An “Over-the-Horizon” Strategy for Afghanistan

Biden wisely ended a war America couldn’t win. Here’s how he can keep fighting terrorists from afar.

The last three American presidents all sought to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and end the nation’s longest war. Only one of them succeeded. President Joe Biden kept his campaign promise and wisely halted a war America couldn’t win. Faced with withering criticism about his exit strategy from Republicans and Democrats, U.S. allies, and Washington’s foreign policy elite, Biden remains justifiably resolute about his decision to heed public opinion, cut America’s losses, and leave.

Now that the U.S. is out, Biden is touting a new counterterrorism strategy based on “over-the-horizon capabilities”—meaning fighting terrorism in a country from outside its borders, monitoring jihadists from afar, and striking targets mostly from the air. The military will do this “without American boots on the ground—or very few, if needed,” as the president said in his August 31 speech to the nation.

Recent history has demonstrated that power vacuums in the Middle East or South Asia are often filled quickly by extremist forces, such as in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and elsewhere. That’s why America will have a new mission in Afghanistan: to prevent jihadist groups from using the country as a base for staging attacks on American interests abroad or the U.S. homeland, as al-Qaeda did on September 11, 2001.

The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Kabul during the evacuation has left America in the uneasy position of working with a terrorist organization to get remaining U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghan allies out of the country. The Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda in the past and now is grappling with rival ISIS-K, the terror group that claimed responsibility for the Kabul airport suicide bombing that killed at least 169 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

Of course, the threat of global terrorism has spread to many countries, and Biden wants to change the American military posture to fight it effectively without invading nations. So what exactly will an over-the-horizon strategy look like?

For starters, it will entail a confluence of deploying satellites, drones, missiles, and aircraft from far away—to monitor terror enclaves and rain death on terrorist targets and training camps. Most likely, the U.S. will also work with its partners in the region to embed assets in suspected ISIS-K cells and other groups gaining a foothold in Afghanistan.

To be sure, it’s much easier to conduct such an operation with troops and air bases inside the country. But according to multiple foreign policy experts and national security veterans, it’s a viable plan. Whether it turns out to be a Hail Mary pass or a successful strategy will depend on how fast the military and intelligence assets can adapt.

William F. Wechsler, director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, told me that successful over-the-horizon missions often depend on how far the units are from the targets, whether there are local partners to assist the U.S., and what nations in the region can share intelligence.

For now, the horizon may be a U.S. air base in an allied country like Qatar in the Persian Gulf, or submarines, warships, and aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea. But launching strikes at jihadists in landlocked Afghanistan from that far away does take more time—and depends on adjacent countries allowing overflight rights. Better options would be basing forces in one of the six countries bordering Afghanistan. So far, none has agreed. The U.S. is reportedly discussing options with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and it is already flying intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions from Gulf countries. Military strategists worry that more time in flight getting there will mean less time over targets for surveillance or strikes. Also, there may be a steep decline in actionable intelligence with fewer American assets in the country.

Wechsler says the U.S. is now in a race to develop even more effective counterterrorism strategies over long distances as Salafist-jihadist groups will surely seek safe havens in Afghanistan to plot new attacks. Fortunately, the U.S. has a much bigger antiterrorism infrastructure in place since the attacks 20 years ago. “We have a defense against terrorism now. We built that machine since 9/11, and it’s pretty good, though not infallible,” Wechsler says, pointing to a reinvigorated FBI, a new Homeland Security Department, countless security measures to protect airplanes, and technical intelligence capabilities to track phones and other communications.

Others see Afghanistan as far less dangerous than it was 20 years ago. The U.S. military has insight and intelligence deep into the hinterlands that it didn’t have in 2001. Rival powers in the region—China, Russia, and Iran—all have a similar interest in pressuring the Taliban to keep terrorists off their doorsteps. Indeed, the Taliban is currently on a charm offensive, when it’s not beating protestors.

“You’re more likely to die in your bathtub now than be killed by terrorists,” declares John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. He warns that it would be “a colossal mistake” for the Taliban to allow al-Qaeda or ISIS-K to operate freely in their territory.

“We don’t need to be there,” Mearsheimer argues. While the consequences of the chaotic pullout “are humiliating in the short term,” he insists that “there are no long-term consequences—and if there are, they are positive. We can now focus on China, and we aren’t wrecking Afghanistan and killing large numbers of civilians.”

The architects of the war in Afghanistan will continue to argue that our withdrawal makes us a weaker, less credible ally. But that’s a hard case to make after the U.S. invested two decades, almost 2,500 American service members’ lives, and more than $2 trillion on this foolhardy nation-building endeavor. Early in the war, the U.S. military crushed the Taliban and degraded al-Qaeda. U.S. forces found and killed Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan in 2011. That was the mission, and the U.S. succeeded. We should have declared victory and pulled out a decade ago.

Today, America’s mission is solely to track and target jihadists stationed in Afghanistan—but from afar, just as the U.S. does in other places where terrorists congregate, from Iraq and Syria to the Arabian Peninsula and across Africa and Asia. It might get dicey, but Biden has initiated the beginning of a new era of American counterterrorism in Afghanistan. It’s a strategy that can work—and it won’t cost us anywhere near as much in lives and treasure as a never-ending war.

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Storer H. Rowley

Storer H. Rowley is a former national editor, editorial board member, and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He teaches journalism and communication at Northwestern University.