Drone Rules in Afghanistan Go Unchanged, And Other Reasons the War Isn't Really Over

Despite the official end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, our involvement goes on

A civilian contractor checks a U.S. Army surveillance drone in Logar Province, Afghanistan in 2013. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

Though many Americans may not have realized it, December 28th marked what the U.S. government called the official end of the war in Afghanistan. That war has been the longest in U.S. history – but despite the new announcement that the formal conflict is over, America's war there is far from finished. In fact, the Obama administration still considers the Afghan theater an area of active hostilities, according to an email from a senior administration official – and therefore exempts it from the stricter drone and targeted killing guidelines the president announced at a major speech at the National Defense University in 2013.

"Afghanistan will continue to be considered an 'area of active hostilities' in 2015," the official tells RS. "The PPG does not apply to areas of active hostilities." (PPG stands for Presidential Policy Guidelines, the formal name for the heightened drone rules.)

That perplexing distinction – that formal combat operations are over but that the U.S. still remains in an armed conflict – in many ways exemplifies the lasting legacy of Obama's foreign policy. From Yemen to Pakistan to Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan, the administration has consistently downplayed its actions – some acknowledged and some covert – saying that the wars are (almost) over while retaining virtually all the powers of a country at war. Or, as the Kabul-based journalist and RS contributor Matt Aikins put it, referring to Afghanistan: "a 'formal' end to the war means the beginning of an 'informal' war, without aim or end, founded on the lie that we are no longer at war."

No change to the drone war

The announcement from the White House that despite the formal end to the war the stricter drone rules won't apply in Afghanistan – which hasn't been previously reported – isn't entirely unexpected. In October, I reported that the Obama administration wasn't planning on announcing any changes to the policy, but, regardless, the news that the administration will continue to take a wide aperture for selecting targets to kill runs counter to the spirit of their rhetoric that the war is over.

Drone strikes in Afghanistan have been a major part of the US occupation, though they receive less media attention than strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. In July of 2014, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism issued a report attempting to track drone and other airstrike in Afghanistan, and claimed that "the country has seen more than 1,000 drone strikes, carried out by U.S. and U.K. forces." A recent suspected drone strike in Afghanistan killed 9 alleged members of the Pakistani Taliban.

The White House announcement also means the semi-covert, CIA-run drone war in Pakistan will likely continue unchanged as well. The drone strikes in Pakistan are closely linked with the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, as part of the legal rationale behind the drone strikes is "force protection." That is, using drones to kill suspected militants in Pakistan before they have an opportunity to kill U.S. troops. Drone strikes in Pakistan continued at a steady pace in the final months of 2014, and there has already been at least one suspected U.S. air strike in 2015.

More than 10,000 US troops – and countless more contractors – will remain in country

This is perhaps the clearest and most obvious signal that the U.S. will continue its war. As part of a bilateral security agreement signed between the new Ashraf Ghani administration in Kabul and the Obama administration, roughly 10,600 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan for at least the coming months. U.S. troops are currently scheduled to leave the Afghanistan entirely by 2016, but the agreement authorizes troops to remain until 2024 if conditions change.

Originally, the U.S. and coalition forces were only going to stay in the country to train Afghan security forces. But as The New York Times reported in November, Obama widened the military's authority from a training-only mission to include counterterrorism operations. That decision "ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year," the Times reported.

Beyond the remaining troops, as of October the Pentagon had over 45,000 contractors in Afghanistan on its payroll (as the Council on Foreign Relations' Micah Zenko has noted). Slightly over 2,000 of that total are private security contractors, both armed and unarmed, a number that's likely to increase as U.S. troops gradually depart.

The U.S. government's decision to privatize the military over the last decade – from contractors who feed and house troops to mercenaries who provide security – has been widely commented on. Regular reports issued from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, however, raise serious concerns about the job many of those contractors – and the U.S. officials in charge of them – are doing. Responses from DoD, USAID, and the State Department to SIGAR's findings have been less than inspiring and suggest insufficient oversight and opportunities for massive amounts of corruption will continue for the foreseeable future.

Extremism and militancy in Pakistan's tribal regions have yet to be fully addressed

The Pakistani military has been engaged in a massive operation since last June to dislodge extremists in North Waziristan. One result of the operation is that over one million people have been displaced – either internally or fleeing to Afghanistan or elsewhere – and few, if any, have been able to return. According to sources in the area and numerous media reports, the Pakistani military alerted several of the extremist groups, including groups the U.S. says it is at war with, prior to the siege, allowing them to flee to Afghanistan. There are some reports now that Pakistan is planning on going after all the groups, not just those who terrorize Pakistan, and a recent airstrike that killed 31 alleged militants may signal a new approach. But Pakistan has made promises like this before, and many critics remain skeptical.

As the horrific attack on the school in Peshawar in December showed, terrorism is a major concern within Pakistan's own borders. But as long as the primary tool for both the U.S. and Pakistani governments remains military force, the problem will persist. Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International, told me in late 2014 that he remains skeptical of the U.S. approach to eradicating extremism through drones. "Drones may be a more accurate weapons platform than other aircraft," he said. "But the targets can move somewhere else, and it's simply not possible to eliminate every single suspected militant, let alone carry out these killings without also killing civilians. It just shows you that it's a vicious cycle."

Continuing allegations of fraud in Afghanistan's election

A recent European Union report found that last year's runoff election in Afghanistan was marred by widespread fraud that went underreported at the time. Many Western outlets initially reported that the first round of the election was largely free from ballot tampering, though one major exception was a Harpers story from RS contributor Aikins and journalist Anand Gopal. Those two found polling stations almost completely abandoned and interviewed locals who witnessed occurrences of large-scale ballot stuffing.

That level of fraud could signal the central government in Kabul's limited power beyond the capital, and suggests the Taliban will continue to be able to make gains in the coming months and years. The last year saw record numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, as well as territorial advances by Taliban forces in the south. Even in Kabul, security continues to deteriorate.

Comparisons between the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan and the troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2012 and the ensuing chaos in that country are inevitable, if incomplete. But as conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C., solidifies around the idea that the U.S. military left Iraq too soon, all these factors could mean that the informal war will continue even if all U.S. troops do leave by 2016.