A term that has seen an increased level of use is ‘Over the Horizon’. The Department of Defense and national security commentators have been using over the horizon (OTH) in two contexts when discussing Afghanistan. One is the ability to hit terrorist targets and threats inside Afghanistan from bases or assets outside of Afghanistan. The second is the ability to provide training, advise, assistance, and support to the Afghan security ministries and Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) from outside Afghanistan.
OTH and Counterterrorism
The United States has the most professional counterterrorism capability in the world. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has proven to be extremely effective in eliminating terrorist threats whenever it has targeted them. JSOCs achievements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and around the world are well documented. It has evolved into a very proficient killing machine that can conduct offshore, over the horizon counterterrorism (CT) operations.
Temporary Base in Afghanistan. The ability to hit specific terrorist targets in Afghanistan is hindered by the lack of bases from which to operate from in Afghanistan. The huge air base at Bagram Air Field (BAF) has now been turned over to the Afghans. The only ‘known’ U.S. military presence is at the international airport in Kabul and perhaps at a location near to the U.S. embassy. In addition, the significant intelligence capability of the military and other intelligence agencies has been severely diminished. However, it is certainly plausible that a CT strike and support package could fly into the Kabul airport (with the permission of the Afghan government) and set up a temporary base long enough to hit a terrorist target in Afghanistan. In fact, an arrangement could be made that establishes a ‘warm base’ or ‘cold base’ at either Bagram or the Kabul airport. One ready for occupation that could quickly transition to a forward operation base for SOF units.
Base in Central Asia. There are a few neighboring countries that might host U.S. counterterrorist forces on a permanent or temporary basis. Iran and Pakistan are not among these countries. This could be an agreement for U.S. CT forces to deploy for the length of a mission. Or it could be the establishment of a small base manned by a minimal number of support staff to accommodate a CT force to come in, set up, and then conduct an operation. For a number of years the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan hosted U.S. military forces during the 20-year U.S. conflict in Afghanistan. In fact, this has been a topic of discussion among national security gurus. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hosted Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Kamilow and Tajikistan Foreign Minister Muhriddin in Washington, D.C on July 1, 2021. A discussion about permanent or temporary basing in one of those countries was likely on the meeting agenda. Of course, Russia continues to exert significant influence in the region so geopolitical concerns have to be taken into account.
Regional Bases and Assets. The U.S. has a number of air bases and facilities in the Middle East region that have a substantial number of fighter, bomber, surveillance, and tanker aircraft and drones that can hit targets in Afghanistan. In addition, these bases can support a CT ground force that can stage on a base in the Middle East and then strike a target in Afghanistan. The U.S. Air Force has long range bombers and the U.S. Navy maintains an almost constant presence in the region with an carrier strike group as well as naval vessels with cruise missile capability. The long flight times and overflight permissions are an important planning and execution factor for consideration.
OTH and Support to Afghanistan
The Resolute Support Mission (RSM) in Afghanistan has come to an end; although it hasn’t been declared as officially over. The RSM has been engaged in Security Force Assistance in Afghanistan through the Train, Advise, and Assist (TAA) mission for the past several years. The endeavor has been providing support to the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, and the Afghan security institutions. Thousands of advisors and trainers from the United States, NATO, and other partner nation countries have ‘cycled’ through tours of duty providing advice and training to the Afghan security forces. So there is a wealth of advisory experience that the international community can tap into within their respective militaries in the effort to support the ASI and ANDSF.
Leveraging Technology for Communication. Of course, this training and advising mission has to be done in an over the horizon effort now that the withdrawal is complete. In a technological world that now has the internet, video conferencing, email, cell phones, and other advanced methods of communication – providing support to the Afghan security forces is entirely possible from outside the country. The world is just now coming out of a year long struggle with COVID – an event that transformed the way we communicate and work. The use of Zoom and other online communication methods have become refined over the past year. This certainly is something that needs to be leveraged by the United States and others to assist Afghanistan. Is it ideal? No. But it is a tool in the toolbox.
Training. The ‘T’ part of the TAA mission that Resolute Support conducted in Afghanistan can, to a certain extent, be done from outside the country. Online instruction grew significantly over the past year providing learning opportunities at the elementary, high school, and university level. Large and small businesses conducted internal and for profit training over the internet using Zoom and other media. Of course, the U.S. and other nations have to actually do a little work to set up organizations to carry on this training. Certainly, with funding, people, and organizations earmarked for this event it can be done. Is it as good as person-to-person instruction? No, but it can be done.
