Biden and NATO must face the consequences of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan
In his June 8 testimony before the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, my one-time deputy, John Roth, now acting secretary of the Air Force, stated that the cost of maintaining an “over-the-horizon” anti-terrorist capability in the Middle East and South Asia, subsequent to the departure of American ground forces from Afghanistan, would approximate $10 billion. That, at least, is what the Air Force has budgeted for this effort.
“JR,” as he is known, is an exceedingly talented and experienced budgeteer — he served as assistant Air Force secretary for financial management until taking his current position. But even Roth cannot accurately predict just what countering terrorists throughout the two regions might cost — especially if, as is increasingly anticipated, the Taliban returns to power in Kabul. His $10 billion figure is nothing more than a guess, since there is no way to estimate the actual tempo of operations in Afghanistan, which will be driven by the nature and extent of terrorist activity throughout the country.
On its face, with American forces no longer having to support and maintain air bases in Afghanistan, notably at Bagram Air Base, it should be less costly to operate from bases in the Arabian Gulf that already hosts U.S. forces. These bases include Al Udeid in Qatar, Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and bases in Kuwait. On the other hand, all of these bases involve greater distances and flight times from Afghanistan, with the result that fuel consumption costs will be higher, especially if there is a constant need to operate against Taliban-supported terrorists. Moreover, response times from these bases to targets in Afghanistan will be longer — flights from the Gulf are measured in hours, not minutes — and could well afford terrorists sufficient time to evade attacks from incoming American aircraft.
American air units also train the still fledgling Afghan Air Force, and the Biden administration is committed to continuing the training of Afghan forces once American units depart. How this training might be conducted in the future is very much an open question. It certainly will be more complicated to do so, since each training mission would, of necessity, involve aircraft that must deploy from bases in the Gulf. Indeed, even if Washington obtained Pakistan’s consent to fly drones from its territory — which might provide supplementary support for the anti-terrorism mission — that would not solve the challenge of maintaining the training regimen for Afghan forces.
Washington reportedly has reached out to the governments of the Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to explore the possibility of once again operating from air bases in those countries. U.S. aircraft were able to take off from Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and briefly at Tulob, Tajikistan. The short distances to Afghanistan enabled quick strikes against Taliban and terrorist targets, especially in the northern part of the country. U.S. forces departed from Kyrgyzstan in 2014, however, and terminated operations from Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan, after then-President Islam Karimov expelled them in 2005.
It is far from clear whether these governments will permit American forces to return to bases on their territory. All three states are under tremendous pressure from Russia and China, fellow members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, not to reach any such agreements with Washington. Moreover, the Taliban, recalling how potent American attacks were from those bases in the days preceding and during Operation Enduring Freedom, have threatened these neighboring states with reprisals should they once again host American forces. Finally, even if any of the Central Asian governments are prepared to accept American units on their territory, they may demand a very high “rental” price to do so, thereby adding to the cost of American operations in Afghanistan.
There is also the question of NATO’s role in Afghanistan once American forces have departed. NATO air forces have operated alongside their American counterparts from Shindand Air Base near Herat in the western part of the country for humanitarian flights, training and medical flights. At one time, French forces also operated from Dushanbe International Airport in Tajikistan, until 2013, as did German units from Uzbekistan’s Termez Airport in 2015.
Whether either France and/or Germany would again deploy their forces from Central Asian bases is an open question, especially if the host countries demand payment for the privilege of doing so. Moreover, there are no analogous NATO installations in the Gulf, although Britain, France and Turkey all have bases there.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks has acknowledged there is much work still to be done. As she put it, “We are working through all that right now. … We have to take into account … allied approaches.” President Biden could give this effort a good head start when he attends the June 14 NATO Summit. He should take the opportunity of his participation in the summit to obtain commitments from the allies to seek new arrangements with friendly Gulf states, or with Central Asian states, in order to continue their own training and support efforts in Afghanistan. He should also seek allied commitments to join in the training of Afghan forces outside the country.
Should the president be successful in obtaining allied consent, the devil would still remain in the details. It always does.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.