This raises an interesting 21st-century question (one familiar to pandemic-era employees and their bosses): When do we need to be physically present around the world, and when can we operate more remotely?
In the case of Germany, the troops are an expression of solidarity with allies and a warning to Russia, which is again amassing troops to threaten Ukraine. In announcing the U.S. deployment to Germany, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declared, “This planned increase in U.S. personnel underscores our commitment to Germany and the entire NATO alliance.” He added, “These forces will strengthen deterrence and defense in Europe. They will augment our existing abilities to prevent conflict, and, if necessary, fight and win.” In return, Austin welcomed “Germany’s upcoming naval deployment to the Indo-Pacific region,” which he viewed as a “tangible sign of Germany’s commitment to project stability and uphold the rules-based international order.”
Forward positioning of U.S. and ally forces still serves a critical role, especially when the deployment is designed to grab the attention of aggressive world powers (e.g., Russia and China). It is significant that, along with the troop deployment, the United States exercised some serious soft power in issuing major new sanctions against Russia. Troops are one but certainly not the only component in deterring Russian aggression.
Granted, we cannot be everywhere throughout the world — nor should we want to be. What we do not know is whether we have adequate alternatives. As the New York Times reported, even though U.S. troops are set to leave Afghanistan, “the Pentagon, American spy agencies and Western allies are refining plans to deploy a less visible but still potent force in the region to prevent the country from again becoming a terrorist base.” That includes examining places nearby where we can “reposition forces, possibly to neighboring Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to United States officials.”
There is legitimate concern as to whether we can conduct counterterrorism operations from afar or, as some have suggested, pull Afghan troops out to train elsewhere. The Times notes: “The history of such operations has a decidedly mixed record. Cruise missile strikes launched from distant ships against terrorist targets in Afghanistan have had a low rate of success.” Using drones or dropping in security forces for a specific raid may not be an adequate substitute for boots on the ground. President Biden commented Thursday in very general terms, “We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces.” What that amounts to is unclear.
My colleague and military historian Max Boot writes, “It will be hard for the United States to conduct over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations because it will lose visibility on the threat: A U.S. military withdrawal also means the withdrawal of many intelligence personnel.” He adds that “even if threats are detected, it will be hard to eradicate them — long-range air strikes are likely to be inaccurate and commando operations risky.”
We will find out whether remote forces can detect a resurgence of terrorists and take action as needed to knock them out. We nevertheless should recognize that even in the best-case scenario (e.g., solid intelligence that helps detect and prevent terrorists with capacity to attack the United States from reassembling), the work of building a stable government and protecting women’s rights will become extraordinarily difficult.
We cannot defend girls’ rights to schooling from Tajikistan or even Pakistan. In withdrawing our troops, we leave the people of Afghanistan largely to their own devices to maintain an intact country, a functional government and a society that does not revert to Islamist fundamentalist rule. To do some jobs, you really have to show up in person.
A note to readers: I will be taking a few days off, returning April 20.