The dawn of America’s latest (“forever”?) conflict: the Over-the-Horizon War of 2021

Ending a “forever war?”  Forget it.  It seems we are now embarking upon a new conflict, and one that—even if successful—will be difficult, long, and costly: the Over-the-Horizon (OTH) War of 2021.

In this second installment of our series analyzing the Afghanistan disaster (see Part 1 here) , let’s unpack the implications of some of President Biden’s recent statements about his intention to use OTH capabilities against terrorists. 

After the Kabul suicide attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 Afghans he said:

To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this:  We will not forgive.  We will not forget.  We will hunt you down and make you pay.  I will defend our interests and our people with every measure at my command.

While not an explicit ‘declaration of war’ in a legal sense (only Congress can do that), the inclusion of “anyone who wishes America harm” as being in his sights implies the President will use his Article II, commander-in-chief powers (and any remaining statutory authorizations) to wage a conflict with not only those associated with the Kabul attack, but also with a broader range of terrorist actors who, after the America’s defeat in Afghanistan and the disastrous withdrawal, may be emboldened to strike the U.S. and its allies anywhere, to include the American homeland.

The President doubled-down on his views about OTH capabilities in his address last night when he insisted:

We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries.  We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.  We have what’s called Over The Horizon [OTH] capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground, or very few if needed.

It is not clear to me the President fathoms how considerable an undertaking it will be to use OTH capabilities to “fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries” in an aggressive enough way to stop al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others who “wish America harm.”

In my view, no one should be deceived into thinking that relying on sporadic airstrikes will be a panacea for the various terrorist threats the U.S. faces.  In fact, if the President is serious about what he says, everyone should disabuse themselves of any notion that the OTH war will not require a significant investment of military assets.

Of course, the U.S. has been battling terrorists overseas since 2001, and to date terrorists have been unable to replicate the horror of 9/11.  However, the OTH component involved not just a handful of drones strikes, but literally thousands of airstrikes by manned and unmanned aircraft and thousands of special forces raids, the vast majority of which were aided by friendly forces on the ground (or nearby).

As I suggested in Part 1 of this series, a “conditions based” approach to withdrawal might have served the President’s desire to withdraw from Afghanistan without compromising U.S. security. Regardless, ‘we are where’ and everyone ought to acknowledge that the loss of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is a proverbial ‘game-changer’ that will make stopping the re-emergence of terrorists who can threaten America profoundly more difficult.

As it is now, America will be facing hostilities from terrorist enemies who have been invigorated and emboldened by the Taliban’s success.  Indeed, in a CNN interview, even Jake Sullivan, the President’s national security advisor, concedes there are terrorist organizations in Afghanistan who are now seeking the “capability to threaten the homeland.”

Sullivan seemed to suggest the threat isn’t impending, but in an ABC News op-ed terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman maintains that the “Afghanistan withdrawal and the Taliban takeover means the terror threat is back.”  He adds soberly: “Given how wrong the Biden administrations assumption about Afghanistan have been, it’s difficult to buy its assurances that Al Qaeda can’t strike the U.S.”

We’ll discuss the consequent need for urgency in more detail shortly, but it is inarguable that there are a range of actions the U.S. must take as a result of the debacle in Afghanistan if are to prevent terrorist entities from regrouping and threatening the American homeland, as well as our interests and allies abroad.

Despite all the rhetoric about ending “forever wars,” the President was, in effect, calling for the initiation of a new conflict, the OTH War of 2021.  If we want success, we need to accept that this new war will almost certainly be difficult and costly in both blood and treasure.  It also will be a long conflict, if not a “forever” war. 

To be clear, America–particularly with its unrivaled airpower capabilities–can prevail in a OTH war, provided airpower is applied at the necessary scale and with sufficient intensity, all in the context of a deliberate and well-organized air campaign.  Scattered drone strikes won’t suffice; there needs to be a strategy. 

It remains to be seen, however, if the President has the willingness to do what is necessary to follow-through on his promise to “maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries” through OTH capabilities.

Over-the-horizon” (OTH) operations

OTH (pronounced “oh-tore”) operations are, as NPR put it just last May,more a fuzzy concept than a polished military plan.”  The concept essentially means doing things remotely (i.e., “over the horizon”) that would ordinarily be accomplished by forces present in-country, if not on the battlefield itself.  It aims to create effects without putting troops into hostilities.

In fact, before the collapse of the Afghan government, the U.S. was going to try to support the Afghan military using an OTH approach.  However, in my May 20th post I warned about the difficulty of doing so:

U.S. military commanders are gamely trying to figure out a way to support the Afghan military from afar, but it won’t be easy (and the phrase “damn near impossible” comes to mind).  It is one thing to conduct a one-off bombing or missile strike of a strategic location from long range, but quite another to conduct ongoing tactical air support of troops-in-contact with the enemy.

