US plans to control al-Qaeda in Afghanistan with airstrikes

A visitor holds an American flag as she stands above the reflecting pool at the 9/11 Museum and Memorial in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2021. AFP

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon plans to rely on airstrikes to prevent a resurgence of Al Qaeda now that US troops have left Afghanistan, but experts and some lawmakers are skeptical of the effectiveness of the so-called strategy. “Beyond the horizon”.

Announcing the complete withdrawal of American troops in April, President Joe Biden vowed that he would not allow a return of Al-Qaeda to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden instigated the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Since then, the Pentagon has repeatedly asserted that it is capable of controlling Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan through “on the horizon” strikes from bases or American aircraft carriers.

“The operations on the horizon are difficult but very possible,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the House armed services committee on Wednesday.

“And the intelligence supporting them comes from a variety of sources, not just American boots on the ground. “

Austin’s remarks came about two weeks after the Pentagon chief was forced to apologize to relatives of civilians killed in a drone strike on August 29 in Kabul.

The target of the drone strike was suspected IS militants, but it ended up killing 10 civilians, including seven children, in what Austin called a “horrible mistake.”

It was the latest in a long string of US drone strikes that claimed civilian lives in Afghanistan, becoming one of the most controversial issues of the 20 Years War and drawing strong criticism from the United States. Afghans.

In his testimony to Congress, Austin refused to publicly disclose much about the Pentagon’s “on the horizon” plans, telling committee members he could provide more details in a confidential closed-door session.

‘Good luck’

A number of experts and lawmakers have expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of long-range strikes on landlocked Afghanistan, which lies thousands of miles (kilometers) from the nearest US base.

“Kill terrorists in Afghanistan from” Over The Horizon “? Good luck, ”reads an article by James Holmes, professor of maritime strategy at Naval War College.

“Operations on the horizon work well when the battlefield is within easy reach of sea or air forces,” Holmes said in the article posted on the national security website

“Land planes flying from Persian Gulf airstrips must detour south around hostile Iranian airspace, into the Arabian Sea and north through Pakistani airspace to strike. targets in Afghanistan, ”said Holmes, a former US Navy officer.

“Carrier planes have an easier distance from a distance point of view since their mobile airfield can linger in the Arabian Sea,” he added.

“But even so, the Afghan capital of Kabul lies almost 700 miles from the nearest point along the Pakistani coast,” Holmes said. “In-flight refueling will be a must. “

“A fiction”

Mike Waltz, a Republican lawmaker from Florida, accused Biden and Austin of peddling “fiction” regarding the “beyond the horizon” ability.

Unlike Iraq, where US troops fought ISIS with Iraqi government forces, or Syria, where Americans have teamed up with Kurdish fighters, the US has no allies on the ground in Afghanistan. or any base nearby, Waltz said.

“These drones have to fly all around Iran, all the way to Pakistan and lose 70-80% of their fuel before they even approach a target,” said Waltz, a former US Army Green Beret. who served in Afghanistan.

“The President of the United States is selling this country a fiction that we can do here with nothing,” Waltz said, pointing to Afghanistan on a map, “what we are doing here (in Iraq and Syria) with the basics neighboring access, with allies on the ground and with access to the ocean.

“It is fiction that you all must own,” he added.

In the early 2000s, the United States had military bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, but they are no longer present in Central Asia, which Russia sees as its sphere of influence.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that he recently met in Europe with his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov.

“Overall, we’re not asking for permission – negotiating, I guess, is the word,” Milley said.

“President (Vladimir) Putin and President Biden had a conversation and I was following that conversation,” he said.

Andy Kim, a Democratic lawmaker from New Jersey, asked Austin, the head of the Pentagon, if the US overflights of Afghanistan were legal.

“Yes,” Austin replied, adding that he would provide more details in a classified setting.

The Taliban this week accused the United States of violating international law with drone flights over Afghan territory and warned of “negative consequences” if they continued.

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