The U.S. military is in a precarious position as it attempts to deter terrorism in Afghanistan without a presence in the country and limited help in the region, according to a former U.S. Central Command leader.
Gen. Joseph Votel, who served as the head of CENTCOM from March 2016 to March 2019, expressed doubt about the military’s planned reliance on over-the-horizon strikes as a counterterrorism strategy in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
“So the first thing is, I think we have to make sure we actually have that [capability], and I'm not so sure we do,” he said, though he noted, “I’m not in government right now, so I don't know. … I just get the feeling we don't yet have that problem solved or [are] continuing to search for an answer there."
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The United States has relied on its over-the-horizon capabilities but has not used them to strike terror targets in Afghanistan since the troop withdrawal was completed last August. At the beginning of America's final month in Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a major military operation and overthrew the government within a two-week period.
With the Taliban in control, the U.S. lost an allied government in Afghanistan and also no longer had a footprint to collect intelligence or deter attacks, all of which contributed to the growth of terror groups in the past 10 months.
The threat from ISIS-K, the Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate, could take “a year, slightly longer, and longer for al Qaeda,” Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who testified alongside Berrier, agreed with his assessment, acknowledging that ISIS-K is “the more concerning threat.”
The inspector general's office released its quarterly report on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel last week, laying bare many of the shortcomings of the strategy.
“Without a presence on the ground, the DOD relies on aviation assets to collect intelligence, surveil terrorist targets, and carry out airstrikes on terrorist targets. The DOD therefore requires overflight agreements with another bordering nation to enter Afghan airspace,” the report reads. The only neighboring country that allows the U.S. to use its airspace to enter Afghan airspace is Pakistan, it notes.
"I think one of the things that we've learned over the last 20, 21, 22 years is the importance of constant pressure on these networks," Votel continued. "And that's essentially what we've been doing for a long period of time, and when we pull everybody back out, when we lose access for not just the military but for our intelligence community capabilities, then we begin to lose situational awareness on what is happening. And when that happens ... that provides an opportunity for these elements to grow and cause bigger issues. So I don't know that we're any safer with regards to terrorist organizations, and I suspect we're actually in a little horrible situation as a result of our pullbacks in the U.S."
“So I think it's something we're going to have to contend with, and we're going to have to be prepared to deal with it. And I don't think we're well set up for right now," he added.
Then-Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla, now the commander of CENTCOM, told lawmakers in February that over-the-horizon counterterrorism was “extremely difficult but not impossible," whereas earlier this month, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told lawmakers that he believed the U.S. has “room to improve” its capabilities, though he didn’t elaborate.
"The other thing is, I think we have to look at new ways that we can, you know, get collection of intelligence and information on the ground here. Along with the departure of our military was the departure of our intelligence community colleagues that are absolutely key enablers in all this," Votel added. "And so we've got ... to look at reestablishing human networks."
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Earlier this month, President Joe Biden opted to send roughly 500 U.S. troops to Somalia, where they had been stationed until the previous administration withdrew them in its final days, in part due to the metastasized terror threat.
The president’s decision to send them back to Somalia “flies a little bit in the face of what we did in Afghanistan,” Votel added. “I think I see some of the incongruities in all of this," though he noted that the Somali government has welcomed the return of U.S. troops, contrasting with the Taliban's likely reaction if the U.S. reentered Afghanistan.