His administration is still working on its policy to pursue terrorists in Afghanistan after the US troops leave.
As reported Friday the US military will continue to have the authority to strike against Taliban forces in support of Afghan forces. However, this authority does not extend to counter-terrorism operations against individuals suspected of plotting attacks against the US homeland and its allies.
The CIA and the US military have been able to kill terrorists in Afghanistan for years. These decisions could be made by intelligence and military officials, and they did not always require the White House’s approval.
According to sources familiar with the matter, Biden is preparing to end the war. His National Security Council is examining whether to raise the bar for CIA and Pentagon to conduct deadly drone strikes and commando attacks once the US troops have left.
has been informed by sources that the Biden administration is still debating whether or not to remove Afghanistan’s combat zone designation. This distinction, which in recent years has had a significant impact on how the US can use lethal drone strikes and commando attacks in any given country, has led to a lot of confusion.
Trump’s administration gave commanders in the field the authority to make targeted decisions in countries such as Somalia and Yemen. The rules are being reviewed by the Biden administration. It remains to be seen whether the administration will place Afghanistan on the same footing as other countries or if it will implement specific criteria for terrorists in Afghanistan after withdrawal. Bobby Chesney, director of Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, said that it makes sense that we should apply the same rules for Afghanistan when we withdraw from the engagement. This is part of the transition away from Afghanistan as a theater of combat operations.
The NSC deliberations, which are nested in a broader analysis of Pentagon and CIA authorities worldwide, are still in their early stages. According to sources, options have not yet been presented to senior White House officials for final approval.
This uncertainty has left the military and CIA in limbo while they wait for updated guidance about what approval they will require to launch a lethal strike after Biden declares war over.
Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, told reporters Wednesday that the US will continue to work with countries that “share our interest in countering a serious foreign plotting capability emanating out of Afghanistan,” but that Afghan security forces would “take the lead” after the US troop withdrawal.
According to sources familiar with the matter, CIA officials are still uncertain about the future direction of the agency’s operations in Afghanistan. As predictions regarding Afghanistan’s stability become more uncertain, agency officials are keeping a close eye on the security situation in Afghanistan.
General Scott Miller, the top US general for Afghanistan, stated Tuesday that “the security situation is not very good.”
Lawmakers pose questions
Former officials and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have repeatedly raised concerns about the US’s plans to collect intelligence and prevent threats to the homeland once the pullout is completed.
Rep. Andy Kim (a New Jersey Democrat) told this week that although there had been initial discussions between administration officials and lawmakers about how the US would conduct counter-terrorism operations, he has yet to see anything that outlines what capabilities — both covert or non-covert — and what authorities will be available.
Some of these questions are addressed by the current NSC review. Deliberations about how to empower the CIA in Afghanistan and the military in Afghanistan show the delicate balance Biden must strike when trying to “end” a conflict with an enemy who is still fighting, without compromising the ability to carry out counter-terrorism strikes.
The final parameters may indicate how committed the Biden administration to “ending America’s forever war.”
“Will we continue to strike al Qaeda?” If there is no direct threat to the US, will we have legal rights to continue to attack the Taliban? Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, which specializes in foreign and defense policy issues. “That will be a judgment decision for the Biden administration. It will be more a political decision.”
Maintaining the status quo
The Biden administration has been examining its standards for military strikes and CIA strikes in terrorist hotspots around the globe. This includes Somalia and Yemen. Their status as “areas active hostilities”, has been hotly debated over the years. The White House has tightened its control over the agency’s lethal operations around the world while this larger review is still being completed.
The legal authority of the CIA to strike in Afghanistan would not be affected if Afghanistan was placed under the same guidelines that non-conventional battlefields. The 2001 al Qaeda/ISIS war authorization will continue to allow the US military to carry out airstrikes. However, it could limit the forceful use of force.
One possibility is to review the criteria the CIA can use to target terrorist groups. Sources say that membership in al Qaeda or ISIS does not automatically make a person eligible for a strike. The new policy also clarifies the level of authorization the agency will need before it can carry out a strike. This new framework would require a greater interagency vetting and greater White House involvement before the CIA can conduct a deadly operation in Afghanistan.
Another source said to that the review is being fueled also by a concrete reality. That is, the CIA will lose many of its bases used in the past for drone programs as part of the withdrawal.
This is because the US has no bases in the countries bordering Afghanistan.
O’Hanlon stated that he was more concerned about the US’s capabilities than the authorities. “I don’t believe a Taliban takeover is possible. However, the Afghan government will lose access to certain areas it controls. This will result in some dark spots on your radar screen.”
CIA Director Bill Burns admitted to Congress earlier this year that the withdrawal would affect the CIA’s ability to collect intelligence. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, echoed that assessment in an April interview with.
“It’s true, as the CIA Director said that we won’t have a similar level of presence on the ground as we did when we had 3,000 troops, 30,000 troops, or 100,000 troops,” Sullivan stated at the time. He stressed that the agency would have enough capacity to warn al Qaeda before it gathers again an external plotting capability to attack the homeland.
It is not clear what this capability would look like. One source familiar with ongoing discussions said that there has been considerable discussion about the possibility of conducting counter-terrorism missions “over the horizon”. However, these will not be as effective as current US strike capabilities and will require a greater resource commitment.
Sources said that targets in Afghanistan are becoming more scarce and that the resources needed to keep a presence and execute those operations, especially against lower-level actors, are no longer worth the effort.
According to a source familiar with ongoing discussions, “Every shot against a high-value target, or a low-level operative costs basically the same.”
Kim stated that the administration is still working through many logistical issues on this front and suggested it would be logical to review the criteria used to determine high-value targets, given the US’s limited resources.
He said that if there are fewer ISR capabilities or fewer strike capabilities, it will inherently put a strain on what they could target. This refers to both lethal strikes by the Pentagon and the CIA.
“They would definitely want to narrow it to their top priorities to ensure that it’s being used most efficiently.”