After the killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last Sunday, President Biden was quick to proclaim the success of the ‘over the horizon’ method of striking at America’s enemies. It was indeed a great example of co-ordinated action between informants and spies on the ground, and persistent surveillance leading to strike from the air. Satellite imagery and signals intelligence must have also contributed. Known information on the structure of the villa that was struck, was also factored in.
But consider this. Those spies might not always be available, or clever enough, to monitor a terrorist hideout so effectively. The Taliban government is still working to effectively administer major cities in Afghanistan, and might improve its counter-surveillance capabilities in the future. Including the ability to intercept or control suspicious communications from the spies, which must have played a part in facilitating the strike. Also, one wonders whether the up to $25 million bounty that the US offered for the capture of al-Zawahiri was a motivation for this action. Is the US going to offer such bounties to its spies, for lesser terrorist actors? And what about terrorists who cannot be identified by name, even if they are deemed to be planning action?
Then there is the potential vulnerability of the airborne component. The MQ-9 Reaper was apparently able to loiter over Kabul for the extended period needed to establish the ‘pattern of life’ around that villa, to even include Al Zawahiri’s habit of appearing on its balcony. That was only possible because the Taliban have no air defences. How long will that be the case? Mischief makers like China, Iran or North Korea could easily provide the Taliban with a basic ground-to-air capability, with anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-fired missiles, and perhaps followed by some longer-range weapons.
There is also the question of how surveillance of a target by the MQ-9 can be maintained for extended period of time. Yes, the Reaper has great endurance, but it must eventually run short of fuel and return to base. If that base is more than a thousand miles away, an MQ-9 could take five hours to reach the area of interest at its normal cruising speed.
As for ‘overhead’ intelligence, the capabilities of the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) imaging satellites have been described as “exquisite” by insiders. They probably are, in terms of resolution. But they cannot defeat cloud cover that may be present over potential targets. Moreover, I don’t believe that their ‘revisit rates’ are frequent enough to offer an ‘unblinking eye.’
Most observers have assumed that this strike was mounted from an airbase in the Gulf. But I suspect it was mounted from Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Those countries are no friend of the new regime in Kabul. After the 9-11 attacks, when the US scrambled to counter Al Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan, the CIA was able to operate armed MQ-1 Predators from Uzbekistan. The transit time was much reduced, but did not come without cost. The Uzbeks imposed various restrictions, in order to keep its participation secret, and these hampered the effective operation of the UAVs. Incidentally, the Reapers involved in the latest action may have been operated by the CIA rather than the US Air Force. The main reason why the CIA has its own fleet of UAVs, is to mount operations that rely on deniability, such as covert flights from secret bases.
So then, if these various constraints preclude the use of the MQ-9 and similarly vulnerable platforms, could not manned combat jets do the mission? The US has plenty of these at airbases in the Gulf, and on aircraft carriers in the region. But if they are to reach Afghanistan unhampered, Iran will deny its airspace, and so they must fly over Pakistan. A fleet of air refueling tankers over the Arabian Sea will be required, for pre- and post-strike top-ups. Moreover, can the US always rely on Pakistan, an unreliable ally with unstable governments? There was plenty of anti-American rhetoric from Prime Minster Imran Khan, before he lost office last April.
Some of the constraints on over-the-horizon targeting that I have mentioned, would also affect strikes against terrorist targets elsewhere. The US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said yesterday that the terrorist threat extends to North Africa, the Sahel, the Middle East, and Yemen.
Meanwhile, the latest report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) notes that “there are no recent signs that the Taliban has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country. On the contrary, terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history.” The jury is still out, on whether the US and its allies can counter Afghan-backed terrorism without committing ‘boots on the ground.’