Foreign Policy Essay
New Ideas for Over-the-Horizon Counterterrorism in Afghanistan
Editor’s Note: Managing the terrorism threat in the Taliban’s Afghanistan is both difficult and necessary. The U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power, however, have made it far harder for the United States to monitor and strike the Islamic State-Khorasan, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups active in the country. CNA’s Jonathan Schroden proposes and evaluates several “over-the-horizon” options that, while difficult, offer the possibility of managing the terrorism threat in Afghanistan without any boots on the ground and no friendly government with which to work.
In October 2021, nearly two months after the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan, Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan (Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K) could generate the capability to strike outside of the country within “six to twelve” months. He assessed that al-Qaeda’s branch in Afghanistan would take longer, perhaps “a year or two.” To mitigate that possibility, the United States established an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capability for Afghanistan, which President Joe Biden described as the ability to “strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground.”
Translated into layman’s terms, what President Biden was describing is the use of drones—in particular, drones with missiles attached to them. The United States has armed drones—such as the MQ-9A Reaper—that can fly from bases as far away as the Arabian Peninsula and still loiter for hours over Afghanistan. Critics have argued that the use of drones from that distance is insufficient to completely mitigate the growing capabilities of IS-K. To augment this capability, national security expert Seth Jones recently offered three valuable recommendations: Rebuild a covert intelligence architecture inside Afghanistan; negotiate drone basing access closer to the country; and invest in the MQ-9B Sky Guardian, which has extended loitering time relative to the Reaper. These are good suggestions that aim to improve U.S. intelligence collection and position drones closer to Afghanistan, but they represent a traditional school of thought about counterterrorism. In the interest of expanding the suite of U.S. options even more, I’ll offer here some new and nontraditional ideas for how the United States could further enhance its ability to “find and fix” as well as “finish” terrorist targets in Afghanistan as part of an over-the-horizon approach.
Improving “Find and Fix”
In his article, Jones calls for establishing covert human intelligence networks, a time-tested approach to countering terrorist groups. However, the traditional means of doing so that Jones describes—the CIA cultivating partner sources on the ground—need not be the only way to gain necessary intelligence. For example, the United States has exquisite cyber capabilities that could be used to penetrate digital networks in Afghanistan and gather significant amounts of information relevant to the activities of terrorist groups from users of cell phones and Wi-Fi networks. Cyber collection activities could also be extended to monitor official Taliban agencies, which (as these photographs illustrate) are using a variety of digital devices and are likely also gathering information on the activities of IS-K and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Of course, these types of capabilities are in high demand and have limited capacity, so their use against terrorist groups in Afghanistan becomes a matter of prioritization relative to the presence of these groups elsewhere.
A capability that is less exquisite and readily available—but one that U.S. intelligence agencies have traditionally been less willing to invest in—is open-source collection. While reliable statistics on Afghan social media users are hard to come by, the World Bank shows that 58 percent of the Afghan population is using cell phones, and many of those individuals are likely using social media apps on their phones. While the Taliban have now banned TikTok in Afghanistan, other major social media apps remain available and it appears that a major shift occurred in usage after the Taliban takeover, from Twitter being the dominant platform to a strong majority preference for Facebook. Facebook accounts of users in Afghanistan, therefore, hold potential as another valuable source of information that could be deliberately collected and analyzed. U.S. government resources for this type of activity may again be an issue, but because this information is unclassified and the techniques to obtain it are not exquisite, it is possible for the United States to contract for this type of collection for less than it would cost the government to do it.
There are other private-sector options for information collection as well. As one example, I attended a product briefing by a private company several years ago that advertised the ability to collect information directly from sources in hard-to-reach countries. The company paid users small fees to collect information in their local areas and upload it via the company’s app. The company then passed that information (sometimes in raw form, sometimes fused with other sources of information) to a paying client. Users were evaluated according to the veracity of the information they submitted—for example, by initially asking them to upload verifiable facts about their local environment (for example, providing photos or details of locations of interest). Once users were verified as reliable, they were provided increasingly valuable information collection tasks to perform, with increasing remuneration for their successful completion of those tasks. The company advertising this capability claimed to already have collection networks established in multiple countries and to be providing information from them to U.S. government agencies. While this kind of “commercially sourced intelligence” raises ethical issues that need to be carefully considered, it nonetheless represents a new idea for potentially tracking developments in hard-to-reach areas of Afghanistan.
