The deaths of 10 innocent Afghans, including children, caused by a U.S. drone strike on Aug. 29 highlight a fact that few want to concede. With fewer American eyes on the ground in Afghanistan as well as other countries that provide sanctuary to terrorists, it is more likely that innocents will be mistakenly killed in U.S. counterterrorism operations. American hawks don’t like to talk about this because it undermines public support for drone strikes, which are far more humane than other instruments of violence that the military can deploy and are safer for American service members. Doves don’t like to talk about it because it undermines the case for “ending forever wars” by bringing troops home.
“We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground,” President
has said repeatedly since Taliban forces completed their conquest of Afghanistan. He is right about that. But he hasn’t mentioned that without people on the ground, those strikes are more likely to miss their intended targets.
The technology the U.S. government uses for counterterrorism is extraordinary—from signals intelligence to geospatial targeting—but it isn’t a substitute for people. Even the most sophisticated U.S. human intelligence networks in countries where the U.S. has no diplomatic presence pale in effectiveness compared with places where the U.S. government can operate openly.
Having few Americans and allies on the ground in Afghanistan and other countries enmeshed in the war on terror may save American lives. But we should be clear-eyed about the cost of an “over the horizon” approach. It will be paid by innocents killed in error by U.S. government forces that lack an accurate picture of their targets.
These failures won’t always be as publicly apparent as the Aug. 29 tragedy, which initially was called a “righteous strike” by
Gen. Mark Milley,
only to be detailed days later in news reports and then confirmed as a “tragic mistake” by the U.S. military.
To further their propaganda efforts, terrorist groups and their supporters frequently claim U.S. drone strikes kill innocents even when that isn’t the case. The U.S. government has no interest in publicizing its failures. In remote areas of Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it often is difficult to determine the truth.
This won’t stop the U.S. from using drones in counterterrorism. The order to strike on Aug. 29 wasn’t motivated by a desire to kill people, but by an imperative to save Americans targeted for murder. In parts of the world where law enforcement cannot operate, there are highly motivated people trying to kill Americans and our allies. Until a new and more effective means is developed for neutralizing this threat, drones will remain a national-security tool of the U.S. government.
One lesson from the Taliban’s victory after 20 years of U.S. effort in Afghanistan is how poorly understood foreign environments can be to decision makers at the highest levels of the U.S. government. It should be obvious that pulling our people back significantly exacerbates that blindness. This may be the right decision for America. As Mr. Biden has repeatedly said, the U.S. doesn’t have a “vital national interest” in places like Yemen and Afghanistan. But as we extract ourselves from these places, we should not be blind to the costs.
Mr. Schwartz served as an assistant for special operations and combating terrorism in the office of the secretary of defense (2011-2014) and is an analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis.
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Appeared in the September 28, 2021, print edition.
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