Report

U.S. Military Concedes It’s Unready to Fight Terrorism From ‘Over the Horizon’

Centcom will be flying blind for years in Afghanistan—and likely missing terrorists while killing innocents, experts say.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Afghan residents and victims' family members gather next to a vehicle that was damaged in a U.S. drone airstrike the day before in Kabul on Aug. 30.
Afghan residents and victims' family members gather next to a vehicle that was damaged in a U.S. drone airstrike the day before in Kabul on Aug. 30. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. military and intelligence community are scrambling to fulfill President Joe Biden’s pledge to fight terrorists from “over the horizon” in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—but by their own admission, they still don’t know whether they can track or thwart that threat.

What is just as troublesome, experts say, is that U.S. Central Command—which will be saddled with the main counterterrorism task in Afghanistan—has had a mixed record at best over the last 20 years. Even when it had thousands of troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Centcom did a poor job of differentiating terrorists from innocents, according to civilian organizations that closely tracked those efforts, and often it did not even bother to investigate civilian deaths. 

The forthcoming challenge in Afghanistan “is unlike anything we’ve seen in any other theater,” said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert and former U.S. defense official, who calls the Biden administration’s assertions about currently having over-the-horizon capability “fictitious.” 

The U.S. military and intelligence community are scrambling to fulfill President Joe Biden’s pledge to fight terrorists from “over the horizon” in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—but by their own admission, they still don’t know whether they can track or thwart that threat.

What is just as troublesome, experts say, is that U.S. Central Command—which will be saddled with the main counterterrorism task in Afghanistan—has had a mixed record at best over the last 20 years. Even when it had thousands of troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Centcom did a poor job of differentiating terrorists from innocents, according to civilian organizations that closely tracked those efforts, and often it did not even bother to investigate civilian deaths. 

The forthcoming challenge in Afghanistan “is unlike anything we’ve seen in any other theater,” said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert and former U.S. defense official, who calls the Biden administration’s assertions about currently having over-the-horizon capability “fictitious.” 

“When you compare this with U.S. operations in Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq, even West Africa in the Sahel, this is by far the hardest counterterrorism campaign to operate,” Jones said. He noted that in each of those other places, the United States had nearby bases and some local partners on the ground, such as friendly militias, who provided essential human intelligence to verify signals intelligence and other forms of standoff surveillance. “In every single one of those other countries, we have had partner forces that we could also embed in and could run human intelligence assets out of—who can call in airstrikes and put down beacons and signals for intelligence collection.” 

By contrast, in Afghanistan Centcom will face the task of tracking and killing terrorists with little or no human intelligence on the ground—making it more likely that future operations could resemble the Aug. 29 drone strike on an alleged Islamic State operative who turned out to be an innocent aid worker. Nine of his family members died with him, including children. According to a U.S. official familiar with the details of the raid, the United States had no human sources on the ground who could verify the identity of the victim, Zemari Ahmadi.

“It’s important for people to recognize that the civilian harm caused by this strike is not exceptional. Civilian harm is a feature, not a bug, of U.S. airstrikes,” said Annie Shiel of the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), a group that assesses civilian casualties. Even in places where Washington has better access to bases and intelligence, such as Yemen and Somalia, “the U.S. has an extremely poor track record of investigating, acknowledging, and responding to civilian casualties,” Shiel said. 

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s soaring mountains and ridges, which provide a superb hiding place for terrorists, have become almost a black hole for U.S. intelligence, with U.S. personnel gone and U.S.-allied Afghans evacuated or in hiding. And at present the United States must conduct long-range strikes from far away in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, a six-to-eight-hour flight for a drone.

“We have no bases in Afghanistan, no bases in Pakistan, none in Central Asia,” Jones said. The U.S. military has been in discussion with Russia over using bases in Central Asia, but those talks are in early stages and are likely to meet resistance from the Kremlin. 

The unreadiness of U.S. counterterrorism efforts was partially revealed in testimony this week by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Centcom Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie. Milley told a Senate committee on Tuesday that a “reconstituted” al Qaeda and Islamic State inside Afghanistan could threaten U.S. targets “in the next 12-36 months.” But U.S. officials concede that they are not yet able to assess and confront terrorist groups in that landlocked country, lacking bases and partners on the ground.

McKenzie, asked whether the United States could now deny al Qaeda and the Islamic State the ability to use Afghanistan to launch attacks against U.S. targets, responded: “That’s yet to be seen. … We could get to that point, but I do not yet have that level of confidence.”

