Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday said the US military has already begun so-called “over the horizon capabilities” for operations in Afghanistan, which is Pentagon jargon for spying on and bombing the country from outside its borders.
Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that combat and surveillance missions are being conducted in Afghanistan by aircraft that were either launched from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf or from airbases that are located in Gulf nations.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the “vast majority” of MQ-9 Reaper drone missions inside Afghanistan are being flown from outside the country.
Austin declined to confirm a report from The New York Times that said the Pentagon was considering providing air support for the Afghan government in the event that a major city like Kabul appeared to be falling to the Taliban after US troops leave the country. Up until this point, US officials have only hinted at future airstrikes in Afghanistan after the withdrawal against groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS.
Authorizing limited strikes against the Taliban or any other groups inside Afghanistan after the withdrawal would just be a continuation of the war. The Taliban would also see it as a violation of the Doha agreement, which would make the group less likely to continue peace talks with the Afghan government.
Austin also told Congress that the Pentagon was still working on establishing a military base in a neighboring country to make bombing Afghanistan easier after the pullout. “What we are looking for is the ability to shorten the legs going forward by stationing some capability in neighboring countries. That is still a work in progress,” he said.
The US has reportedly tried to strike a basing deal with regional countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan. But so far, no agreements have been made. Pakistan has publicly denied that it would again host US troops, but the fact that US warplanes recently used Pakistani airspace to bomb Afghanistan raised questions about a possible secret deal between Islamabad and Washington.
On Tuesday, US Central Command said that the withdrawal process was over 50 percent complete, although the command is not disclosing troop numbers. When President Biden ordered the withdrawal, the US had somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 troops in the country. Some are expected to stay behind to protect the US embassy in Kabul.