The U.S. Looks To Support The Afghan Military From 'Over The Horizon'

May 17, 2021
Originally published on May 17, 2021 11:00 pm

President Biden and his Pentagon chiefs say the U.S. will assist Afghanistan's military from afar after American troops pull out. They haven't announced the details, but they do have a common refrain: "over the horizon."

"We will maintain an over-the-horizon capacity," Biden said in his recent address to a joint session of Congress.

"We will continue to support (the Afghans) with over-the-horizon logistics," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a recent new conference.

"We have to sort out doing it over the horizon," added the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Mark Milley.

Right now, "over the horizon" is more a fuzzy concept than a polished military plan. But when U.S. forces leave Afghanistan in September, if not sooner, we're likely to find out fast exactly what it means.

"The Taliban will test the Afghan security forces very early on. They need to be prepared for that," said retired Army Gen. Joe Votel, who oversaw the Afghan war effort for three years as the head of Central Command. "Whatever support we're prepared to provide over the horizon, we need to be prepared for that as well."

The U.S. did have some military bases in the region during the early 2000s. But today, there are no American bases in any of the six countries that border landlocked Afghanistan. U.S. relations with Pakistan have long since soured, and Pakistan said last week that it won't host U.S. forces.

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who also led U.S. troops in Afghanistan, thinks it's highly unlikely that the U.S. will establish bases elsewhere in the region in the coming months.

The U.S. flag is lowered as American and Afghan troops attend a handover ceremony at Camp Anthonic in the southern province of Helmand on May 2. After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, U.S. forces now number just a few thousand, down from a peak of more than 100,000 a decade ago.
AP

"I doubt that we will get a base in the Central Asian states anytime soon," Petraeus said during a recent online panel.

One other option would be for the U.S. to park an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, well south of Afghanistan, but Petraeus and others see that as highly impractical.

Bases in the Gulf

The closest existing U.S. bases are in the Gulf region, including an air base in Qatar. And that's a long way from Afghanistan.

"So maybe you get some drones flying from there," Petraeus said, adding, "that's a long flight. For a drone that can take six to eight hours."

When asked at a news conference about future U.S. air support, Milley declined to answer directly.

"The Afghan air force does 80 to 90% of all airstrikes in support of the Afghan ground forces," he said. "We're actually doing very few. The key will be the Afghan Air Force."

However, the Afghan air force uses U.S. aircraft that are maintained by a large contingent of U.S. civilian contractors. Most, if not all, of those contractors are expected to leave when the U.S. military forces pull out.

If U.S. assistance is limited, then how well will the Afghan forces be able to defend against the Taliban?

Joe Votel says parts of the Afghan military are very capable.

"A lot of my focus during my career was on the Afghan special operations forces, who are quite good, who have good leaders, who have good training, who are well-equipped," said Votel. "I think that they will perform well."

After two decades in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has developed strong ties with the Afghan forces. In addition, improved technology can generate some valuable intelligence without American troops on the ground.

Still, Votel acknowledges that U.S.-Afghan military relations, built by working in the field, day-by-day, side-by-side, will suffer.

Petraeus says he's worries about the scenario a couple of years down the road.

"My preference would have been to just manage this problem. And we were managing reasonably well with 3,500 troops," he said. "We may, two or three years from now, or perhaps even sooner, come to regret this decision."

Shaky peace prospects

With the U.S. withdrawal already underway, the slim hopes for a peace agreement with the Taliban have all but vanished. And Taliban forces already control much of the countryside.

But Milley says people shouldn't jump to conclusions.

"The Afghan security forces can fight and they're fighting for their own country now," he said. "It's not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls, right, in those kind of dire predictions."

Afghanistan's uncertain future is fast approaching. In fact, it's just "over the horizon."

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden and his Pentagon chiefs say the U.S. will assist Afghanistan's military from afar even after American troops pull out. Now, they have not announced details, but they do have a common refrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We will maintain over-the-horizon capacity to suppress...

LLOYD AUSTIN: We will continue to support them with over-the-horizon logistics.

MARK MILLEY: We have to sort out doing it over the horizon.

KELLY: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre looks into how this phrase might translate into action.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Right now over the horizon is more a fuzzy concept than a polished military plan. But when the U.S. forces leave Afghanistan in September, if not sooner, we're likely to find out fast exactly what it means.

JOE VOTEL: The Taliban will test the Afghan security forces very early on. They need to be prepared for that.

MYRE: Retired Army General Joe Votel oversaw the Afghan war effort for three years.

VOTEL: Whatever support we're prepared to provide over the horizon for that - we need to be prepared for that as well.

MYRE: The U.S. doesn't have military bases in any of the six countries that border landlocked Afghanistan. Pakistan has already said it won't host U.S. troops. And retired Army General David Petraeus, who also led U.S. troops in Afghanistan, doesn't see any other realistic options. He's speaking from home with his dog chiming in.

DAVID PETRAEUS: I doubt that we will...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

PETRAEUS: ...Need a base in Central Asian states any time soon.

MYRE: The closest existing U.S. bases are in the Gulf, including an air base in Qatar. That's a long way from Afghanistan.

PETRAEUS: So maybe you get some drones flying from there. And that's a long flight. For a drone, that can take six to eight hours.

MYRE: When asked at a news conference, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Mark Milley, declined to speak directly to any future U.S. air support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLEY: The Afghan air force does 80 to 90% of all air strikes in support of the Afghan ground forces. We're actually doing very few. The key will be the Afghan air force.

MYRE: If U.S. assistance is limited, then how well will the Afghan forces be able to defend against the Taliban? Joe Votel says parts of the Afghan military are very capable.

VOTEL: A lot of my focus during my career was on the Afghan special operations forces, who are quite good, who have good leaders, who have good training, who are well-equipped. And I think that they will perform well.

MYRE: After two decades in the country, the U.S. has developed strong ties with the Afghan military. And improved technology can generate some intelligence without American troops on the ground. Still, Votel acknowledges that U.S.-Afghan military relations built by working in the field day by day, side by side will suffer. Petraeus says he worries about the scenario a couple of years down the road.

PETRAEUS: My preference would have been to just manage this problem, and we were managing reasonably well with 3,500 troops. We may, two, three years from now or perhaps even sooner, come to regret this decision.

MYRE: With U.S. withdrawal already underway, the slim hopes for a peace agreement with the Taliban have all but vanished, and the Taliban already control much of the countryside. But General Milley says people shouldn't jump to conclusions.

MILLEY: The Afghan security forces can fight, and they're fighting for their own country now. It's not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls or any of those kind of dire predictions.

MYRE: Afghanistan's uncertain future is fast approaching. In fact, it's just over the horizon.

Greg Myre, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.