In a recent (Aug 17th) article (“Withdrawal Symptoms: Biden gambles ‘over the horizon’ on Afghanistan), the Washington Post revealed the President and others seem to have a fixation on the efficacy of OTH operations.  For example, the President declared in his August 16th news conference:

We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.

The limitations of OTH operations were quickly exposed.  Ten days after the President’s news conference it was evident that the allegedly “developed” OTH capability “to act quickly and decisively” failed to prevent the tragic Kabul airport attack.

Since that time, there were two drone strikes that arguably could be considered OTH operations even though U.S. troops were then still on the ground in Afghanistan.  However, though both strikes seemed successful to a degree, they were not collectively sufficient to stop the President and other members of his administration from continuing to warn that further terrorist attacks in Kabul were highly likely.

The real difficulties of OTH warfare

In a thoughtful article, retired NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis details some of the difficulties of OTH warfare, specifically with respect to Afghanistan.  He believes the U.S. has “zero chance” of operating from adjacent countries.  This means the U.S. would have to rely upon bases in the Arabian Gulf—1,200 miles from Kabul—or Diego Garcia, 3,000 miles distant.

Admiral Stavridis also notes the potential challenges in obtaining the overflight permissions necessary for U.S. combat aircraft to get to land-locked Afghanistan, as well as other, related concerns.  He cautions: “Pakistan and Iran might now warn the Taliban of overflights; seek to shoot down cruise missiles; deny manned aircraft through their own air forces; and at a minimum raise hurdles diplomatically.”

The loss of on-the-ground intelligence makes OTH warfare to counter a terrorist threat especially daunting.  Admiral Stavridis believes:

The biggest challenge, frankly, is not getting the kinetic tools into play — it is finding, processing and disseminating the human intelligence that would make the airborne or special forces strikes effective. With the total departure of the military and embassy, the CIA will be scrambling to find Afghan operatives who can send up a red flag about Taliban interactions with [al-]Qaeda, and then provide the targeting necessary for a mission.

Likewise, journalist Bill Powell reported in Newsweek that an Obama administration official said OTH operations can work, but “without good intelligence, over the horizon ‘becomes close to impossible.’”  He explained the reasoning:

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.

Additionally, Powell says:

Any sources who were left behind in the pullout may be less likely to work with America to supply intelligence – not only because of fear of reprisals from the Taliban or ISIS-K but also because of a loss of faith in American support and rescue.

Satellites and communications intercept technology can mitigate the intelligence-gathering challenge.  Still, airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets that might otherwise be focused on requirements associated with ‘great power’ competition with Russia and China may need to be diverted to the OTH war against terrorists.  In short, it’s a mistake to underestimate the difficulty of gathering enough tactical intelligence exclusively via OTH means to systematically attack, as President Biden has indicated, anyone who wishes America harm.

Overall, Admiral Stavridis observes:

“Over the horizon” has an exciting, Tom Clancy-like ring to it.  But this isn’t fiction, and for now, there’s no counting on America’s ability to keep the Taliban from again doing business with terrorists.   

The OTH war will be long, expensive, and resource-demanding

This new war against “anyone who wishes America harm” will be financially costly, and will likely more than cancel out any windfall the President expected the Afghanistan withdrawal might produce.  In a must-read column in the Washington Post (“Has Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan made us safer? Clearly not.”), journalist Josh Rogin notes Congressman Tom Malinowski’s (D-N.J.) observations:

The troops the United States withdrew from Afghanistan aren’t coming home — they’re just moving to other foreign bases in the region. They will retain the mission to fight terrorism in Afghanistan . . . just from farther away and with no local partner.

Distance alone will increase the cost and complexity of the OTH war.  Retired General David Petraeus who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan points out the enormous resource commitment it will take:

“It’s going to take a fleet of aerial tankers to get [aircraft] there and stay there” to monitor any build-up of a revitalized al Qaeda or the Islamic State. He added it would take hours for MQ-9 Reapers to reach Afghanistan from bases far removed from the land-locked country.

A group of experts argue that the intelligence and special operations forces will require billions in new funding to wage the OTH war:

The bottom line is that more over-the-horizon operations will require resources currently not allocated. US SOCOM and the intelligence community do not have sufficient funding to meet these new challenges.  We must ensure that threat organizations that wish us harm cannot reconstitute, and we must preclude them from proliferating terrorism.

