The U.S. Looks To Support The Afghan Military From 'Over The Horizon' President Biden and the Pentagon say that after U.S. forces leave Afghanistan they will still assist that country from afar. But what precisely does that mean and can it be effective?

The U.S. Looks To Support The Afghan Military From 'Over The Horizon'

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden and his Pentagon chiefs say the U.S. will assist Afghanistan's military from afar even after American troops pull out. Now, they have not announced details, but they do have a common refrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We will maintain over-the-horizon capacity to suppress...

LLOYD AUSTIN: We will continue to support them with over-the-horizon logistics.

MARK MILLEY: We have to sort out doing it over the horizon.

KELLY: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre looks into how this phrase might translate into action.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Right now over the horizon is more a fuzzy concept than a polished military plan. But when the U.S. forces leave Afghanistan in September, if not sooner, we're likely to find out fast exactly what it means.

JOE VOTEL: The Taliban will test the Afghan security forces very early on. They need to be prepared for that.

MYRE: Retired Army General Joe Votel oversaw the Afghan war effort for three years.

VOTEL: Whatever support we're prepared to provide over the horizon for that - we need to be prepared for that as well.

MYRE: The U.S. doesn't have military bases in any of the six countries that border landlocked Afghanistan. Pakistan has already said it won't host U.S. troops. And retired Army General David Petraeus, who also led U.S. troops in Afghanistan, doesn't see any other realistic options. He's speaking from home with his dog chiming in.

DAVID PETRAEUS: I doubt that we will...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

PETRAEUS: ...Need a base in Central Asian states any time soon.

MYRE: The closest existing U.S. bases are in the Gulf, including an air base in Qatar. That's a long way from Afghanistan.

PETRAEUS: So maybe you get some drones flying from there. And that's a long flight. For a drone, that can take six to eight hours.

MYRE: When asked at a news conference, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Mark Milley, declined to speak directly to any future U.S. air support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILLEY: The Afghan air force does 80 to 90% of all air strikes in support of the Afghan ground forces. We're actually doing very few. The key will be the Afghan air force.

MYRE: If U.S. assistance is limited, then how well will the Afghan forces be able to defend against the Taliban? Joe Votel says parts of the Afghan military are very capable.

VOTEL: A lot of my focus during my career was on the Afghan special operations forces, who are quite good, who have good leaders, who have good training, who are well-equipped. And I think that they will perform well.

MYRE: After two decades in the country, the U.S. has developed strong ties with the Afghan military. And improved technology can generate some intelligence without American troops on the ground. Still, Votel acknowledges that U.S.-Afghan military relations built by working in the field day by day, side by side will suffer. Petraeus says he worries about the scenario a couple of years down the road.

PETRAEUS: My preference would have been to just manage this problem, and we were managing reasonably well with 3,500 troops. We may, two, three years from now or perhaps even sooner, come to regret this decision.

MYRE: With U.S. withdrawal already underway, the slim hopes for a peace agreement with the Taliban have all but vanished, and the Taliban already control much of the countryside. But General Milley says people shouldn't jump to conclusions.

MILLEY: The Afghan security forces can fight, and they're fighting for their own country now. It's not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls or any of those kind of dire predictions.

MYRE: Afghanistan's uncertain future is fast approaching. In fact, it's just over the horizon.

Greg Myre, NPR News.

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