After Afghan Withdrawal Debacle, Biden's Counterterrorism Plan Draws Fire

US soldier at Afghan airport
The chaotic U.S. troop withdrawal—here, a soldier points his gun towards an Afghan passenger at the Kabul airport—may be followed by chaos of a different sort, defense experts say. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Within the Biden White House, and in corners of the U.S. military and intelligence bureaucracy, it is the phrase of the moment: "over the horizon."

The expression refers to efforts to counter terrorism from afar, without troops on the ground, and it has been in the defense lexicon dating back to the Cold War. The appeal is obvious: When dealing with threats like Al-Qaeda or like-minded terrorist groups, why bother with dangerous, forward deployed missions in unstable places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or North Africa, when you can launch a Tomahawk missile from somewhere in the Arabian Sea and be done with it. "Over the horizon," to Joe Biden, means the end of "endless wars." You can hit the enemy from above, and from far away. Thus, we can bug out of Afghanistan and not worry about it.

Biden has used the phrase before in reference to Afghanistan; so have Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley. The latest iteration came during the president's speech on Monday following the fall of the Afghan capital of Kabul to the Taliban. Trying to reassure the nation that pulling U.S. forces out of the country would not interfere with the critical objective of preventing a terrorist attack on American soil as the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks loom, Biden said, "We've developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed."

Biden Afghan address
In his address following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, Biden said, “We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed.” BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The big problem: While the strategy is politically popular among a war-weary public, in defense and intelligence circles in Washington, on both the left and the right, and among U.S. allies, "over the horizon" is a deeply controversial—and mostly unpopular—concept.

To understand why, think back to the 1990s. After Al-Qaeda's twin attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, then President Bill Clinton ordered the launch of Tomahawk missile strikes into Afghanistan and Sudan, trying to hit the terrorist group's training bases and take out Osama Bin Laden. The target was missed, taking out a pharmaceutical factory in the process. Back then, points out Bradley Bowman, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and now senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, "over the horizon" became a pejorative. It was the definition of what smart counterterrorism wasn't.

Effective counterterrorism, defense strategists believe, requires the ability to act on accurate and timely information. David Kilcullen, a former soldier and Australian intelligence officer who advised General David Petraeus during the 2007 "surge" in Iraq that sharply increased ground forces there, says that is the central the flaw in any "over the horizon" counterterrorism strategy. A missile fired from a submarine in the Arabian Sea takes about an hour to reach Afghanistan, and it takes two hours to feed targeting information to the sub before launch. The intelligence must be good enough to know where a target will be several hours in advance.

U.S. surge in Iraq
American soldiers search for weapons caches in Baghdad during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. John Moore/Getty Images

Contrast that with a special operations unit forward deployed at a base say 15 minutes or half an hour helicopter ride from a target. The advantage of the ability to move more quickly on fresh intelligence from a forward operating base is obvious. This was the core of General Stanley McChrystal's famously lethal Task Force 714, which dismantled Al-Qaeda's secret network of operations in Iraq—"and was subsequently replicated in Afghanistan," Kilcullen notes.

Earlier this summer, William Burns, Biden's CIA director, in an interview with National Public Radio, said the U.S. would retain "significant capabilities both in and around Afghanistan" to deter terrorist activities. But as of today there is not a functioning U.S. embassy in Kabul from which to run intelligence gathering, and no neighboring country has agreed to house U.S. counterterrorism forces.

Good Intelligence Is the Key

Technology has, of course, improved considerably since the first initial U.S. strikes against Al-Qaeda in 1998. Satellites can not only see where a terrorist suspect is, it can pick up what he's eating for breakfast. Drones, as Barack Obama showed during his time in office—the president ordered more than 500 strikes in the eight years of his administration—have become a lethal delivery mechanism. With good intelligence, a former counterterrorism official during the Obama years, says "over the horizon'' can work, but over time, "the effectiveness goes down and the risk goes up." And without good intelligence, over the horizon "becomes close to impossible."

The reason: Intelligence analysts usually spend significant amounts of time verifying where a potential target will be and for how long. They must also assess the potential for "collateral damage," or innocents who might be in the line of fire should a strike occur. In the vast majority of cases, this is done with information provided by human intelligence—sources on the ground. Without forward operating bases or an embassy in a country such as Afghanistan, that task becomes more difficult.

And even with an on-the-ground presence, intelligence is often hit and miss, as the Taliban's swift takeover of the country indicates. U.S. officials had apparently missed the extent to which the Taliban had cut deals with local and provincial officials outside of Kabul to have Afghan National Security Forces lay down their arms as the offensive gathered momentum.

Biden argued in his speech Monday that the U.S. has conducted effective strikes in countries where we don't have a "permanent military presence." This, his critics says, was rhetorical sleight of hand. The U.S. does not have "permanent bases" in, for example, Syria or Somalia, but it does have troops there, working with local partners. "A straw man," says one current counterrorism official who did not want to speak for the record.

The choice to abandon Afghanistan entirely and rely on "OTH," as the intelligence official calls it, is thus causing heartburn among many at the Pentagon and the CIA. Though Secretary of State Antony Blinken said over the weekend that Al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan has been "degraded," that doesn't mean they are not there. Many of its fighters remain just across the border in Pakistan and, as of last year, there was at least one training camp in Afghanistan.

One of the surprises, moreover, of the stunningly swift Taliban takeover of the country was how they were able to seize territory in the north—areas not traditionally sympathetic to the ethnic Pashtuns that dominate the group. They were able to do so, in part, by working with AQ affiliates from neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

New Dangers Lurking

Pessimists now worry that Al-Qaeda and indeed the entire Jihadi movement will be energized by the Taliban's swift victory, and that new dangers will emerge. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has portrayed the Taliban's "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan'' as the cornerstone of a new caliphate, telling his followers around the globe that they should emulate it as a model for Islamic governance.

"The international terrorist threats in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan will not disappear after America leaves," says Thomas Joscelyn, a senior editor at the FDD's Long War Journal and a long time student of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Worse, the fear is, in the age of "over the horizon" counterterrorism, those threats will intensify. The notion that Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is eliminated is "dangerously mistaken," says Nathan Sales, former ambassador at large for Counterterrorism at the State Department during the Trump administration, now on the advisory board at the Counter Extremism Project, a nonpartisan New York-based think tank.

"The minute you take the pressure off, you give the networks space to reconstitute themselves," Sales says. "They are not done. They are going to reconstitute themselves, if we give them the space."

For now, though, that is precisely what Washington has done.