There are a host of military schools and exercises that Afghan officers and NCOs can participate in that are located in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. One positive move is the coordination being done to host training for the Afghan SOF in Qatar. The instruction provided at Camp Commando (near Kabul) can be augmented with the training offered by US and international SOF in Qatar for the Afghan Commandos and other Afghan SOF units. This type of arrangement could be extended to conventional Afghan military personnel and units – something that will help train the ANDSF.
For several years NATO’s Joint Force Training Centre has conducted a two-week training course for NATO officers and NCOs scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan to work as mentors and advisors. This course could be continued to allow for a readily available pool of military professionals that can train and advise the Afghan security forces – except now it would be done remotely and by bringing Afghan counterparts out of Afghanistan for meetings and training. The Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) in Germany provided training for advisor teams preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. So the JMRC has some institutional knowledge on the topic, and with some work, an onsite course for Afghan military officers could be setup to offer training on a variety of military topics.
The International Military Education and Training (IMET) program can be leveraged to professionalize the Afghan military. At one time there was a counterinsurgency academy in Afghanistan that members of the Afghan military attended – staffed by Afghan and international military officers and NCOs. This could be reestablished in a Central Asian or Middle East country. The U.S. could bring back the AfPak Hands program to maintain continuity of U.S. trainers and advisors. So there are a lot of opportunities that could be utilized from existing or past training programs.
Advising. One of the ‘As’ in the TAA mission is advising. The advisory mission began in the early years of the U.S. involvement in the Afghan conflict. It became a major effort in the 2011-2012 timeframe when the U.S. and other nations deployed hundreds of Security Force Advisory and Assistance Teams (SFAATs) to work at the kandak (army) and district (police) level all the way to the ministries. This effort lasted about two years until the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) transitioned to the Resolute Support Mission. With the transition the troop levels dropped significantly, which required a big reduction in the advisory teams. The SFAATs were pulled off the kandaks, districts, brigades, and provinces but remained at corps level. During this process Resolute Support continued the TAA mission but through innovative concepts such as the Expeditionary Advisory Package. Eventually, in the past few years, even some corps level advisory teams were removed with the TAA mission being conducted by email, cell phone, through the security ministries, and in conferences in the Kabul area.
Assisting. One of the most important aspects of the TAA mission was providing assistance. A very significant part of this assistance was helping the Afghans with their maintenance and logistical operations. This is most likely one of the weakest aspects of the security situation. The Afghan military is burdened with a vast amount of equipment – drones, aircraft, vehicles, computers, and more – that they do not have the expertise or capability to maintain and sustain. The effort to build and Afghan military to resemble the U.S. military was a huge mistake. For example, providing the Afghans with the UH-60 Blackhawk (a complex and expensive aircraft) instead of additional Mi-17s or Mi-35s was a disaster in the making. Now the U.S. has to rapidly put together a method of providing maintenance, logistical, and technical support to the ANDSF from outside the country. The U.S. will need to find a way to provide contract support by remote and virtual means. Of course, this is less effective than in-country contract workers maintaining vehicles and aircraft. Of course, continuing to fund the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) will be key to helping the ANDSF and ASIs.
RAA Operations. More recently – as demonstrated in Iraq and Syria – U.S. special operations forces as well as conventional forces have been using new technology and methods to offer train, advise, and assist support. This has been called remote advise and assist operations. SOF, and CF personnel, have developed persistent relationships with Afghan leadership. These relationships should be leveraged to continue an over the horizon advising capability. One way to maintain these personal relationships is to invite Afghan military leaders to one of the bases maintained by the U.S. in the Middle East. The working relationship can be continued remotely. This can be done – there just has to be some vision and a will to do it. Is it as effective as in-country advising efforts? Of course not. But it is one method of getting the job done.
Conclusion. Certainly the United States has the capability to conduct over the horizon counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan to hit targets that pose a threat to the the homeland. It won’t be as effective and responsive as operating from a base within Afghanistan; especially consider the loss of intelligence capability. But it can be done.
The advise and train mission can also be done. However, it appears that the political climate will offer a lot of lip service to this OTH training mission but the assets needed (money, people, organization, political will) is most likely lacking. Thus far – it is not apparent that much planning or preparation has occurred on conducting an OTH assistance mission for the Afghan military.
Even if the U.S. got its act together on conducting an effective OTH training mission – there is another significant factor to consider. After twenty years of the U.S. and the international community providing billions of dollars and thousands of military personnel to first fight the Taliban and then provide training and assistance – the Afghan government and military have not been able to defeat the Taliban. The likelihood of the Afghans defeating the Taliban now – even with US and international over the horizon assistance is bleak.
Image: Map derived from a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) map of Afghanistan.