‘Over-the-horizon’ drone attacks not possible | By M Ziauddin

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‘Over-the-horizon’ drone attacks not possible


IN retrospect it appears as if the panic that characterized the departure of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan on August 15 was triggered by the departing team’s desire to make it appear as if it was escaping an evil horde of murderers.

And the IS Khorasan owned suicide attack on August 26 in the proximity of the airport where thousands of terrified Afghans had gathered to catch the departing flights to save themselves from these murderous hordes and in which more than 170 Afghans and 13 Americans were killed had caused naked terror to take hold of the inhabitants of Kabul as the capital was being taken-over by the Afghan Taliban.

This was followed by A US drone strike on 29 August just north of Kabul airport. The US said it targeted a vehicle linked to the Afghanistan branch of IS, in order to eliminate “an imminent… threat to Hamid Karzai International airport.” It later transpired that the drone attack had killed a civilian aid worker and several members of his family.

Clearly, the US had wanted to create a situation where a terror stricken population of Afghanistan in order to escape being massacred by the invading Taliban would take up arms and confront the ‘murderous hordes’ and do what the Afghan Armed Forces had failed to do—start a civil war.

In fact, the Americans had hoped that an attritional war would ensue between the Taliban and the Afghan Armed Forces as soon as the withdrawal was completed.

They thought this war would sooner than later degenerate into a civil war with Al-Qaeda and IS-Khorasan joining in.

And the country would go into a tailspin and if at the same time it is denied recognition by the world as well as deprived of its legitimate financial resources with the IMF and World Bank remaining aloof from the country.

Washington thought if this is what its withdrawal would finally yield then it would not have to worry any more about a repeat of 9/11 kind of a situation emanating from Afghanistan and the regional countries, China, Iran, Pakistan and to an extent Russia against whom it nurses serious grudges would actually be facing a disintegrating Afghanistan and its terror trained jihadists. A development that suited the US perfectly.

However, the civil war did not happen thanks to the AAF’s decision to vanish in thin air as the Afghan Taliban swept through the country side swiftly reaching the outskirts of Kabul by August 15.

And the Afghan population refused to take the bait after attempts to terrorize it with manufactured scary scenes; wisely they did not take up arms against the Taliban to initiate a civil war of their own as desired by Washington.

So the US is seemingly being forced to continue the war using drones ‘over –the- horizon’. But so far it has failed to find in the proximity of Afghanistan a base from which to launch the drone attack.

Also it has so far failed to recruit the needed on ground intelligence personnel who would give them correct position for attack so as to keep the collateral damage among the civilians to the minimum.

Meanwhile, Islamic State-Khorasan has targeted the Taliban and civilians in a spate of attacks in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province and a stronghold of the group

IS Khorasan has emerged as a clear threat to Afghans, the region, and the West. Whether the U.S. government is prepared to combat this new threat is another question entirely.

According to Anchal Vohra, a columnist for Foreign Policy based in Beirut wrote on September 28 (America Isn’t Ready to Fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan) the Biden administration said it will carry out over-the-horizon strikes from outside Afghanistan, but it’s not clear if it plans to use its existing Al Udeid air base in Qatar or rather prefer to establish one more close by in Pakistan or elsewhere in Central Asia.

“Some experts in Washington believe Uzbekistan and Tajikistan could offer more effective bases.

There is also fear that under current conditions, Islamic State-Khorasan is poised to recruit and expand. It is estimated to have between 1,500 and 2,200 fighters, significantly lower than the Taliban’s estimated 100,000 fighters. But it has been preparing to lure defectors and swell its ranks.

In the first four months of this year, the group carried out 77 attacks, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and more recently killed US soldiers to win laurels among the more extremist Taliban fighters, who feel let down by their parent organization.

Members of other ethnic militias might also prefer to join Islamic State-Khorasan to fight their historical enemy: the Taliban.

Moreover, many of the group’s incarcerated leaders were freed as the Taliban unlocked prison doors ostensibly to free their own but also let out competition.

Pul-i-Charkhi prison, which is near Jalalabad, and Bagram [Parwan Detention Facility] were flooded with [Islamic State-Khorasan].”

Most Islamic State-Khorasan members are former disgruntled members of the Afghan Taliban or the Pakistan Taliban, known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Most were recruited from areas straddling the Pashtun belts of the two nations.

Anchal says one consensus developing among former US operatives in Afghanistan and analysts is to acquire on-the-ground intelligence in Afghanistan by paying and arming familiar former allies, including ethnic warlords and political figures, such as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former senior leader Abdullah Abdullah, who remain in Afghanistan.

According to Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy (U.S. Military Concedes It’s Unready to Fight Terrorism From ‘Over the Horizon’, published on September 30) the US military and intelligence community are scrambling to fulfill President Joe Biden’s pledge to fight terrorists from “over the horizon” in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—but by their own admission, they still don’t know whether they can track or thwart that threat.

“What is just as troublesome, experts say, is that US Central Command—which will be saddled with the main counterterrorism task in Afghanistan—has had a mixed record at best over the last 20 years.

Even when it had thousands of troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Centcom did a poor job of differentiating terrorists from innocents, according to civilian organizations that closely tracked those efforts, and often it did not even bother to investigate civilian deaths.”

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s soaring mountains and ridges, which provide a superb hiding place for terrorists, have become almost a black hole for US intelligence, with US personnel gone and US-allied Afghans evacuated or in hiding.

And at present the United States must conduct long-range strikes from far away in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, a six-to-eight-hour flight for a drone.

The unreadiness of US counterterrorism efforts was partially revealed in testimony last week by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark Milley, and Centcom Commander Gen Kenneth McKenzie.

Milley told a Senate committee on Tuesday that a “reconstituted” al Qaeda and Islamic State inside Afghanistan could threaten US targets “in the next 12-36 months.”

But US officials concede that they are not yet able to assess and confront terrorist groups in that landlocked country, lacking bases and partners on the ground.

— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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