World EXCLUSIVE: Trump’s Air Force secretary offers vision of future Afghanistan counterterrorism ops as Biden team mulls new plan
'It's an impossible situation': Democrats link arms with Biden on Afghanistan -- and brace for the worst
Most congressional Democrats are backing President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan this year, though many harbor nagging concerns that the gains won over the last 20 years will be erased and the Taliban will retake control after American troops are no longer there. © Thomas Watkins/AFP/Getty Images In this photo taken on June 6, 2019, US soldiers look out over hillsides during a visit of the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General Scott Miller at the Afghan National Army (ANA) checkpoint in Nerkh district of Wardak province.
The moniker “over the horizon” has been mouthed by defense officials from the new commander in chief down, but exactly how the United States will confront violent extremist forces in Afghanistan after a full withdrawal remains a mystery.
Former President Donald Trump’s first Air Force secretary, Heather Wilson, says she is not sure how the Defense Department will accomplish the coming mission, which senior military officials acknowledge will be challenging. And top Pentagon officials hand-picked by President Joe Biden can't yet say either.
Biden’s April 14 decision to withdraw U.S. military forces completely from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 has worried some security analysts and GOP lawmakers that al Qaeda will rise again without an American military presence there. The weakness of the Afghan Armed Forces and the failure of the Taliban to break with the terrorist organization are principal concerns. So, too, is America’s frantic negotiation with neighboring countries to identify a staging area for strikes that is closer than the four-plus hour commutes currently available from Gulf countries where the U.S. has basing agreements.
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“When people say 'over the horizon,' who is that? That's the United States Air Force,” Wilson told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.
“Certainly, we can do it from over the horizon,” she added. “That requires long-range strike capability and the ability to get it there, which means tankers and bombers. It doesn't come quickly."
The former Republican member of Congress and Air Force secretary from 2017 to 2019 explained the challenges that went into destroying the Islamic State's caliphate in Iraq and Syria during her term under Defense Secretary James Mattis and Trump.
“It was exquisite intelligence, American and coalition air power, and supporting indigenous forces on the ground,” she said. “In some ways, the first part of the Afghan flight was that way, as well.”
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In April testimony before Congress, however, U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Frank McKenzie said intelligence-gathering drone missions may take four hours of commute time each way from current air bases in Gulf countries. That allows less time for the unmanned aircraft to hover over targets before refueling is required.
“We will look at all the countries in the region,” McKenzie told lawmakers. “Our diplomats will reach out, and we'll talk about places where we could base those resources. Some of them may be very far away, and then, there will be a significant bill for those types of resources, because you'd have to cycle a lot of them in and out.”
He added, “It's difficult to do that at range. It is not impossible to do that at range.”
McKenzie said he would be submitting a range of options to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin by the end of April. But as of Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that senior DOD officials are still trying to determine what “over the horizon” means in Afghanistan.
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“We are still working our way through what 'over the horizon' counterterrorism capabilities are going to look like,” he said. “So, it's premature for me to speak with specificity about integration or shared efforts between American or U.S. air assets and those of the Afghan Air Force.”
Wilson said early success in Afghanistan was directly tied to closely coordinated air power.
“Some of the best stories of what happened early on in Afghanistan had to do with airman on the ground calling in air support for indigenous forces,” she said.
Wilson could not assess whether the U.S. can achieve the long-distance counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan given that country's military potency.
"It certainly depends on the connection between the Afghan forces on the ground and continued coalition support," she said. "I don't know what the answer is."
Kirby said the Afghan Air Force has come a long way. A briefing slated for later Thursday by Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley may shed more light.
EXPLAINER: What remains as US ends Afghan 'forever war'
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — After 20 years, America is ending its “forever war” in Afghanistan. Announcing a firm withdrawal deadline, President Joe Biden cut through the long debate, even within the U.S. military, over whether the time was right. Starting Saturday, the last remaining 2,500 to 3,5000 American troops will begin leaving, to be fully out by Sept. 11 at the latest. Another debate will likely go on far longer: Was it worth it? Since 2001, tens of thousands of Afghans and 2,442 American soldiers have been killed, millions of Afghans driven from their homes, and billions of dollars spent on war and reconstruction.
“The Afghan Air Force has dramatically increased in their combat capability and competence,” Kirby said. “We're going to continue to look for ways to support those air forces, again from outside the country, but it's too soon to get into specific integration tactics or operations at this point."
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US trashes unwanted gear in Afghanistan, sells as scrap .
BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) — The twisted remains of several all-terrain vehicles leaned precariously inside Baba Mir’s sprawling scrapyard, alongside smashed shards that were once generators, tank tracks that have been dismantled into chunks of metal, and mountains of tents reduced to sliced up fabric. It’s all U.S. military equipment. The Americans are dismantling their portion of nearby Bagram Air Base, their largest remaining outpost in Afghanistan, and anything that they are not taking home or giving to the Afghan military, they destroy as completely as possible.