WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has nearly completed a policy to govern counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional war zones, but the brutal collapse of the Afghan government and a recent wave of strikes in Somalia have raised new problems, according to current and former officials.
The administration hoped to complete its playbook by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. It was envisioned as part of a larger recalibration as President Biden seeks to end the “Eternal War” on terrorism and reorient national security policy on how the world has changed since 2001.
But his team’s ability to meet that deadline is now in doubt amid rapidly changing events and uncertainties about the future. Many of the same officials who would develop and approve an updated drone plan for Afghanistan are focusing on emergency evacuation operations in the capital Kabul, officials said.
In January, Biden set out to establish his own comprehensive policy for drone strikes targeting terrorist threats from countries where the United States does not have troops on the ground. His new administration viewed with suspicion how President Donald J. Trump in 2017 relaxed an earlier version of those rules that President Barack Obama imposed in 2013.
The Biden team spent more than seven months examining these two policies – including the resulting civilian casualties rates – and assessing the evolving global terrorist threat. Their deliberations focused on taking a hybrid approach that would draw elements from the Obama and Trump systems, officials said.
As now conceived, the Biden-era handbook would revert to centralized interagency control of proposed strikes – a hallmark of Obama’s approach – in countries where such operations are rare, they said. But for places where strikes are likely to be more routine, such as Somalia and Afghanistan, it would retain part of Trump’s approach: issuing “country plans” that set political goals and standards for targeting, then give field commanders more leeway to decide on their own to conduct particular strikes.
Still, the country’s plans would be more restrictive than Trump’s versions, officials said. For example, guarantees against the death of civilian bystanders under Mr. Trump often offered adult men less protection than women and children, but Biden’s potential plans would make the guarantees equivalent. Biden’s rules should also require the military to obtain consent from State Department heads of mission for the strikes, they said.
But recent upheavals in Afghanistan have made the plan that Team Biden initially envisioned for that nation obsolete. Administration officials must now develop a new manual to govern any future strike there before Mr. Biden can put the comprehensive policy into effect, officials said.
The future of strikes in Afghanistan is particularly important as Mr. Biden and his team have defended his decision to withdraw US ground forces by promising to maintain a strong strike capability against any new or resurgent terrorist threat emanating from there.
“We are carrying out effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in several countries where we do not have a permanent military presence,” Biden said this month. “If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan. We have developed a counterterrorism capability on the horizon that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on direct threats to the United States in the region and to act swiftly and decisively if necessary. “
However, their initial plan for Afghanistan was based on a scenario in which the United States would carry out airstrikes with the consent of President Ashraf Ghani, supporting his government’s efforts to resist any transnational terrorist group, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, who sought to use the country as a base of operations. The Taliban, while competing separately for control of the country, would be neutral in this category of conflict, at least on the surface.
But instead, Mr. Ghani fled, the Afghan army abruptly abdicated, and the Taliban seized power as a de facto government. As a result, a manual for any future counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan must now be revamped amid the embarrassing uncertainty over the Taliban’s intentions, especially whether they will return to hosting terrorist camps as they have done in the years. 1990, officials said.
Current and former officials briefed on the drone strike policy deliberations have only referred to the delicate internal discussions on condition of anonymity. Asked for comment, the National Security Council press office returned to The New York Times a statement it provided in March for an article on the then-nascent legal policy review.
The Biden plans make sense both in raising standards for the protection of civilians but also in maintaining greater flexibility for different contexts around the world, said Luke Hartig, who has worked on drone strike policy for the Obama administration as senior counterterrorism director on the National Security Council. .
But, he added: “Afghanistan is going to have to be very fluid. I would hate to have to write guidelines for Afghanistan right now.
But the creation of any bureaucratic system and the planning of drone strikes go against Mr Biden’s repeated claims that he wants to end Eternal War, said Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School who writes frequently on the legal policy of national security.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
“I don’t blame them because I think real threats persist,” he added. “Better to have a system to deal with them than to just let the Pentagon do what it wants. But creating a system for drone strikes doesn’t seem like the way to end the Eternal War. “
The need for a new Afghanistan playbook has added to another unresolved issue that arose late in the policy deliberations of the Biden era: the uncertainty over the latitude with which The army should be prepared to carry out strikes to defend partner forces, without going through the usual procedures. verification.
This issue became central after the Military Command for Africa carried out three drone strikes targeting the Qaeda-linked militant group Al Shabab in Somalia in late July and early August, breaking a lull in which there had been no air strikes for six months.
The break followed a political directive issued by Presidential National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan just after Mr Biden’s inauguration on January 20. Under the temporary rule, any drone strike away from battlefield areas had to be approved by the White House while the new administration drafted its policy.
But the directive contained an exception for strikes in self-defense. And when the military resumed its attacks on Al Shabab, it invoked this exception rather than seeking prior permission from the White House.
The catch was that those at risk were the Somali government forces who went to fight Al Shabab, not the Americans. Instead, Africa Command called the strikes “collective self-defense” by a partner force. He said this week that he had made another such a strike to defend “our Somali partners”.
That the military can systematically bypass normal drone strike procedures by invoking the need to defend partner forces – including some that may be threatened by opponents who are not part of the war authorized by the United States Congress against Al Qaeda and its offspring – called for questions about whether the new policy would succeed in imposing tighter control of airstrikes away from conventional battlefields, officials said.
As a result, the administration began to dig deeper into the matter, including raising the possibility of tightening standards when commanders can judge a foreign entity a partner and sort the list of these groups. (The full list is classified, officials said.)
That question was not yet resolved, officials said, when the fall of Afghanistan plunged the administration’s counterterrorism strike policy into wider turmoil. But on the one hand, the evaporation of the Afghan army has simplified things: in this country, it seems, there are no longer any partner forces to defend.
Eric schmitt contributed reports.