North Waziristan is more than 600 miles from the nearest coastline; the other sanctuaries are farther. The U.S. Air Force reports that armed Predator drones have a range of about 1,150 miles — not enough to get to Waziristan and back again from the coast, much less to orbit and observe a target. Special mission units would have to parachute from transport aircraft because no helicopter in the U.S. inventory can fly that far. But they could not return because aircraft cannot land in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan or in Pakistan. Manned aircraft can drop precision weapons on targets in Afghanistan, but they fly too fast to loiter over potential targets. Their bombs hit precisely what they are aimed at, but fast-moving aircraft cannot ensure that the target was actually there. There is no over-the-horizon solution to targeting terrorists in South Asia.
Bases in Afghanistan obviate all these problems. U.S. forces operating from Khost, Jalalabad and Kandahar can strike targets in Afghanistan (or Pakistan) with Predators and special mission units. Such operations have been critical to the success of counterterrorism operations in this region, including the killing of Osama bin Laden (Abbottabad is about 150 miles east of Jalalabad, 750 miles from the Indian Ocean).
The minimum U.S. footprint to sustain counterterrorism operations requires bases near Jalalabad, Khost and Kandahar to reach known terrorist havens (Khost and Jalalabad are less than 100 miles apart but are separated by a 10,000-foot mountain range). Each base requires an airstrip to fly Predators and move supplies by air. Each must also have aircraft ground crews and support the special mission units.
Base security and support impose serious troop requirements. These bases are in dangerous places, and we surely will not entrust the protection of U.S. personnel to local forces as we did in Benghazi. Securing the perimeter would require at least two companies of soldiers (alternating guard duty) and a company-size quick-reaction force — a battalion, in other words. Each base must also have the helicopters needed to move around and conduct operations — at least a combat aviation battalion — and a field medical facility able to handle severe trauma. That adds up to one combat brigade (3,500 soldiers) and one combat aviation brigade (5,000 to 6,000 soldiers).
That’s about 10,000 troops — without counting the supply or command and control of these forces. Even if we supply each base directly by air from outside Afghanistan, with no facility near Kabul, each base still needs logistical elements, probably at least 3,000 to 5,000 combat service support troops. The most idealized version of the limited counterterrorism footprint, therefore, is around 15,000 troops. At that strength we would not be able to advise, enable, support or rely on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Since they, like our NATO allies, depend on U.S. enablers such as reconnaissance, helicopters, medevac and route-clearance packages, most of their operations would cease.