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What Does the United States Hope to Achieve with UAVs in Afghanistan?

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When the United States of America (USA) realized that warfare would not be sufficient to defeat the Taliban, it initiated the Doha Talks, signed the Doha Agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, and announced its intention to withdraw from Afghanistan. While the Doha Treaty allowed the US to exit, it also offered the Taliban the opportunity to reclaim control of Afghanistan after a twenty-year hiatus. The Taliban is no longer a “terrorist organization” as a result of the accord. It has become a state intermediary, particularly with the United States, and has increased its hand against Afghanistan’s overthrown regime by releasing its 5000 soldiers in accordance with the deal.

Moreover, the USA has put into effect the withdrawal process without waiting for a compromise between the Taliban and the Afghan government of the time. This accelerated the progress of the Taliban on the ground. Thus, this allowed the Taliban to come to power by first controlling the districts, then the provinces, and finally Kabul.

On the other hand, the USA, despite its withdrawal from Afghanistan, has applied various sanctions to the Taliban, arguing that the way the Taliban dominates the country is contrary to the Doha Treaty. In this context, it blocked Afghanistan’s national reserves and did not recognize the Taliban government. In addition, the Washington administration prevented other states and international organizations from recognizing the Taliban administration. As a matter of fact, Taliban officials state that the main reason why their government is not recognized by any state in the world is due to US pressure.

The US not only puts pressure on the Taliban government and prevents it from being recognized by other states; at the same time, it carries out surveillance activities in Afghanistan’s airspace through unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).In this context, the USA bases its UAV activities in Afghanistan’s airspace on the argument of counter-terrorism. For example, US President Joe Biden said on the anniversary of the deaths of 13 American soldiers who died in the attack on Kabul Airport, “Even if we don’t have soldiers in Afghanistan, we will destroy terrorists who will pose a threat to our country!” he said..[1] US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that the anti-terrorism policy continues in Afghanistan and that no one should be worried about the security of US citizens.[2] These statements indicate that the USA will continue its surveillance activities in Afghanistan airspace.

The Taliban first tried to hide the flights carried out by the USA in Afghanistan airspace using UAVs and then tried to persuade the White House through diplomatic means. However, the killing of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, in the U.S. drone attack in Kabul, caused the Taliban’s reaction. In this context, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaki stated that the flight of US drones over Afghanistan is against the Doha Agreement and the principles of international law. In addition, Muttaki claimed that the USA violated the airspace of Afghanistan and stated that the international community should put pressure on it to end this action.[3]

The main reason why the Taliban openly criticizes the USA is that the operations with drones undermine the Taliban’s claim that “we have defeated the USA.” In other words, when talking about the Taliban defeating the USA, it cannot prevent actions that violate Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In short, the Taliban loses prestige in the eyes of the Afghan people as they cannot maintain the sovereignty of the country.

Another reason is the possibility of drones targeting Taliban leaders and soldiers. As it is known, most of the leaders of the Taliban are still on the sanctions list, and the US may target the leaders of the Taliban on the grounds of affiliation with terrorist organizations. As a matter of fact, it is claimed that some Taliban leaders left Kabul after Zawahiri was killed.

Finally, the presence of drones in Afghan airspace worries the Taliban that they may face a new military operation such as “Operation Enduring Freedom.” because the problem of recognition and therefore legitimacy of the Taliban administration still continues.

Both parties criticize each other by referring to the Doha Treaty and international law rules regarding the violation of airspace. According to the Taliban, the use of Afghan territory in operations can only take place with the approval of the Taliban government. According to the USA, the presence of any terrorist organization in Afghanistan, especially al-Qaeda, is sufficient to legitimize the operations to be carried out by the Washington administration in Afghanistan. Therefore, the White House considers the US’s presence of drones in Afghanistan’s airspace a situation in line with international law and the Doha Treaty. As a matter of fact, the US accused the Taliban of violating the Doha Agreement by hosting Zawahiri after Zawahiri was killed.[4]

According to the agreement, the United States and its allies will not threaten the territorial integrity and independence of Afghanistan, use force, and will not interfere in the country’s internal affairs. In return, the Taliban will prevent all individuals and groups that pose a threat to the United States and its allies, especially the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, from being in Afghanistan.[5] In fact, both the US flying drones in Afghanistan’s airspace and the presence of any al-Qaeda element in Afghanistan are against the Doha Treaty. However, instead of finding a solution, since both sides interpreted the treaty in their own interests, they tried to justify their actions.

Although the USA cites the terrorist organization’s activities in Afghanistan as the reason for keeping drones in Afghan airspace, it can be said that the Washington administration is pursuing some strategic goals. First of all, the USA uses drones as a means of pressure to impose the conditions of the international community on the Taliban. Through drones, Washington is forcing the Taliban to make concessions. It can be said that the second goal of the White House is the control of the weapons left in Afghanistan. According to US-based sources, during the withdrawal process, the Americans left about 9 billion dollars worth of weapons in Afghanistan, and they are worried that these weapons will fall into the hands of their enemies. As a matter of fact, it is stated that the USA is trying to destroy the weapons depots by organizing drone attacks in some regions.

Another goal of the United States is to prevent Afghanistan from falling under the influence of its global and regional rivals. Because China, Russia, and Iran have increased their activities in Afghanistan. Therefore, by flying its UAVs over the skies of Afghanistan, the USA sends a message to its rivals that it can return to Afghanistan and that it has not left the country completely.

Based on the aforementioned information, it can be said that the USA will not change its current policy in the short term. Therefore, the Taliban will either stop the US interventions by taking serious steps in line with the wishes of the international community and ensuring its legitimacy, or it will take defense systems from other countries and take control of the airspace and interfere with the UAVs.


[1] “جو بایدن در یادبود از ۱۳ امریکایی کشته شده در کابل: دولت من در تعقیب تروریست‌هاست”, Afintl, https://www.afintl.com/202208267514, (Date of Accession: 19.09.2022).

[2] “وزیر دفاع امریکا می‌گوید مبارزه با تروریزم در افغانستان ختم نشده است”, Afintl, https://www.afintl.com/202208306632, (Date of Accession: 19.09.2022).

[3] “متقی: گشت‌زنی هواپیماها خلاف توافق‌نامه و نقض حریم هوایی کشور است”, Tolo News, https://tolonews.com/index.php/fa/afghanistan-179742, (Date of Accession: 19.09.2022).

[4] “بلینکن: طالبان توافقنامه دوحه را نقض کرده‌اند”, Parstoday, https://parstoday.com/dari/news/afghanistan-i183090, (Date of Accession: 19.09.2022).

[5] “متن کامل توافقنامه صلح میان امریکا و طالبان”, Khaama, https://www.khaama.com/persian/archives/69871, (Date of Accession: 09.09.2022).

Ahmad Khan DAWLATYAR
Ahmad Khan DAWLATYAR
Ahmad Khan Dawlatyar graduated from Kunduz University, Department of Law and Political Science in 2013. He received his master's degree from Ankara University, Institute of Social Sciences, Department of Political Science in 2019 with his thesis titled "A Comparative Analysis on the Principle of Separation of Powers in the Constitutions of the Republic of Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan". Participating in various scientific events, Dawlatyar has presented papers and articles on the Afghanistan problem. In this context, his presentation titled "Religious and Ideological Causes of the Afghanistan Problem" was published. He is currently continuing his doctoral studies at Ankara University, Institute of Social Sciences, Department of International Relations. Ahmad Khan Dawlatyar, who contributes to the studies carried out within ANKASAM, mainly works in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dawlatyar is fluent in Farsi, Uzbek, Turkish and Pashto. He also has an intermediate level of English.