The US-backed Afghan security forces are facing formidable challenges. In the past year they have lost their territory to repeated attacks by the Taliban and have relied on the US Air Force to push back the insurgents.
As the Afghan government’s credibility has declined, militias – once the main powers in the days of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s – have re-armed and re-emerged, even challenging Afghan security forces in some areas.
“If the President approves this, we can still provide some military support to the Afghan National Security Forces after we leave,” said William H. McRaven, the retired Navy admiral who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden said in an interview on Wednesday.
A key issue now for the Pentagon and the secret services is how easily counter-terrorism can be carried out from outside Afghanistan. The history of such operations has been extremely mixed. Cruise missile strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan from distant ships had a low success rate.
The United States has a number of air bases in the Persian Gulf region and Jordan, and the Pentagon operates a large regional air force headquarters in Qatar. But the further the special forces have to travel to hit a target, the more likely the operations will fail, either by missing their mark or leading to a catastrophic failure that officials say could kill American soldiers or civilians on the ground who have studied the record.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who met allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels on Wednesday, referred to the military’s ability to hit terrorist targets in distant hot spots “in Africa and elsewhere” where few, if any, troops are stationed and appear to be related to drone strikes and commando raids in Somalia, Yemen and Libya in recent years.
“There is probably no place in the world that the United States and its allies cannot reach,” Austin told reporters.