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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Kill Terrorists in Afghanistan from ‘Over the Horizon’? Good Luck.

Over the Horizon Afghanistan

You have to be there to combat terrorism—or any other martial challenge for that matter. This is Strategy 101: the likely victor is the contender that amasses superior strength at the place and time of battle. It overpowers its foe. That being the case, the combatant that resides near likely battlegrounds commands an advantage over a rival that must come from far away and can mount only an episodic presence in the theater.

That’s why claims that America can duel terrorists in Afghanistan with success from “over the horizon” warrant skepticism. Over-the-horizon operations—operations in which a contender harnesses air and sea power to project forces into an embattled theater for action and retrieve them afterward—may be the best option left after the flight from Afghanistan. They probably are.

That doesn’t make them a savory option.

There are geographic and political grounds for skepticism. First, geography. Over-the-horizon operations work well when the battlefield lies within easy reach of sea or air forces. Coastal states are optimal. Fighting fleets can stage serious air, missile, and amphibious power in littoral zones from just offshore. States adjoining states that host U.S. air or ground forces make viable battlefields as well.

But what about remote reaches like Afghanistan—places that interpose the tyranny of distance between U.S. warriors and designated scenes of action?

That changes things. Parsing the metaphor of the horizon reveals military reality. The visible horizon lies just a few miles away depending on your height of eye. Military forces can be effective when the metaphor roughly corresponds to reality—when they’re coming from nearby bases and flight or at-sea times are short. Forces can reach the scene without undue logistical strain and linger there long enough to prevail.

The metaphor doesn’t remotely correspond to reality in Afghanistan, where the “horizon” lies hundreds of miles distant.

Think about the operational conundrum confronting U.S. airmen deprived of airfields in Afghanistan. Land-based aircraft flying from Persian Gulf airstrips must detour southward around hostile Iranian airspace, into the Arabian Sea, and northward through Pakistani airspace to strike targets in Afghanistan. Sorties consume hour upon hour, not to mention manpower, fuel, and other resources needed to keep planes aloft.

Carrier aircraft have it easier from a distance standpoint since their mobile airfield can linger in the Arabian Sea. But even so, the Afghan capital of Kabul lies close to 700 miles from the closest point along the Pakistani seacoast. That’s well beyond the combat radius of, say, a carrier-based F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, meaning inflight refueling will be a must. U.S. Air Force warplanes have it even worse with longer-range missions to contend with.

In short, geography will impose severe logistical stresses on any over-the-horizon air campaign. It will limit an individual aircraft’s time over target zones, meaning airborne counterterrorist operations will have a come-and-go character. Meanwhile, successful competitors—the Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda—go and stay. Advantage: the wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Showing up in the right place—and staying there until the battle is won—is an underappreciated ingredient of strategy. You have to be there.

Second, politics. In the brave new world following the exit from Afghanistan, is it safe to assume U.S. air and sea forces will have any route into Afghanistan? I don’t think so. Pakistan has always been an uncertain ally for the United States, while Pakistan’s other ally, China, has been making friendly noises toward Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban. Islamabad may place a higher premium on pleasing Beijing than Washington.

At best the diplomatic challenge of securing access to Pakistani airspace will prove more vexing than in the past. South Asian skies may not be so friendly for U.S. aviators in the coming years. If not, mounting effective counterterrorist operations will be that much harder.

Geographic reality and kaleidoscopic geopolitical realignments now conspire against any American air war against terror. Best to acknowledge grim realities than wish them away.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center, U.S. Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Commentar

    September 5, 2021 at 12:21 am

    Unlikely US will focus on Afghanistan in the near term using military means, more likely using only bullhorn diplomacy.

    However, US military could pose some problems for Islamabad, especially after a former ISI official said in an interview that ‘America helped ISI to defeat America’ in afghanistan.

  2. David Zobel

    September 5, 2021 at 6:56 pm

    What comes to mind for me is the inability (or unwillingness) to launch an aggressive air response to the consulate attacks in Libya – more across the itty bitty sea than across the rather broad horizon so clearly described in this article.

  3. Slack

    September 6, 2021 at 5:56 am

    Any wish or hope to do over the horizon attack against afghanistan has just gone out of the window with news that Panjshir has fallen.

    Panjshir was the last holdout and harbored the remnants of pro-US elements in afghanistan and now they’ve been CRUSHED. Finished.

  4. Victor Alert

    September 6, 2021 at 6:59 am

    As crucial as the geographical problems are the questions of having a strategy and the will to follow it through. The only good news is that we are unlikely to try any more nation building disasters for a long time.

  5. Kevin Kins

    September 6, 2021 at 11:02 am

    Afghanistan, being so remote, is ideally suited to being turned into glass. Should have been done 20 years ago.

  6. Brian Foley

    September 6, 2021 at 11:46 am

    Afghanistan has imploded on American foreign policy. After a while America will be able to put Afghanistan in it’s rearview mirror but the defeat in Afghanistan will haunt America’s foreign policy making for decades to come. Whichever administration follows this one, they will be saddled with a serious credibility problem. When the Biden administration talks about “over the Horizon” capability they mean cruise missiles because they’ve lost all of the airbases in Afghanistan, besides…how comfortable do you think any military pilot is going to be flying missions over Afghanistan especially now that the Taliban control the country and US rescue operations would be nigh impossible.

  7. TMark

    September 6, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    With Pakistan now assisting the Taliban against all remaining resistance, we can assume they won’t authorize U.S. or allied air missions over any Af-Pak territory from here on. They may yield airspace for attacks against al Qaeda and ISIS, but would insist on a pre-briefing and assurances that the Taliban are not in the target area. That compromises OpSec and likely limits any long distance attack to cruise missiles.

    The future in Afghanistan may instead feature black ops with so-called ‘loitering munitions’, some of which are backpack sized, hand launched, fly semi-autonomously, with video and control up to 10 km away, and then slammed into the al Qaeda/ISIS target with a light warhead. Operatives and informants on the ground are needed anyway to reduce ambiguity, ID and confirm the target and assess the post-attack outcome. It’s this or a cruise missile.

  8. Steve Scott

    September 8, 2021 at 5:01 am

    Kevin Kins, sadly I agree with you. After 9/11 a tactical nuclear response to Afghanistan / Taliban / al Qaeda would have been a stronger option and sent a very clear message to all terrorists and unfriendly states. If you irradiated three or four of the largest population centres and the same treatment for specific mountain passes and safe escape routes then the impact of this on the terror organisations would be crushing. I have no doubt that the West will now come under a period of sustained terror attacks planned from Afghanistan and funded by subversive organisations or state players. We should carefully plan our trip wires and be selective about our responses. However, we shouldn’t hesitate from dropping the sun on a country that has been a civil warzone and failed state for over forty years.

    Kevin Kins
    Afghanistan, being so remote, is ideally suited to being turned into glass. Should have been done 20 years ago.

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