The scheduled exit from Afghanistan in September represents much more than the end of the longest war in U.S. history.
It will also mark the dawn of an era for a U.S. counterterrorism campaign that after two full decades will not have Afghanistan as a key staging ground and logistical hub.
In the next phase of the war on terrorism, President Biden is making a bet on cutting-edge technology, long-range drones and intelligence assets to keep al Qaeda, the Islamic State group and other global terrorism organizations in check while cautiously banking on cooperation from unpredictable countries in historically unstable parts of the world.
Top Pentagon officials say the U.S. will retain the ability to find and kill terrorist targets, including al Qaeda militants who could resurface if the Taliban gains more power in Afghanistan, but they readily acknowledge that the next-generation counterterrorism strategy is still a work in progress with many life-and-death questions yet to be answered.
Some of those questions are relatively straightforward, such as recalculating the maximum flight time of a fighter jet or unmanned aerial vehicle that takes off from a base in the Middle East, North Africa or Asia. Others are geopolitically complex and hinge on whether rivals such as Iran, China or Russia can successfully pressure other nations to refuse to host U.S. military assets.
The only certainty is that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will make the entire enterprise much more difficult.
“It complicates it greatly,” said Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “For things like drone strikes, how much time can you spend on target? You can send drones from far away, but if they burn up fuel en route, they can’t loiter as long. That’s one big issue.”
Having U.S. forces in Afghanistan has posed a mass of problems, Mr. Biden said this month, but military strategists say their absence also will raise hurdles.
”There may be limits on basically every potential nearby base,” said Mr. Byman. “There’s going to be some different political problem. There is Russia’s influence over Central Asia, there’s Pakistan — a whole host of issues. You’ll have to reckon with all of those problems.”
Rethinking the mission
Mr. Biden this month ordered the nearly 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to leave by Sept. 11. Another 10,000 NATO troops will follow suit, and some expect the majority of foreign troops to be gone well before September. Critics fear the withdrawal will create a power vacuum that will be filled by the insurgent Taliban, which could overpower the fragile government in Kabul without the backing of U.S. and NATO forces.
In a deal it struck with the U.S. last year, the Taliban vowed to break all ties with al Qaeda and not allow Afghanistan to again become a safe haven for terrorists. But recent assessments by the Pentagon and United Nations found that the Taliban and al Qaeda still have at least low-level working relationships. Should those partnerships grow, the Pentagon may decide to launch drone strikes or counterterrorism ground missions to eliminate any threats to the U.S. or its allies.
Military leaders say they will retain those capabilities after the withdrawal.
“The rebasing that we will do across the theater as we pull out of Afghanistan will give us the capability to go back in as necessary, to strike targets when they need to be struck,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. “I don’t want to make it sound too easy. It’s going to be extremely difficult to do that. … [But] it’s certainly possible, and we will have the forces that will allow us to accomplish those tasks.”
From a purely logistical point of view, it’s clear the military structure is about to change. The U.S. still will have troops stationed in Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and elsewhere in the theater, along with forces based on ships stationed in the Persian Gulf. Those forces theoretically could execute missions against targets inside Afghanistan, but the U.S. would have to develop entrance and exit plans rather than simply have troops fall back to American military installations inside the country.
With the U.S. losing full-time access to key bases and airports in Bagram and Kandahar, air missions will have to originate outside of Afghanistan. Those missions will require more fuel, logistical support and planning. The extra time required could expose aircraft to enemy fire for longer periods.
Intelligence assets in Afghanistan, a mountainous country slightly smaller than Texas, will be crucial to U.S. counterterrorism capabilities. Eyes and ears on the ground will be necessary to compile up-to-date information on the Taliban’s activities and potential coordination with al Qaeda. Recruiting and protecting such assets, however, may be more complicated without uniformed troops inside the country.
Key lawmakers have raised questions on all of those fronts, along with a host of others. Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter last week seeking answers from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the U.S. military’s capabilities after the full pullout from Afghanistan.
His questions about the structure of American counterterrorism forces, agreements with other nations in the region and how Washington plans to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul suggest that even leading members of Congress are largely in the dark.
“It is vital that the administration is clear-eyed about the implications of this withdrawal and rapidly secures the basing, overflight for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strikes,” Mr. McCaul wrote, “and other necessary agreements that will us to have lethal counterterrorism capabilities from countries around Afghanistan and in the larger region.”
Mr. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have said many of those specifics are still being hammered out.
“We are beginning the process now of working out details with allies and partners about how we’re going to do that, and we’ll work those details in the appropriate channels,” Mr. Austin said at a press conference this month at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Power and influence
America’s ability to project power inside Afghanistan is just one piece of the puzzle. Specialists argue that the U.S. and NATO military presence sent a message both inside and outside the country that Washington and its Western allies were committed to a more free and open Afghanistan and were prepared to support Kabul as it faced challenges in the region for the long haul.
“It was kind of a signal to all the parties within the country and within the region that the United States was invested in a particular system of government,” Dipali Mukhopadhyay, an expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace who specializes in the Afghanistan peace process, said recently. “Not a particular leader, not a particular administration, but that the project of building a republic was one in which the U.S. had a stake.”
If America’s rivals view the withdrawal as a sign that Washington is no longer fully committed to Afghanistan, then they might feel emboldened to undermine and try to replace the U.S. as the dominant force.
China and Russia, for example, want greater influence in the broader region. China could use financial incentives and investments to persuade nations not to do business with the U.S. military and to take a role in a Beijing-dominated regional economy.
Meanwhile, any American efforts to station troops or equipment in former Soviet republics north of Afghanistan would surely meet stiff resistance in Moscow, which wields considerable sway in the theater and has proved in Syria its willingness to actively work against U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Another wild card is Pakistan, which has a complex history with the U.S. on counterterrorism. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed at a hideout in Abbottabad in an American Special Forces mission in 2011. The Pakistani government, long accused of being ambivalent about the Taliban threat, was not informed about the mission beforehand.
Critics have long said Pakistan could do much more to dismantle al Qaeda and keep the Taliban’s power in check, but some analysts argue that it would be foolish to assume the nation will become more antagonistic once the U.S. military exits Afghanistan.
“I would think, somewhat ironically, Pakistan now has more incentive to cooperate with the United States because we’re essentially acquiescing to a much greater Pakistani influence in Afghanistan and diminishing our own,” Mr. Byman said.