Improving the “Finish”
Another idea that Jones advances is getting U.S. drones closer to Afghanistan via negotiated basing arrangements in a neighboring country. This is a traditional step and one the United States has done before—it previously based drones in Pakistan and had a military presence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. However, the U.S. left its Central Asian positions by 2014 and withdrew its drones from Pakistan sometime after its last strike there in 2018. Since that time, the United States has struggled to regain a toehold for counterterrorism in this region. Even before the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, it was trying to negotiate a new presence in Central Asia, and after the Taliban takeover, U.S. policymakers went so far as to explore the possibility of colocating counterterrorism capabilities on Russian bases in the region. None of these efforts came to fruition. With the United States now providing substantial military support to Ukraine in its defense against Russia—and China diplomatically supporting Russia—any cooperation between the United States and either Russia or China in Central Asia seems far-fetched.
Yet the Central Asian states have their own security concerns pertaining to extremism emanating from Afghanistan. On April 18, IS-K conducted its first attack against Uzbekistan by firing 10 Katyusha rockets from Afghanistan toward an Uzbek military position. According to two analysts, the purpose of the attack was “to undermine regional confidence in the Taliban’s ability to provide stability and prevent Islamic State forces from using Afghan territory to launch attacks against neighboring countries and beyond.” This new development may portend an opportunity for the United States to reengage Uzbekistan (as well as Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) on the possibility of access. However, in so doing, it would be wise to try a different tack. Rather than jumping straight to the discussion of drone basing, the United States should offer something of value to these countries: border security training and equipment. By first offering to assist these countries with border security, the United States could both help these countries with a significant security concern and gain a small presence. Over time, the United States could then seek to expand on the relationships and access that these activities would foster. This expansion may or may not ever rise to the point of hosting drones or U.S. special operations forces in Central Asia. But given how hard it is to predict the future in this turbulent region, there is no reason not to hold open the possibility.
Another idea for decreasing the distance for drones to get to Afghanistan is to consider the use of a sea base off the coast of Pakistan. While this has been suggested before, traditional discussions of the idea have focused on the use of U.S. aircraft carriers as the sea base. Parking a carrier off the coast of Pakistan to shorten the distance for drones to reach Afghanistan makes little sense from a cost-benefit perspective, especially as the United States prioritizes its deployment of capital ships to the Indo-Pacific in support of deterring China. Precluding the use of a carrier, however, should not also preclude the use of some other type of ship for the purpose of basing drones at sea. While to my knowledge the United States does not have another ship type readily suitable for this purpose, that should not prevent the U.S. military from looking for ships that it could rent, modify or build for this purpose.
Nor should the United States think only in terms of basing at sea. If it proves too costly to identify a ship that would allow for permanent basing (including lifecycle maintenance) of drones at sea, even creating a “lilypad” for refueling and light maintenance could increase the cycle rate of drone sorties—and, therefore, total coverage time—in Afghanistan.
One last idea for improving the “finish” part of the counterterrorism cycle would be to improve the Taliban’s ability to do it. While it is unlikely that the Taliban would conduct such operations against groups with which it is aligned—such as al-Qaeda—there is no love lost between the Taliban and IS-K. Given that one of the best techniques for countering terrorist threat networks is effective policing, one idea to improve collective efforts to degrade IS-K would be to provide the Taliban with proper police training. While the politics of this idea make it unlikely that the United States could do it directly, Washington could nonetheless encourage international police organizations such as Interpol or the European Union Police (which previously had a training mission in Afghanistan) to offer such training to the Taliban.
These organizations would have to step carefully around the fact that no country has yet recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. But that has not stopped other international organizations—such as the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan—from continuing to engage the Taliban and operate in Afghanistan. Efforts of the Taliban to counter IS-K to date have relied on commanders and foot soldiers steeped in guerilla warfare, not policing. It is no surprise that these efforts have thus far been characterized as much by their ineffectiveness as their brutality. Providing the Taliban with police training could improve the ability of their security forces to discriminately identify and disrupt IS-K, while providing greater protection and reduced collateral damage to innocent Afghans.
New Ideas for a New Era
As with the recommendations advanced by Jones, none of the ideas I have suggested here is easy to implement. But then, nothing about trying to disrupt and degrade terrorist groups in a land-locked country with an uncooperative government is. That should not, however, be an excuse for failing to think creatively and taking a generational view of the problem. The United States pursued on-the-ground counterterrorism in Afghanistan for 20 years with mixed results. During that time, it developed notable and innovative ideas to improve counterterrorism operations (armed drones being one of them). Given the resiliency of groups like IS-K and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, combined with the inherent failures of the Taliban to address them and the downgrading of U.S. goals from their defeat to their continued disruption, it seems prudent to assume that over-the-horizon counterterrorism in Afghanistan could last another 20 years or more. It would, therefore, strongly behoove the United States to pursue both traditional approaches and novel ideas for countering IS-K and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—now and decades into the future.