The United States faces new difficulties to a clear terrorism policy. As it no longer has a physical presence in Afghanistan and seeks to continuously curb the influence of terror groups in the Middle East, the United States has utilized over-the-horizon drone strikes against terror leaders. This strategy had particular attention in the Trump and Biden administrations with drone strikes against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, respectively. Although over-the-horizon strikes provide a relatively simple alternative to on-the-ground forces, the problems raised by their extensive intelligence requirements and implications for U.S. involvement outside warzones makes this policy unsustainable. This article is meant to analyze both the history and probability of its implementation. Though over-the-horizon strikes can include the use of special forces groups, this definition will focus strictly on drone strikes.
The Trump administration was not the first to attempt to implement drone strikes against high value targets (HVTs). The first to be targeted by drones in U.S. history was Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2001. Though he never was successfully killed with drones, the practice continued to be used throughout succeeding administrations. The Obama administration utilized drones to target terrorist groups in countries where the United States did not have an official presence. These drone strikes were often associated with high civilian casualties; a United Nation’s report indicated that U.S. drone strikes in Yemen supposedly killed over 40 civilians within a year. Though the Obama administration initially set a high bar for circumstances required to use a strike, drones were used 10x more than the Bush administration.
The strike against Iranian leader Qasem Soleimani was received with a mix of criticism and praise. Soleimani was a leader of Iran’s Quds force, which operated secretively within Iran’s military construct. The Quds have been connected to Hezbollah and Hamas and are suspected of providing them with weaponry to mount attacks against American forces and allies, such as Israel. Trump defended the strike as a necessary attack to signal to Iran that its personnel cannot support terror groups that attack U.S. interests. He tweeted, “General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time and was plotting to kill many more...but got caught!” Some accused the United States of overstepping its bounds, calling the strike an arbitrary killing.
This strike renewed the debate about the extent to which drone strikes should be implemented in connection to the Authorization of Use of Military Force. The Authorization has been used broadly by each administration since Bush to target organizations connected to terrorism. The result has been U.S. military activity outside of war zones, such as in Yemen and Syria. These vague interpretations continue to raise questions regarding the legality of a president to authorize drone strikes in areas where the U.S. has no military presence, and against groups that did not exist at the time the authorization was created.
Following the strike that killed Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Taliban condemned the strike as a violation of the Doha agreement, which indicated a “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.” The United States, in turn, indicated that the Taliban were aiding and harboring terrorist leaders. The Doha agreement states that “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan furthermore reaffirms its ongoing commitment to prevent any international terrorist groups or individuals, including al-Qa’ida and ISIS-K, from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States, its allies and other countries.” A subgroup within the Taliban admitted that it was aware of Al-Zawahiri’s presence. Despite a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States can remain active despite having no personnel on the ground.
Regarding the strike, General Frank Mckinzie skeptically addressed the possibility of recreating a successful strike. He acknowledged that circumstances leading to the drone strike were extremely favorable, and that these are not always realistic. Variables such as the opportunity to gather intelligence, mobility of a target, location in a rural or urban area, all affect the probability of success. “Let’s remember, this is one strike in a year.”
General Mckinzie was also involved in the Aug 29th strike in 2021, which provides details about the intelligence required to carry out a strike. Following the death of U.S. service members from a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, U.S. Central Command attempted to identify and intercept any plots at further attacks. The strike was meticulously planned, involving over 12 drones and significant intelligence. After following the target for hours, the strike was confirmed, and an aid worker employed by the U.S. government was killed, along with nine other civilians. This instance highlights the difficulty in gaining ‘near certainty’ when utilizing drone strikes.
The appeal of using a drone strike over a special forces group is simple: a MQ-9 Reaper drone costs about $14m per unit and can deliver an AGM 114 Hellfire missile from up to 50,000ft with an effective flight range of well over 1000 miles. Compare this to the cost of equipping a special forces unit, providing transport to and from the location, the risk of discovery and lengthy engagement, the risk of a service member death and the costs of medical support, intelligence, and hardware. A low-engagement option of sending out a drone to perform a precision strike can appear to be much less involved and low-risk for U.S. personnel. However, the difficulty in determining the certainty of a strike can be problematic and lead to extensive collateral damage.
The reliability of the intelligence being received is tantamount for the confirmation of a strike order. There is no official level of certainty that is required under U.S. law to issue an order for a targeted strike. The risk of lower levels of certainty is the associated collateral damage. As the surety of the intelligence decrease, the chance for civilian casualties increases. And yet, as described in the previous example of the August 29th strike, even extensive intelligence gathering cannot always lead to correct identification of a target.
The United States sits in a conflicted position of needing to address terror groups in areas like the Middle East, while also maintaining its agreed upon absence from those areas. Over-the-horizon strikes may seem like a reasonable option to maintain a physical presence while still being able to engage HVTs but the difficulty of reliable intelligence and risk of collateral damage makes it an unsustainable counter-terrorism policy.