The U.S. drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians shows the risks of the military’s plan to rely on its “over the horizon” capabilities, experts warn.
Various members of the Biden administration have repeatedly touted the military’s airstrike capabilities, noting that this will be the main way to counter terrorism in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But the Aug. 29 drone strike, which military officials have blamed on bad intelligence, demonstrates the difficulties of launching such precision strikes while avoiding civilian casualties.
“Over-the-horizon counterterrorism doesn’t work,” Nathan Sales, who served as ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism, told the Washington Examiner in an interview. “We simply don't have sufficient intelligence information to be able to order drone strikes from a thousand miles away with no intelligence assets in the country.”
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He also described the belief that the strikes will be sufficient to thwart the growth of terrorism as “over the rainbow" instead of "over the horizon," adding that it's “fantastical” to believe that “remote counterterrorism” would be “anywhere near as effective as running counterterrorism operations with signals intelligence and human intelligence assets near the targets."
The U.S. conducted two strikes during the final weeks of the War in Afghanistan, both of which the military said were targeting ISIS-K terrorists who were posing an imminent threat to the U.S. soldiers working to evacuate more than 120,000 people who would be at risk under the Taliban regime. The second strike, however, targeted an aid worker whom U.S. officials believed to be an ISIS-K member, but the Pentagon admitted last week that the strike was conducted based on false information.
Central Command identified both strikes, at the time they were conducted, as “over the horizon” airstrikes. But Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, later attempted to differentiate the errant strike and an "over the horizon" one.
“About whether this will affect future [over the horizon] operations, let me be clear: This was a self-defense strike taken under self-defense rules of engagement based on an imminent threat to attack us,” he said when he was asked during Friday's briefing about what the civilian casualties mean for the future of airstrikes. “That is not the way that we would strike in an OTH mission going into Afghanistan against ISIS-K targets.”
"For one thing, that will not be a self-defense strike. It will be done under different rules of engagement, and we will have a lot more opportunity, probably, than we had under this extreme time pressure to look at the target — to use a phrase that you’ll be familiar with, to soak the target with multiple platforms — to have an opportunity to develop extended pattern of life," he added. "None of these things were available to us given the urgent and pressing nature given the imminent threat to our forces.”
Despite McKenzie's insistence, James Carafano, the vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, questioned the feasibility of gathering the necessary intelligence without soldiers there.
"There's a real question about whether the 'over the horizon' strategy ever actually was an effective way of dealing with terrorists," he said. "These are usually fleeting targets, which means you almost invariably need real-time intelligence that's minute by minute ... What this really, really highlights is, particularly in Afghanistan, we are essentially losing all our eyes. We have no visibility."
He also predicted that the erroneous strike will actually lead President Joe Biden to become more "risk averse" in terms of green-lighting future drone strikes.
Counterterrorism expert Jason Killmeyer also believes that the Biden administration should reevaluate their plan to rely on “over the horizon” strikes, and accused them of not having a “coherent plan” in place. He also brought up the difficulty of “trying to rely on [intelligence] from 10,000 feet in the air” and noted that such obstacles “were obviously very tragically displayed” in the Aug. 29 strike.
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White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the president "absolutely" believes "over the horizon" strikes can work when she was asked during Monday's briefing, also trying to make a distinction between the Aug. 29 strike and the "over-the-horizon capabilities."
"I would note, which I noted earlier, that there is a difference between a self-defense strike, which is exactly what this was, and I would note there was one prior to this that was a successful self-defense strike," she said. "It requires a different approach internally, and Gen. McKenzie spoke to that."
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered an investigation into the strike.