The human cost

There will be a human cost as well.  As recently as August 28th, the Pentagon preened about its ability to conduct “over-the-horizon’ operations as part of its ongoing counter-terrorism mission and bragged there were zero civilian casualtiesfrom its first drone strike after the Kabul suicide bombing.

Sadly, the second drone strike that reportedly destroyed a vehicle with suicide bombers did not go as well.  As CNN reports, “the risks inherent in Biden’s promised ‘over the horizon’ anti-terror strategy were highlighted by the deaths of a young Afghan family this weekend in a US strike on what the American military insisted was a vehicle bomb destined for Kabul airport.”

Such deaths are virtually inevitable in any conflict, but the dangers are greater when a strike must be conducted from afar, and the intelligence for targeting is limited.  The paucity of intelligence in the absence of Americans on the ground discussed above will undoubtedly continue.

Even the Administration’s own CIA Director admitted in April that: “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish.  That’s simply a fact.”  And that prediction was made when it was assumed there would still be an Afghan partner on the ground with whom to work.

Unfortunately, U.S. forces will likely not be immune from losses.  For example, the OTH war could require raids by special operations forces and other troops to, for example, rescue Americans and Afghan allies left behind by the withdrawal, conduct special reconnaissance, or to fulfill mission requirements that cannot be adequately addressed from the air (see the discussion here about the Bin Laden raid).

Clearly, these operations could be extremely dangerous for the service members involved, particularly if they must fight their way to the objective and battle their way to the exfiltration point.  Under such circumstances, the potential harm to civilians who could be caught in a crossfire is also readily apparent.

Additionally, regional bases hosting America’s OTH warfighters will no doubt face heightened risk as terrorists and other non-state actors demonstrate an increasing capacity to conduct sophisticated attacks on well-defended locations and bases in the Middle East.

Even Navy warships are at risk.  In 2016, the U.S. Naval Institute reported Admiral Stavridis’ assessment:

“I think the Islamic State would love the symbolic aspect of going after a ship at sea,” he said.

“It’s counter intuitive, but a ship, in my view, is at its most vulnerable not when it’s alongside the pier, not when it’s in the open ocean, but when it’s getting underway out to sea.” The Navy must be on alert, vigilant and prepared to counter the terror threat to its deployed forces.

It’s difficult to imagine that Afghanistan-located terrorists will not aim to inflict any kind of attack on the U.S., either at home or abroad.  If we need any reminder of their utter ruthlessness, consider that besides this past week’s horrific suicide attack at Kabul, ISIS-K was also responsible for last May’s attack on an Afghan maternity hospital, killing women and children.

Why the OTH war must be waged

As already discussed, it is painfully clear that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will hardly end America’s “forever war” against terrorists.  Even if the Taliban prove to be solely interested in Afghanistan, Josh Rogin insists in his essay that:

[T]he terrorists’ war on us, is not over.  The enemy is determined to go on fighting.  And now we have to fight back from a weaker position.

He grimly adds that “Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is already becoming a haven for terrorist groups of all stripes.”  Similarly, Kori Schake and other experts have observed, theTaliban’s success in Afghanistan will encourage jihadis everywhere.”  Seth Jones, puts it bluntly in the Wall Street Journal:

The Taliban victory presents a remarkable opportunity for these groups to reorganize and threaten the U.S. at home and abroad. Jihadist groups gleefully celebrated the Taliban’s conquest of Kabul on chat rooms and other online platforms, pledging the revitalization of a global jihad.

Senator Mitt Romney was unequivocal when he explained in a CNN interview that the “Taliban and the radical violent jihadists in the world, they haven’t stopped fighting. They’re going to continue to fight us.”

He added:

The war is not over.  We’re just no longer at a place where the war had its apex, where the Taliban was able to allow al Qaeda to grow and to attack us on 9/11.  We went to Afghanistan because we got attacked on 9/11 and lost thousands of American lives.

The idea that somehow we can pull out of a dangerous place where radical violent jihadists are organizing, and that we can pull out of that, and that’s going to stop them, well, that’s fantasy.  They’re going to continue in their effort to regroup and to come after America.

The Economist also weighed-in about how the “space” al-Qaeda now enjoys in Afghanistan might lead to an ability to strike “Western targets”:

For the past two decades, intense American pressure forced al-Qaeda’s leaders underground, hindering their communications and complicating plots.  As it abates, the group may reconstitute its ability to strike Western targets.  “What’s happening in Afghanistan is just the next phase in the cycle,” says [an expert].  “It might be another five years before anything happens.  But they’ve now got the space that they didn’t have, and we should expect them gradually to move back in.  The question is whether we will know when it happens.”