All of which could create more credibility problems for Biden, who has consistently made claims in recent weeks that his own senior national security officials have contradicted. Announcing the final U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 31, Biden said U.S. forces currently “have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground—or very few, if needed.” Biden also said he didn’t recall his top military advisors urging him to keep some troops in Afghanistan, though they testified this week that they had done so. And he pronounced the war in Afghanistan to be “over,” when McKenzie said this week it was not.

But the biggest credibility issue Biden may face is that for more than a decade, since he was vice president under former President Barack Obama, Biden has argued that the United States could successfully prevent terrorists from operating in Afghanistan with only a small, pared-down presence. Now, as president, he will see a test of that policy on his watch.

“I think the president has been dishonest with the American people. He’s misled people when he’s talked about how easy it is to conduct over the horizon,” said Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, who questioned Milley and McKenzie closely on the issue at both the open and classified congressional sessions this week. She added that “we didn’t have a firm answer on bases in Central Asia. The feeling was they wouldn’t be there.”

U.S. officials are rushing to improve relationships with neighboring Pakistan and even the Taliban to develop the over-the-horizon capability that the president has declared is already there. 

Senior U.S. officials from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to CIA Director William Burns have held intensive discussions with Pakistan, which often played a double game during the Taliban insurgency against U.S. forces by quietly supporting the militants but which is now concerned about further instability on its borders. This month, Burns flew to Islamabad to meet Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence head Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed. In late August, Burns also met with Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban leader. Those Taliban contacts are ongoing, a U.S. government source familiar with the discussions said.

“We have been in regular touch with Pakistani leadership and have discussed Afghanistan in detail,” a State Department spokesperson said.

But Biden has yet to call his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who in a blistering Washington Post op-ed this week blamed his predecessors in office for turning Pakistan into a “collaborator” with the failed U.S. effort in Afghanistan, leading to “immense civilian casualties” and further “riling up anti-American” sentiment. As McKenzie noted in his testimony, U.S. drones, missiles, and fighter jets will have to fly over Pakistan to attack terrorists in Afghanistan. U.S. officials say Pakistan, while still refusing to accept U.S. bases within its borders, is continuing to permit overflights and is discussing some degree of intelligence cooperation, although those talks are in early stages.

The biggest concern, perhaps, is that getting reliable intelligence on terrorists will be challenging at best—at least before the next terrorist attack takes Washington by surprise. And rights activists as well as some military experts fear the administration may well end up creating more terrorists than it kills by angering local populations based on faulty intelligence and a lack of partners on the ground. One reason for the Taliban’s military success in toppling the Afghan government and driving out U.S. forces is that the Islamist group provided a source of stability to ordinary Afghans, especially in rural areas, who had come to mistrust the U.S. occupation and the U.S.-supported Afghan government, said Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch.

“The Taliban represent a degree of order that the prior 20 years didn’t,” she said. “Many Afghans lost loved ones from U.S. airstrikes or military-related actions.” In 2019, a Human Rights Watch study found that Afghan paramilitary forces supported by the CIA often arbitrarily killed innocent Afghans. 

Nor is the monitoring of such strikes what it once was. Human rights activists and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) have long had a rocky relationship with Centcom. Though UNAMA is, unlike the Americans, still on the ground in Afghanistan (at the Taliban’s request), it has met trouble in the past getting information out of Centcom about civilian casualties.

“With civilian casualties, it’s hard to see how they could adequately investigate when they were already doing inadequate investigations while they had thousands of troops on the ground,” Prasow said. In 2018, Human Rights Watch published a report concluding that the U.S. military never conducted on-site investigations after attacks, relying instead on visual and satellite imagery and unreliable Afghan security force reports. 

CIVIC and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute also spent two years reviewing more than 220 administrative investigations into civilian harm released by Centcom. Their report found “the military to be highly skeptical of external sources of information—i.e., information from NGOs and the media—even though these sources often had access to information that the Defense Department lacked,” Shiel said in an email. “The military rarely interviews civilian witnesses or visits the site of an attack, whereas external sources often do, at great peril to themselves.”

Chris Woods of U.K.-based Airwars, considered the most reliable tracker of civilian harm from U.S. strikes worldwide, said Centcom has not been as forthright as other U.S. commands involved in the counterterrorism fight, such as Africa Command. Under former President Donald Trump, Washington relaxed rules of engagement for drone strikes that allowed local commanders to authorize them, and while the Biden administration has those policies under review, it has not yet announced new ones.

“Centcom transparency and accountability for civilian harm from strikes deteriorated sharply in the latter half of Trump’s term in office—and we’ve sadly seen no sign of improvement since Biden entered the White House,” Woods said. “We’re still waiting for a coherent administration position on civilian harm mitigation to emerge—and meanwhile the strikes go on.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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