The US just got out of Afghanistan and it's already at risk of getting sucked into another country's war

Syed Zargahm/Getty Images
  • The US is reportedly talking to Pakistan about supporting US airstrikes in Afghanistan in exchange for helping Islamabad with its counterterrorism operations.

  • But if the US isn't careful, deepening its security relationship with Pakistan could drag the US into Islamabad's internal conflicts.

  • Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

While the longest war in US history is finally over, the United States still has business to attend to in Afghanistan.

US troops may no longer be huddling in large bases on the outskirts of Kabul or engaging in counterinsurgency operations, but the Biden administration has been clear that the US will conduct over-the-horizon counterterrorism strikes if the situation calls for it.

US officials are currently seeking arrangements with Afghanistan's neighbors to make those over-the-horizon strikes easier to execute. Washington is reportedly negotiating with Pakistan for long-term access to its airspace in exchange for assisting Islamabad with its own counterterrorism operations.

An agreement like this appears to be a common-sense measure ensuring the US military possesses the operational flexibility to keep the US homeland safe. Yet if US officials aren't careful, deepening the security relationship with Pakistan could be a prelude to another 20 years of war-on-autopilot.

The US should never apologize for striking terrorist operatives who have the capability and intent of attacking the homeland.

al-Baghdadi raid
A drone photo of the compound where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in northwestern Syria, October 28, 2019. Ahmet Weys/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Indeed, the CIA and US special-operations community have become highly proficient in doing precisely that.

Numerous terrorist leaders have been neutralized over the past two decades, including Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Related video: Afghan actor Farhad Khan now a refugee in Pakistan

Utilizing human sources on the ground, highly sophisticated surveillance technology, and valuable intelligence from allies and partners, the US has made it extraordinarily difficult for terrorist groups to operate unfettered.

The US has such an extensive array of weapons at its disposal that it is virtually impossible for organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS to establish safe-havens. Just last month, a US missile fired by a drone killed a senior Al Qaeda official in northwest Syria, hundreds of miles from where US troops are present.

But despite some successes, targeted killing by the US has transformed into a crutch devoid of a larger strategy. What should be used in extreme cases against high-profile terrorists who are plotting attacks against the US is now a common tactic in an unending war on terrorism.

While President Joe Biden has slowed down the pace of US drone strikes considerably, Washington has vastly expanded the range of groups and potential targets. Today, it is not so much terrorist leaders or key operatives who are the majority of targets but low-level foot soldiers who are as likely to join a terrorist group for monetary reasons as ideological ones.

Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossing Taliban flag
A Taliban flag flies at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. -/AFP/Getty

Look no further than Somalia, where the US is acting not against a transnational terrorist organization, but against Al Shabaab, a ruthless but homegrown domestic insurgency with a local objective of overthrowing the Somali government.

If the US isn't careful, it could experience a similar trajectory in Pakistan.

While the South Asian country no longer makes the State Department's top 10 list in terms of terrorist violence, Pakistan remains victim to an alphabet soup of militant outfits. Casualties among the Pakistani army occur on a weekly basis.

With the exception of Al-Qaeda holdouts in Pakistan's tribal regions - the UN assessed in June that Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri is likely located somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region - most of those outfits are far more interested in replacing the Pakistani government than attacking the US directly.

US security officials understand the dynamics in Pakistan's tribal regions well. During the Obama and Trump administrations, the US struck anti-Pakistan terrorist elements multiple times. US precision-missile strikes targeted the leadership structure of the Pakistani Taliban, killing the organization's chief in 2009, 2013, and 2018.

At that time, US military pressure made some degree of sense; thousands of US troops were stationed in next-door Afghanistan, and some of these areas served as critical logistical and recruitment zones for the Afghan Taliban.

REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

Yet the situation has changed. US forces are no longer in Afghanistan, having fully withdrawn last August after 20 years of inconclusive war.

The importance of Pakistan as a logistics and transportation hub for supplies into Afghanistan is negligible since the US military is out of the country. Pakistan may still be a valuable counterterrorism partner, but thanks to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamabad's leverage over Washington has dwindled.

Access to Pakistani airspace would certainly be beneficial to the US from an operational point of view. But US officials need to be careful about the concessions they are willing to offer in return. Islamabad will likely request concrete US intelligence support and perhaps even covert action against anti-Pakistan armed groups.

Accepting Pakistan's request, however, would drag the US into Islamabad's internal conflicts at a time when the Biden administration should be getting more discriminatory in when, where, and against whom it targets. Putting Washington in the middle of a long, ugly intra-Pakistani dispute risks making Pakistan's enemies America's as well.

Biden claims the US is ending an era of "relentless war." If Biden intends to follow through with this promise, he needs to ensure any security and intelligence partnership with Pakistan is limited in scope and keeps the US military from becoming an active combatant in Islamabad's internal conflict.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

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