During the classified session, senators were told that that option is being seriously considered, the lawmakers added. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the U.S. Central Command chief, went into detail about specific types of aircraft and launching points that could be used to strike terrorist targets in Afghanistan.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also described to senators the nature of his conversations with his Russian counterpart, Valery Gerasimov, the senators added. The Wall Street Journal first reported that Milley raised the issue with Gerasimov, but the further details of the talks have not been previously reported.
“It’s their territory. But I think, realistically, Russia has influence there,” Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said of the neighboring countries. “And so [Russia] may not have a veto, but they certainly have an influence. So you have to talk to them.”
Representatives for the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The revelations come as officials are publicly sounding the alarm about Afghanistan once again becoming a haven for terror groups seeking to attack the U.S. During a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Milley said al Qaeda could reconstitute there in six to 36 months.
That the U.S. finds itself potentially relying on Moscow for its counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan is a stunning turn of events, after the U.S. withdrawal from the country prompted a rapid collapse of the Afghan government at the hands of the Taliban. Housing the operations on Russian bases also exposes the U.S. apparatus to intelligence-collection by the Russians.
Lawmakers from both parties are not confident about the ability of the U.S. military to rely exclusively on over-the-horizon capabilities to strike terrorist groups in Afghanistan. They also have concerns about the accuracy of the drone strikes and the likelihood of civilian casualties — as evidenced by the Aug. 29 drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 innocent civilians, including seven children.
“We have people on the ground in countries where we use over-the-horizon. We have easy access from the sea. Afghanistan is a land-locked country, and we don’t have people on the ground,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in describing the challenges with the Pentagon’s plan.
“It’s unbelievable that this withdrawal from Afghanistan has put us in a situation where now we are collaborating with Russians and trying to negotiate with them on our occupation of space,” Ernst added.
During Tuesday’s public hearing before the Senate panel, Austin emphasized that “we are not seeking Russia’s permission to do anything.”
The military is currently conducting counterterrorism operations — including the botched drone strike in Kabul — from U.S. bases hundreds of miles away in the Middle East. And on Wednesday, McKenzie said an unnamed neighboring country is allowing access for U.S. launching points, but “we are not based in any bordering country.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), another member of the Armed Services panel, said he was heartened by the level of detail he received in the classified hearing, but said it was a “pretty weird scenario” to be relying on Russia.
“People should be encouraged that our leaders — in the Gulf and I think in the Pentagon — have ideas, they have plans, they have probably some better options than we might know about today that at least allow us to be functioning,” Cramer said. “We know that over-the-horizon is just — it’s never been pragmatic. Whether you’re staging from the Gulf in carriers or in Qatar or some other place — it’d be best if we could negotiate something that borders Afghanistan.”