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Defense officials sidestep questions on Afghan withdrawal plans

House Armed Services Committee presses for answers on meaning of ‘over-the-horizon’ approach touted by Pentagon

Ranking member Mike Rogers, R-Ala., speaks Wednesday during the House Armed Services Committee hearing on "An Update on Afghanistan” on  Washington.
Ranking member Mike Rogers, R-Ala., speaks Wednesday during the House Armed Services Committee hearing on "An Update on Afghanistan” on Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Defense officials have touted an “over-the-horizon” approach to supporting Afghan security forces after U.S. troops leave the country after two decades, and members of the House Armed Services Committee pressed Wednesday on what that elusive talking point actually means.

Lawmakers’ understanding wasn’t much clearer when the hearing adjourned more than two hours later.

President Joe Biden has said the U.S. would have “over-the-horizon” capabilities, said Alabama Rep. Mike D. Rogers, the top Republican on the committee. “I don’t know what that means.”

The U.S. wants to maintain its ability to fight terrorism in the region, answered David Helvey, acting assistant Defense secretary for Indo-Pacific affairs.

“We do have significant capabilities resident within the Middle East, within the Persian Gulf region,” he said. “But we want to explore those options, and we are doing so.”

But Helvey demurred on specifics, saying he could better answer those questions during a classified briefing held immediately following the public hearing.

“I’m hoping that when we get into the classified setting we’re going to get more clarity that gives me comfort that ‘We’re working on it’ means a whole lot more than ‘We’re working on it,’” Rogers said. “Before we consummate this withdrawal, we need to have it worked out.”

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., noted that Afghanistan is a land-locked country, and many of its neighbors in the region, including Iran and China, will not permit U.S. aircraft to fly through their sovereign airspace. To fly in from the Arabian Sea, 300 miles away, would involve flying over Iran or Pakistan.

“The first is impossible, and the second is problematic,” he said.

Asked if the U.S. has any agreements that would allow aircraft to be based in a neighboring country, such as India, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, Helvey said no.

“We are working all the different options that we have, in concert with our State Department and intelligence community colleagues, to establish the type of arrangements that give us the access, basing, and overflights necessary to address the terrorism threats,” he said.

Rep. Anthony G. Brown, D-Md., a retired colonel in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq in 2004, said without additional details, he could envision “over the horizon” meaning the deployment of cruise missiles, special forces, or conventional forces. With the objectives of the original 2001 authorization for use of military force in Afghanistan accomplished, he wondered, would these “over-the-horizon” activities require the administration to get permission from Congress?

Helvey said he didn’t think so, but he would provide a written response at a later time.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., asked how long the Pentagon planned on keeping an aircraft carrier in the region in support of the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, given the pressing demand for these naval assets in other parts of the world, particularly the Pacific region.

Brig. Gen. Matthew Trollinger, deputy director for political-military affairs at the Joint Staff, said he didn’t want to speculate on hypothetical situations.

“That would be considered iteratively, such that once the conditions are such it is not a requirement then it would leave the theater,” he said.

“Is considering hypotheticals not the planning process?” Luria shot back. Doesn’t the military prepare courses of action based on differing scenarios, since the actions of other parties can’t be controlled?

“Are those hypotheticals, or are you saying we don’t have plans for those things?” asked Luria, who spent her 20-year Navy career as an officer on warships.

“I would say we absolutely considered all these variables in coming up with plans, and I would call them contingency plans for a certain set of potential outcomes,” Trollinger said.

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