Raid that killed ISIS leader in Syria next to impossible in Afghanistan

Raid that killed ISIS leader in Syria next to impossible in Afghanistan

A daring raid by U.S. Special Forces last week led to the death of Islamic State group leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in a remote Syrian border town, marking a key victory in America’s war against Islamic extremists.

It was exactly the type of operation that now is virtually impossible for the U.S. military to pull off in Afghanistan.

Specialists say the al-Qurayshi mission in Syria’s Idlib province has ironically brought into focus the lack of tools the U.S. has to deal with growing terrorist threats in a still-unstable Afghanistan. Western military forces withdrew from the country last summer after two decades of war. President Biden pushed ahead with the exit despite strong resistance in private from Pentagon leaders and in public from counterterrorism experts, who warned that an American military presence in the country was needed to effectively strike extremists in Afghanistan and across the region.

Now, the kinds of risky U.S. ground missions that have resulted in the deaths of al-Qurayshi, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019, and, most famously, al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden in 2011 are essentially off the table in Afghanistan. In each of those three cases, U.S. troops launched from inside the country or from a neighboring nation, making it possible to get in and out quickly.

On the way out of Afghanistan, U.S. officials spoke of monitoring and heading off threats from “over the horizon,” but the reality leaves limited capacity to act against an al Qaeda or ISIS leader hiding out in suburban Kabul or Kandahar.

“The U.S. would not be able to conduct the strike that killed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in Syria in Afghanistan. Although you could launch from ships, the closest U.S. base to Afghanistan is Al Dhafra [Air Base] in the UAE, which is over [600 miles] from Kabul, and a round trip of over [1,400 miles] is beyond the range” of U.S. helicopters, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, now the director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The U.S. could use unmanned drones to strike terrorist targets in Afghanistan, but those “over the horizon” missions are difficult given the distances American aircraft would have to travel and the lack of personnel on the ground providing real-time intelligence. Such missions also would increase the chances of civilian casualties, which is the main reason Mr. Biden opted for a raid rather than an airstrike on al-Qurayshi’s compound.

The al-Qurayshi operation in many ways provided a major foreign policy victory for a beleaguered president facing a host of domestic crises. But it also gave Mr. Biden’s opponents on Capitol Hill even more ammunition to hammer him on the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, which appears destined to be one of the fateful policy decisions of his presidency.

“We don’t have a counterterrorism plan, we don’t have reliable partners or intelligence collection on the ground, and we don’t have bases or assets nearby like we do in Syria,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“As a result, the type of operation that resulted in al-Qurayshi’s death is beyond difficult in Afghanistan, and that’s also partly why we haven’t seen an airstrike in Afghanistan since the last U.S. troop left Afghan soil,” he told The Washington Times this week.

Relying solely on drones as a counterterrorism policy has drawbacks. Should the U.S. identify a terrorist target outside Kabul, Gen. Spoehr said, the best option would be to launch MQ-9 Reaper drones carrying Hellfire missiles. But even those cutting-edge aircraft would need at least several hours to reach Afghanistan, and the lack of intelligence assets on the ground means it would be difficult to be certain a target was still on site.

Still, that is better than manned missions.

Drone strikes “would be preferred to a manned fighter or bomber strike because if there was a pilot ejection, it would be hard to recover the pilot,” Gen. Spoehr said. 

A ‘resource-intensive’ effort

Pentagon officials have readily acknowledged how tough it is to conduct a counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, which is poised to again become the global epicenter for extremism under a second round of Taliban rule. 

Army Lt. Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, nominated to be the next head of U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers this week that over-the-horizon strikes on terrorist targets are “difficult but not impossible.” He acknowledged the unique problems posed by a landlocked nation such as Afghanistan, which forces the U.S. to seek flyover rights from neighboring countries that may not always be forthcoming.

Even with such cooperation, the massive distances create major headaches.

“We spend approximately two-thirds of the time just flying there and getting back,” Gen. Kurilla told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his confirmation hearing. “It’s resource-intensive to be able to do the finding, and then the fixing and finishing of those targets that you’re going after.”

Although a continued military presence in Iraq and Syria faces opposition on both sides of the political aisle in Washington, there is no doubt that having troops, equipment and facilities in those nations enabled the U.S. to quickly launch the al-Qurayshi raid. The U.S. mission in Syria also has helped nurture a close working relationship with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who have proved vital in providing intelligence on ISIS targets across Syria.

The U.S. no longer has such capability in Afghanistan, with a just barely functioning communications line to the ruling Taliban.

“In order to use drone strikes in a country, you need to have signals intelligence collection capabilities,” Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator under President Trump, told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.

“You need to have human sources on the ground who are prepared to tell information to the United States that puts their own lives at risk, but they’re willing to do it because they know the United States will have their back,” he said. “We don’t have those assets in [Afghanistan] anymore.”

Even with forces on the ground, drone strikes can often lead to collateral damage. At the height of the chaotic withdrawal effort in August, a U.S. drone strike that was supposed to be targeting an ISIS operative instead killed 10 civilians, including seven children, military officials concluded after a lengthy investigation. 

The incident led Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin late last month to launch a comprehensive plan to prevent civilian casualties.

Preventing such casualties was a key reason Mr. Biden decided against an airstrike on al-Qurayshi’s hideout. Innocent women and children were also at the location, though some died when al-Qurayshi detonated an explosive device rather than be killed or captured by U.S. troops, the Pentagon said.