missles fired from a distance will solve all problems, like Clinton did.

  • Johnsay says:

    I don’t think it’s realistic to believe that we can occupy ground in Pakistan or even in Afghanistan for much longer. The Talibann is a ground up organization and the only real way that it can be defeated is to make significant improvements in the economy and culture of the region. Where else do the Talibann have to go and what else do they have to do?
    So much the unrest in the Islamic world is due to basic economic hopelessness.
    I believe our war is with Al Quada which is not inherently native to the region. We should try to kill as many as possible while we are still in the region and get out. The drones are a wonderful and cheap way to do this.


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