On August 31, 2021, the evacuation operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul ended. Major General Chris Donahue, former commander of Delta Force and then commander of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, boarded the last plane, which took off overnight, signaling the end of the world’s longest war. United States. For the first time since October 2001, there was no US military or other US government representative on the ground in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan had ended in a stalemate that could not be won militarily without a significant, long-term commitment of additional US troops and unachievable firepower for a host of reasons.
The decision to end the war was made by then-President Donald Trump, who set the initial timetable for the US withdrawal. However, President Joe Biden was elected before President Trump’s plan could materialize. President Biden and his national security team conducted their own review shortly after taking office. They accepted the decision and made their own plan and schedule. The decision to stand down enjoyed broad bipartisan support to include most veterans. However, executing the withdrawal was a strategic failure and an embarrassment in the face of a stalemate that historians will likely call an American defeat.
Twenty years ago, following the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States, a “Global War on Terror” erupted across five continents and included active combat and theaters of war in parts of Central and Southeast Asia, the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. However, soon after the announcement of the operation, the US counterterrorism mission began to morph into counterinsurgency and nation building.
This is called “mission creep” in military parlance.
When the ruling Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists, the United States embarked on a campaign to degrade and destroy al-Qaeda, topple the Taliban, and prevent Afghanistan from being used as a terrorist sanctuary to carry out attacks against the United States. country. The US military and intelligence community found that defeating the Taliban in the opening campaign of the war was the easy part. Post-Taliban governance and reconstruction known as “nation building” and the fight against the Taliban insurgency have been much more difficult. It is a lesson we would not learn and an experience we would repeat in Iraq – and to a lesser extent in Egypt and Libya – during the “Arab Spring”.
It was not until shortly after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 that US policy regarding the war on terror began to change significantly. At the time, President Barack Obama appointed Vice President Biden to oversee Iraqi policy. Biden partnered with then-Central Command Commander General Lloyd Austin, the current Secretary of Defense, to design and execute the strategy to end the war in Iraq. As with Afghanistan, Biden has advocated a full withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. The Iraqi government’s reluctance to renew a security agreement that would have shielded the US military from prosecution under local law provided political cover.
Prior to the withdrawal, a group of Islamic terrorists in western Iraq determined that al-Qaeda was not religiously and culturally conservative enough. They split to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The group began rapidly expanding its control of territory in Iraq as the Iraqi military crumbled, allowing the ISI to seize US military hardware and additional territory, including large swaths of land in neighboring Syria. . At that time the group added an additional historic province to its name to reflect gains in Syria and became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). For the first time in centuries, a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate existed and was under the control of terrorist leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
The rapid growth and takeover of the Islamic State initially took the Obama administration by surprise; President Obama even called the group a “JV [junior varsity] team” against al-Qaeda, in an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the threat. However, the administration quickly backtracked and embarked on a counterterrorism mission to degrade and destroy ISIS. At the same time that the United States was supporting counterterrorism operations on the ground in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS, groups opposed to its Iranian ally Iran and Syrian Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad began to form and spread. unify into what was called the “Free Syrian Army”. .”
The Free Syrian Army
So, in the midst of this terrorist insurgency, Syria was also waging a civil war with external parties, including the United States, Iraq and Iran, lending their support to the fight against ISIS, but also against the American pressure to support the Free Syrian Army as Iraq and Iran was ruled by Shia Muslims similar to Assad’s Alawites. In Assad, Iran had a key ally controlling politics and territory from Tehran to Baghdad and Damascus to southern Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
US Army MG Mike Nagata, a veteran special forces officer, was tasked with organizing and training the FSA. This effort ended in bitter failure and ended his career. Just as in Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, Bashar al-Assad had prevented the formation of any viable political opposition and allowed no one but his supporters to hold positions of authority within the government or private industry. It became clear that there was no plausible post-Assad government in waiting and that the United States and others would be forced to engage in nation-building and, potentially, military operations. counter-insurgency in addition to counter-terrorism.
The Red line”
It was then that the strategic shift in US policy took place, a shift that went unsaid and, to a large extent, went unnoticed by many. After President Obama issued a public “red line” warning Assad against using chemical weapons, the Syrian leader did just that and killed scores of civilians. US Navy ships in the area have begun to assemble and form a large strike group to enforce the President’s red line. But after walking around with his then-chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, President Obama spoke out against military strikes in Syria.
The non-implementation of the American warning on the use of chemical weapons would have strategic consequences which persist to this day.
At that time, President Obama had decided that American support for democratizing states was not absolute. The United States would support and conduct counterterrorism operations to prevent attacks on the American homeland and against American interests, but would no longer commit ground forces to support democratic revolutions, especially in the Middle East. Bashar al-Assad was far from a benevolent dictator, but the implication of the change in American politics was that it was better to leave Assad in power than to engage in another war that would require years of building the nation and – potentially – counter-insurgency operations in addition to counter-terrorism.
President Trump continued and then greatly strengthened the counterterrorism operation on the ground in Iraq and Syria, which ultimately led to the collapse of the self-proclaimed caliphate.
The defeat of the Caliphate
With the defeat of the ISIS Caliphate and the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, President Biden declared that for the first time in 20 years, the United States was no longer at war. But was it really true?
The answer is most definitely no.
The United States continues to maintain a military presence in Iraq and Syria to guard against the resurgence of ISIS as a threat to the American homeland and stability in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have affiliates around the world, with the Islamic State carrying out attacks in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Nigeria, Mali, in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Togo and Somalia. — and claim responsibility for deadly attacks in the past few months alone. The Islamic State is so extreme in its ideology that it finds the Taliban heretical and continues to carry out attacks throughout Afghanistan.
The transnational threat to the United States posed by Islamic terrorism has been suppressed in many cases but not eliminated over the past 20 years. Terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but only those who have sworn to attack the United States, continue to operate with impunity in many parts of the world. As many military leaders have come to discover, terrorist ideologies cannot be defeated with bombs and bullets and the enemy has a say in whether or not to go to war, as we do. learned after 9/11.
Not the end of the war
What about US counter-terrorism policy?
For now, the Biden administration seems comfortable trying to manage the growing presence and threat of an al-Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan from afar with a theoretical strike force “beyond the line.” ‘horizon’ which has so far not materialized. The logic of keeping troops in Iraq and Syria is that they are needed to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, which is exactly what is starting in Afghanistan right now. If troops are needed in Iraq and Syria, then why not in Afghanistan, which could be an equally acute problem in the months and years to come? The answer seems to be more political than based on national security strategy and objectives.
Unfortunately, it seems only a matter of time before American troops are once again called upon to fight transnational terrorist threats in remote places around the globe. The United States may be weary and weary of the War on Terror, but our adversaries remain resolute in their promise to attack the United States and its interests abroad. The question remains how best to combat this residual threat after 20 years of counterterrorism operations that have failed to do so.
Alex Plitsas is a United States Army veteran and Bronze Star Medal recipient in the Iraq War. He also served in Afghanistan as a Civilian Defense Intelligence Officer. He completed his federal service as Chief of Sensitive Activities for Special Operations and Counterterrorism in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He currently leads the aerospace and defense practice for a management and IT consulting firm and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.