The U.S. left two decades of combat in Afghanistan with a last-minute evacuation as the Taliban returned to power in August. Cue the air war’s next phase.

Without a ground presence in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Syria, there’s more pressure on the Air Force and Space Force to pivot to a longer-range role with intelligence satellites and drones launched from farther away in the region.

“What we have tried to do in USCENTCOM is stitch together as much of the capabilities as we can,” Maj. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, U.S. Central Command’s operations director, said Dec. 6.

He explained: “We fly MQ-9s, we fly them a long way, and we fly a limited number of them. We try to keep track of the [Islamic State-Khorasan] cells that have been highlighted to us by other all-source intelligence. … But we have limited coverage.”

U.S. officials hope nearby countries will agree to serve as a launchpad for American military assets. But that shouldn’t mean causing more worry for Central Asian nations in Russia’s backyard, Grynkewich said.

Continued efforts to weaken branches of the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and a patchwork of other extremist groups, plus fending off rocket attacks, cyber intrusions and lurking drones from Iran and its proxies requires the U.S. Air Force to rethink base security and its posture across the region.

An MQ-9 Reaper sits along the flight line during sunset at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Nov. 17, 2020. (Robert Brooks/Air Force)

The number of airmen and guardians at American bases in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere is evolving as DoD decides how to counter Chinese influence and defend partners going forward.

“It’s going to be nothing like it was in years past, with a couple of ground wars at their heights a decade ago or so. But it certainly is not zero,” Grynkewich said. “There are countries here that matter. The hydrocarbons in this region still matter.”

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

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