Kabul: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Friday that the US military is already performing so-called over-the-horizon operations, undertaken from outside the nation, as it is currently withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials have long promoted the military’s presence in other parts of the Middle East, such as the Gulf region, for its ability to provide over-the-horizon capabilities, but General Frank McKenzie has warned that this means longer flight times to and from Afghanistan and less time for assets to be over the country.
Speaking at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Austin refused to confirm a claim in Wednesday’s The New York Times report that the Pentagon is considering providing military air support to Afghan forces if Kabul or another major city falls to the Taliban after US soldiers leave. Instead, the Defense Secretary noted that capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) have already begun to be transported into Afghanistan from outside the nation during the ongoing pullout.
“In terms of our efforts to establish over-the-horizon capability, I would just point to the fact that, as we have retrograded a lot of our capability out of country, we are doing a lot of things over-the-horizon now,” Austin said. “ISR is being flown from [Gulf countries]. A lot of our combat aircraft missions are being conducted from platforms in the Gulf and so we have the capability now to do that.”
Austin also stated at the hearing that the military is aiming to reduce the distance between over-the-horizon forces. “What we are looking for is the ability to shorten the legs going forward by stationing some capability in neighboring countries. That is still a work in progress,” he said, without specifying a time frame for achieving such an objective.
The United States currently has no basing agreements with Afghanistan’s neighbors, and various geopolitical factors, such as the countries’ ties to Russia, could prove difficult to make such arrangements.
Meanwhile, Washington said it will do whatever it takes to protect Afghans who worked as translators for US forces and who fear for their lives as foreign troops leave Afghanistan. “I can commit to you that it’s my belief that the United States government will do what is necessary in order to ensure the safety and protection of those that have been working with us for two decades,” Gen Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional panel. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that extra personnel had been given the task of looking into visa requests.
However, the US State Department on Friday announced the suspension of all visa operations at the US Embassy in Kabul, further diminishing hope of escape for interpreters and other Afghans who helped the US war effort and face Taliban retribution after the troop pullout. About 18,000 Afghan interpreters, commandos and others who aided US forces are waiting for decisions on visas, a backlog that members of Congress say could take more than two years to clear.
The embassy will stop processing visas on Sunday in response to rising COVID-19 cases throughout Afghanistan, said the department. Rep. Michael T. McCaul, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee who has championed the Afghan allies, demanded swift action from the Biden administration to fix the visa holdups. “These Afghans will have a bullseye on their backs from the moment we leave the country,” he said. “If President Biden abandons them, he is signing their death warrants.” The State Department’s announcement did not state how long the cessation of visa processing was expected to last.
This comes even as a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Friday that would add 20,000 visas and lower obstacles for the Afghan nationals to come to the United States as it draws down troops in the region, The Hill reported Friday.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and would almost double the number of authorized visas in the Special Immigrant Program since 2014.
”The U.S. cannot renege on its commitment to the Afghans who’ve risked their lives to support US efforts in Afghanistan,” Shaheen said in a statement. ”The Special Immigrant Visa is a proven and well-vetted pathway to safety for these Afghans, but serious improvements are needed to uphold the integrity and improve the efficiency of the program. Increasing the number of authorized visas and removing cumbersome requirements that leave folks in limbo are essential to provide for those who’ve worked alongside our troops.”
The bill also makes the application process easier by reducing the employment requirement from two years to one, postpones a required medical exam for applicants and their families until they reach the United States, and removing a required statement regarding the threat the applicant faces, according to The Hill’s story.
All this comes even as Afghans are facing an increasingly violent security situation in the country. In fact, ahead of next week’s NATO summit, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged that the decision by NATO to end its military presence in Afghanistan entailed “risks” and that the Taliban taking over the capital Kabul was now a possibility. However, Stoltenberg claimed that NATO had helped train a much stronger Afghan military and that it would continue to support the authorities.