All of this means the OTH war needs to be relentlessly pursued with great vigor and urgency.  If we are to hope to prevent attacks here at home, the OTH war may extend to countries beyond Afghanistan.

Why?  The fact is that the threat of terrorism in the U.S. is much related to overseas efforts.  In 2018, Graham Allison of Harvard’s Kennedy School explained why the jihadists have not succeeded in killing more Americans in the U.S.:

Unquestionably, many of the actions taken since 9/11 have prevented attacks.  Osama bin Laden had active plans for additional attacks, including aspirations for a nuclear 9/11.  What prevented that, first and foremost, was a relentless counterterrorism campaign that killed or captured most of al Qaeda’s leadership and left the others spending most of their time trying to survive rather than perfecting plots for future terrorist attacks.  Destruction of their headquarters and training camps meant that thousands of individuals who would have been planning, training and then conducting terrorist attacks never got their chance.

The “relentless counterterrorism campaign” Allison refers to will be markedly more difficult to prosecute against al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups since they now have Afghanistan to plan, train, and launch attacks where it is now far more difficult for the U.S. to monitor and, when necessary, neutralize threats.  Obviously, it’s imperative that America wage its OTH war with sufficient ferocity and determination to keep al-Qaeda, ISIS, and any other terror organization unable to strike the U.S. or its allies around the globe. 

A home-grown threat?

We cannot expect the OTH war to handle all the threats the perception – and promotion – of a so-called “Taliban victory” could have on the motivation of extremists already in the U.S. to strike here. Several years ago David Schanzer, Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, observed that the success of overseas insurgent movements could instigate extremist violence here at home.  He makes this insightful assessment:

[T]he incidence of violence by extremist Muslim-Americans rises when foreign insurgent movements are successful – that is, they are gaining territory, they are making claims to be an authentic alternative Islamist society, and they are pushing this message aggressively through social media.  When they are ascendant in this way, their call for like-minded diaspora Muslims to “do something” can be compelling to at least a small cohort of Muslim-Americans.

Concluding thoughts 

As much as the President – along with his predecessors and others – may have wanted to end the so-called “forever war” against terrorists, the fact is that the disastrous manner of the Afghanistan withdrawal ensures that the war – whether desired or not – will persist, albeit of a different character – if we want to keep the nation safe.

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, the President’s insistence that his only choices were to withdraw or ramp up America’s military forces in Afghanistan, was simply wrong.

Keeping a small, sustainable counter-terrorism presence as military leaders had recommended would have been sufficient to maintain leverage on the Taliban as the President pursued his goal of full withdrawal.  As unsatisfying as that may have been in the near term, it would be far better than the disaster with which America is now grappling – and will continue to grapple with for a generation or more.

We should recognize that the impetus to end “forever wars” may be of noble origin, but it can unproductively distort reality, and can lead to terrible policy decisions as we’ve seen with the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle.  It put our military in an untenable position as it fought to execute the withdrawal mission within ill-considered policy-imposed constraints.  It was only the heroism of the troops and their commanders on the ground that prevented a complete catastrophe and an even greater loss of life.

Those who speak of ending “forever” or “endless” wars should be sobered by the truth of the axiom often attributed to Plato that “only the dead have seen the end of war.”  In fact, the New York Times asserted in 2013 that “[o]f the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.”  For the U.S., a scholar said that in “the entire history of the United States of America there has been a grand total of 15 years when we have not been at war.”

This does not mean Americans are warmongers.  While it is certainly true that Americans have made errors in wartime, and some people have wrongly suffered; on balance the U.S. has tried, however imperfectly, to make the world a better place.

We have to recognize another melancholy truth about war.  Philosopher John Stuart Mill put it well:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse…

A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.”

We must guard against those who would, in essence, suggest that freedom is free, that we can just announce a war is over and expect our enemies to agree.  In point of fact, the enemy ‘gets a vote’, and right now it appears virtually inevitable that they will elect to continue to seek to harm us and our allies.

We must gird ourselves for the OTH war that we’ll be fighting for the foreseeable future, while at the same time constantly pursuing peace, however remote that dream may be today. 

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

Update:  In yesterday’s (6 Sept) Washington Post there is an op-ed (The terrorism era is far from over. A new, more dangerous phase has Ali Soufan, the terroism expert and former FBI agent, in which he explains the level of effort the OTH war requires:

Biden touts an “over the horizon” use of drones and cruise missiles to combat terrorist outposts in Afghanistan. But in 2015, dismantling one large al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, required 63 coalition airstrikes and a ground force of 200 U.S. troops. The Afghan skies would need to be filled with U.S. military hardware to destroy the terrorist bases that are likely on the way.  (Emphasis added).



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