WITHIN THE BIDEN WHITE HOUSE, AND IN corners of the U.S. military and intelligence bureaucracy, it is the phrase of the moment: “over the horizon.”
The expression refers to efforts to counter terrorism from afar, without troops on the ground, and it has been in the defense lexicon dating back to the Cold War. The appeal is obvious: When dealing with threats like Al-Qaeda or like-minded terrorist groups, why bother with dangerous, forward deployed missions in unstable places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or North Africa, when you can launch a Tomahawk missile from somewhere in the Arabian Sea and be done with it? “Over the horizon,” to Joe Biden, means the end of “endless wars.” You can hit the enemy from above, and from far away. Thus, we can bug out of Afghanistan and not worry about it.
Biden has used the phrase before in reference to Afghanistan; so have Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley. The latest iteration came during the president’s August 16 speech following the fall of the Afghan capital of Kabul to the Taliban. Trying to reassure the nation that pulling U.S. forces out of the country would not interfere with the critical objective of preventing a terrorist attack on American soil, Biden said, “We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed.”
The problem: While the strategy is politically popular among a war-weary public, in defense and intelligence circles in Washington, and among U.S. allies, “over the horizon” is a deeply controversial— and mostly unpopular—concept.
To understand why, think back to the 1990s. After Al-Qaeda’s twin attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, then-President Bill Clinton ordered the launch of Tomahawk missile strikes into Afghanistan and Sudan, trying to hit the terrorist group’s training bases and take out Osama Bin Laden. The target was missed, taking out a pharmaceutical factory in the process. Back then, points out Bradley Bowman, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and now senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, “over the horizon” became a pejorative. It was the definition of what smart counterterrorism wasn’t.
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