Increasing skepticism about the Biden administration’s “Over the Horizon” strategy for Afghanistan is warranted. Though the real problem is less about technology and America’s capacity to carry out kinetic operations. It’s more about how limited intelligence collection and the absence of a local partner offer little by way of lethal solutions with sufficient certainty as to striking who or what we think.
With far less insight into the terrorist networks operating in Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces — or operating in fact with the Taliban’s indulgence and support — the United States can depend on neither a local nor American ground presence to investigate, identify, and interdict potential threats. Apart from the obvious concern at missing such developments entirely, we can likewise expect to see more of the panic and flawed calculus that enabled the tragic Aug. 29, 2021 U.S. drone strike that mistakenly killed 10 civilians rather than what the strike cell thought was an ISIS-K suicide bomber.
The very fact that much of the discussion concerning “Over the Horizon” seems to center around the expectation that America will need to conduct strikes is troubling in and of itself. After 20 years, should we not be thinking in a sustainable, holistic and multilateral fashion about addressing the conditions that lead to extremist movements and in the context of our overall national security priorities?
Technology is the least of our problems. Today’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are advancing at a remarkable pace and the United States can keep them in the air with ever increasing duration as their efficiency grows, enabling basing from further away. Such geographic distance, it’s true, detracts from the ability to quickly turn around aircraft when there’s a need to change the payload for the right mix of weapons and collection equipment. And the likelihood of fewer available aircraft, increased maintenance requirements, and less manpower interpreting the data and directing missions will also be issues. Success in “man hunting,” when pursuing a particular terrorist target, means patience in pulling the thread on their activities and connections. That kind of success requires multiple UAVs with different payloads monitoring a target for an extended period.
The biggest impediment to “Over the Horizon” is the degraded, less timely and lower quality Human Intelligence (HUMINT) on which technical platforms such as UAVs and satellites rely. Technology like this does not work in an information vacuum. Human agents provide selectors such as phone numbers, email addresses, social media identities, and more, which enable the various technological platforms to find and correctly identify their targets either to collect intelligence, which is what U.S. intelligence community drones spend most of their time doing, or to conduct kinetic operations. It is also the human agent who generally provides physical descriptions and patterns of life or routines, including where the target might be at a particular time. These are the essential elements in reaching a threshold of certainty to strike the correct target and avoid or minimize collateral civilian casualties.
Although the U.S. intelligence community will be vigilant in recruiting agents living inside of Afghanistan through various methods, the intelligence agencies will not be able to depend on having these locals travel abroad for direct meetings with case officers. The logistics and security risks for those few who can leave the country will translate into less timely information and likely prevent agents from ferrying out, or smuggling in, compromising materials and spy equipment. Communicating with the best agents will be managed via some form of impersonal communications, methods that include electronic options. But Afghanistan lacks reliable technical infrastructure and the literacy rate is roughly 43 percent Not all agents are literate, let alone computer or tech savvy to handle sophisticated covert communications (“covcom”).
The operational weaknesses of the “Over the Horizon” strategy are compounded by the lack of a local partner in Afghanistan to provide intelligence, to recruit and run agents on our behalf, and as an action arm to disrupt a threat once identified. There is no government entity with which we can cooperate, nor even an effective resistance group, such as the Northern Alliance was in 2001. Pakistan, very much in league with the Taliban (a point always worth emphasizing), is not an option. At most Islamabad will allow overflight as a transactional opportunity to secure American funding and some measure of political goodwill. U.S. intelligence will likely rely on foreign, predominantly Afghan surrogate case officers referred to as “principal agents,” who can recruit and manage sources on our behalf or serve as cutouts to those with no other means of communications.
The reliance on impersonal communications and surrogate collection in denied areas, where there’s no official U.S. presence, poses a tradecraft nightmare given the counterintelligence implications we found over the years doing likewise in Iraq, Iran, and Libya. For one thing, impersonal communications, particularly those that rely on technology, tend to break, or at least require replacement and routine maintenance. And surrogate operations are notorious for their lack of compartmentation among agents who might know of one another so that any setback with one could compromise the lives of multiple other sources.
Another critical consideration is how difficulties in vetting the veracity and agendas of those we cannot meet ourselves or, in some cases, whose identities or those of sub-sources we cannot establish with great certainty, increases the risk of receiving intelligence that is fabricated, embellished, or meant to deceive. I also fear that a number of those we expected to operate as principal agents and cutouts prior to the government’s collapse probably left in the evacuation or are on the run given their association with the former Ghani government or the United States government.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in an “Over the Horizon” strategy, which the Biden White House has yet to fully explain, is the strategic end goal. What do we hope to accomplish? The Taliban’s victory and the expectation of a resurgent al-Qa’ida and increasingly worrisome ISIS-K, despite America’s twenty-year military presence in Afghanistan, should make the case that we can’t kill our way to success. Will drone strikes now become our single-threaded option for Afghanistan when we’re trying to get out of the killing business? And what will be the metrics for success?
The Aug. 29, 2021 strike in Kabul that the Pentagon has now acknowledged to have been a mistake, would likely not have been taken had we a local partner, or better intelligence. Even were the target to have been validated, it was in a densely congested area and military intelligence analysts were only at “reasonable certainty” such that CIA had warned against the strike. In such a dense urban environment, there was no place for the missile to be redirected were an abort ordered and, according to the military’s own perception of the situation, the risk of secondary explosions was high. Inexplicably, the inert R9X missile — which employs blades rather than explosives to strike a target when civilians might otherwise be at risk — was not used in this strike, though employed only two days earlier against an ISIS-K facilitator in their stronghold of rural Nangahar, the man who was reportedly associated with the Aug. 26 airport attack.
Rather than taking a drone strike against a suspected ISIS-K car bomb cruising through Kabul’s busy streets, what might have happened prior to America’s withdrawal and the ensuing Afghan government collapse? Local partner or U.S. ground forces would have surely been used to investigate and interdict the driver rather than risk firing an explosive missile in the heart of the city. And if left to choose between killing or a dangerous capture operation against a known or suspected terrorists, there’s significant intelligence benefit from detainees and the potential treasure trove of documents, cell phones, computers and media secured, whether or not the captives are cooperative.
We are finally coming to terms with the reality that other great powers, not terrorism, present the most viable existential threat to U.S. security. And the White House might very well have it right that a sustainable counterterrorism strategy requires capacity building among foreign partners who can carry on the fight within their own borders with minimal, if any, U.S. boots on the ground. But the Taliban’s actions have given us no reason to believe they will become one of those foreign partners or anywhere close. Let’s also acknowledge that threats emanating from a resurgent al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan, an ascending ISIS-K, and the Taliban’s rather questionable agenda regarding long integrated jihadist partners, need to be reckoned with rather than dismissed. A narrative that such threats are likely to be far less catastrophic and insidious as 9/11 will provide little comfort when innocent blood has been shed.
“Over the Horizon” might represent our only option for the time being, but let’s see it for the far from perfect solution it is, rather than anything close to a panacea. In other words, cut through the hype. U.S. intelligence can, and most certainly will, continue to collect intelligence from Afghanistan. And U.S. military capabilities, while offshore, will remain robust. But the volume, quality and timeliness of the intelligence on which the United States depends to reveal threats and enable the military’s most effective tools will be a shadow of its former self. Our insight will be at best impaired, and our only answer likely will be to again rely on brute and too often imperfect, indiscriminate military force. These are circumstances upon which we should not have to depend. These are the policies that ought not to reflect who we are as a country. These are the consequences which are likely to strengthen rather than weaken the conditions on which terrorism and anti-Americanism prosper.