Republican senators are concerned that the United States is less safe since the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and abandoning a strategic location from which to strike terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Sen. Debra Fischer (R-Neb.) said unlike what President Joe Biden said, the United States does not have the capability to conduct successful drone strikes against terrorists without a reliable partner in that region.
“[Biden] was stating that we don’t have to have an on-the-ground presence in Afghanistan to keep Americans safe and that we can rely instead on over-the-horizon strikes, where we use drones and other assets to take out terrorists from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Since then, we’ve learned that the president wasn’t being truthful,” said Fischer.
Fischer was referring to comments Biden made on Aug. 16
“We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence,” said Biden during a speech in which he explained his decision to have complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
He added that “If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan. We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”
Republican senators, however, said they have doubts about how quickly and effectively the United States can actually conduct counterterrorism strikes after being briefed by top military leaders.
“At the Senate Armed Services committee’s open hearing on Afghanistan’s disaster, CENTCOM commander General Kenneth McKenzie testified on the immense challenges that we face in preventing terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS from using Afghanistan as a launching pad to attack us here at home,” said Fischer.
Fischer said the United States is currently not able to successfully identify, locate, or reach terrorist targets because of a lack of a strategic partnership in the region.
“To do this effectively, we first need a U.S. presence in the region or at least a reliable on-the-ground partner there. Without that, our ability to gather the intelligence necessary to pick the right targets is severely degraded. We saw the tragic consequences of acting on incomplete intelligence on Aug. 29 when a drone strike mistakenly killed 10 innocent Afghans, including seven children, and an aid worker with ties to the United States,” said Fischer.
“Our general has confirmed that it’s exactly extremely difficult and costly to get the intelligence and conduct the types of operation the president said he would do,” said ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), piggybacking on Fischer’s comments.
The Nebraska senator criticized the botched Aug. 29 U.S. drone strike that had killed innocent Afghan civilians, citing it as an example of the difficulty that the United States faces in conducting remote military strikes.
“We knew the strike hit civilians within four to five hours after the strike occurred, and U.S. Central Command issued a press release saying that,” Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie told members of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on Sept. 29, in responding to questions from Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.).
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also said the Pentagon knew about civilian deaths within “several hours” of the strike, as did Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
During an Aug. 31 speech from the White House, Biden told the American public that the United States does not need a physical presence in Afghanistan to keep Americans safe from terrorists.
“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground—or very few if needed,” Biden said during his remarks about the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“We’ve shown that capacity just in the last week. We struck ISIS-K remotely, days after they murdered 13 of our servicemembers and dozens of innocent Afghans,” Biden said of the botched Afghan drone strike on Aug. 29.
Fischer said unlike countries like Yemen and Syria, Afghanistan is landlocked so it makes it impossible to strike a target remotely without permission from at least one regional partner.
“When it comes to Afghanistan, our drones have to cross over other countries on the way. And those countries are not obligated to allow us to use their airspace. General McKenzie confirmed to me during our hearing that because we have withdrawn from Afghanistan, we need to rely on Pakistan’s airspace,” said Fischer, adding that Pakistan is a supporter of the Taliban and could revoke the use of their airspace.
She said that the Afghanistan withdrawal has put the United States in a vulnerable military position.
“Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Milley said during last week’s hearing that presidents are elected to make strategic decisions. He also told us that Afghanistan withdrawal was a strategic failure.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ken Silva contributed to this report.