February 2, 2022
Powerful U.S. lawmakers and other influencers in Washington are attempting to pressure the Biden administration into launching “over-the-horizon” airstrikes inside post-NATO Afghanistan amid concerns international terrorist groups are growing stronger by the day.
Yet as feared as the terrorist threat is, launching such operations – especially at this point in time – could be self-defeating from a political standpoint, not to mention outright ineffective for a number of reasons.
Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and U.S. Secretary of State Anton Blinken are expected to face some of this pressure at a secret hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.
Senator Jim Inhofe, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel, expressed disappointment that the briefing was classified and vowed to press the two senior officials on why the U.S. has not exacted revenge on the terrorists that killed American troops in August amid the botched exit from Afghanistan.
“Here’s what I’d like to hear from Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin… I want to understand what threats we face from terrorist organizations in Afghanistan today,” Inhofe said in a statement released ahead of the meeting. “I want to know how the administration plans to counter these threats, seeing as we have conducted zero over-the-horizon counterterrorism strikes since August – not even to punish the terrorists who killed 13 American service members at Abbey Gate, as the president promised to do.”
The senator also said he wanted an accounting of how many Americans are still left behind in Afghanistan, “since these figures keep changing.”
“Six months after the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan, the consequences of President Biden’s poor decisions are even more clear,” Inhofe warned. “American troops might not be on the ground in Afghanistan any more, but many questions still remain.”
The briefing comes amid concerns over what the Taliban government is doing about IS-Khorasan and al-Qaeda, both of which U.S. officials have described as “resurgent.”
The Taliban had provided assurances that Afghanistan would not become a terrorist safe haven as one of the conditions of the withdrawal agreement it struck with the United States. There is much skepticism, however, about whether the Taliban are living up to this commitment.
For example, in December, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Tajikistan Muhammad Zahir Agbar told Sputnik the Taliban grants al-Qaeda and IS-K fighters Afghan passports and that terrorism is being “legalized” inside the country.
Moreover, based on the Pentagon’s previous estimates, IS-K could be in a position to launch an attack on the U.S. homeland within the next three months.
However, despite these worries, the timing of any type of major air campaign is questionable at best and possibly politically infeasible. The U.S. defense establishment, after all, is still reeling from the fallout of the August 29 errant airstrike that left ten Afghan civilians dead.
From this perspective, Inhofe’s comments seem perhaps a little “tone deaf.” The backlash, in addition, has been exacerbated by a recent damaging assessment of military practices.
Last week, Austin ordered an overhaul of military operations in a bid to reduce civilian deaths in the future after a Rand study exposed glaring defects in current processes, structures and organization the think tank said led to unnecessary non-combatant deaths.
The report also accused the military of “systemic under-counting of civilian casualties,” a phenomenon that has struck a blow to the United States’ legitimacy and reputation globally.
In addition to these constraints, the efficacy of these operations are in question given launching any strikes targeting terrorists in Afghanistan will certainly be complicated by the Taliban’s likely resistance – even unwillingness – to allow them.
Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders have scoffed at the notion that the Taliban could be seen as a “partner” in counterterrorism efforts, despite the mutual threat known as IS-K.
Moreover, regional actors have refused to host American bases, a reality that has forced the U.S. to operate out of Qatar – making it a very far horizon indeed. And some analysts have warned that the “over-the-horizon” strategy has never proven to be effective in countering terrorism in the first place.
“While targeted air support might help achieve tactical victories, over-the-horizon as a counterterrorism strategy is unlikely to yield any strategic victory in combating terrorism in the long term,” analysts Tore Hamming and Colin Clarke wrote in Foreign Policy in early January. “As a strategy, over-the-horizon is not designed to win the global war against terrorism but to mitigate the terrorist threat in a short-term perspective. And even that will be troublesome in the context of Afghanistan and in the Sahel, just as it has been in Somalia.”
Although IS-K is certainly viewed as an adversary by the Taliban, the new Afghan government’s relations with al-Qaeda continue to trouble many – and it is highly unlikely these ties will be undone dramatically anytime soon. This is especially true when one of the government’s top officials is Sirajuddin Haqqani – leader of the Haqqani Network, whose ties to al-Qaeda are stronger than any other of the radical movement’s factions.