The United States will continue "over the horizon" strikes against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Thursday, a month after the U.S. war in Afghanistan theoretically came to a close. The statement raises an important question: Just how completely did the war end?
When President Biden first announced his withdrawal timeline in May, his administration sent decidedly mixed messages. Biden himself had long favored keeping a residual American force on the ground indefinitely. Reports at the time indicated U.S. airstrikes would continue, a sizable presence of "clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors, and covert intelligence operatives" would remain, and many recently exited U.S. forces would set up shop in nearby nations and waters so they could continue training Afghan allies and conducting airstrikes.
Clearly some of that plan has changed following the chaotic U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover of Kabul. In recent weeks, Biden has rejected the residual force idea. Hopefully, we're no longer training the military of an Afghan government that no longer exists. But the status of clandestine troops, contractors, and spies is more uncertain. In early September, the Biden administration said only 100 to 200 Americans remained in Afghanistan. But some U.S. contractors aren't American, and if the Special Ops forces and spies were still present, they might not be included in that count. Admitting covert operatives are still in the country kind of ruins the whole "covert" thing.
Then there are these "over the horizon" strikes, which Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby clarified aren't exclusively drone hits, like the recent U.S. strike that killed seven children and no terrorists. "It doesn't even always have to mean aviation," Kirby said. "'Over the horizon,' as [Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin] defined it, means that the strike, assets, and the target analysis comes from outside the country in which the operation occurs."
In other words, plans to restation U.S. forces just outside Afghan borders may be significantly unchanged. (Strangely, those forces may set up shop on Russian military bases.) Some of these strikes — if they're not airstrikes — may even have U.S. boots once again on Afghan ground. And the strikes will fall under the aegis of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). That's the very authorization that launched the war in Afghanistan, the war that's supposed to be done.