Critics of the War on Terror are fond of calling it an “endless war,” as if that automatically renders it unjust. American presidents have a permanent obligation to defend the United States of America, and we can’t simply decide to end a conflict on our own. If an enemy wishes to fight, we have a war. Given the enduring commitment of jihadists to threatening our citizens, we must have equally enduring resolve to find and defeat them wherever they emerge.
One of the primary problems with our endless debates over (seemingly) endless American conflicts with jihadists overseas is that we rarely go back to first principles. We rarely take a step back and accurately define our strategic and tactical challenge. We don’t do this in debates between pundits, and we don’t do it in public arguments.
Moreover, there is a distressing tendency to sweep together the last several Republican and Democratic administrations as if they’re all part of the same foreign-policy establishment that tries to do the same things the same way and then falls prey to the same temptations to turn to American military force as a first resort in the face of persistent Middle Eastern challenges. In reality, however, different approaches have confronted a series of difficult realities, and those realities have necessitated military intervention.
For September 11th 2001, there are those who mark that terrible day not just in memory of the fallen and to honor the heroism of the first responders but also to lament the launch of a seemingly endless war. With 17, almost 18 years removed from 9/11 it has become fashionable to decry politicians who allegedly embroil the United States in “endless wars.” Whenever I hear this critique, it’s a clear signal that the speaker neither fully understands our enemy nor fully understands the obligations of the American commander-in-chief. We are still in Afghanistan. American soldiers are still dying in that godforsaken land. Can’t we just end this war?
No, we cannot. The terrible events of 9/11 and the long, tortured history of counterterror operations since then have taught us two painful lessons.
First, when terrorists enjoy safe havens, the risk of dramatic terror attacks skyrockets. It doesn’t matter if that safe haven is in a backwards nation on the other side of the globe. When terrorists have time, space, and funding to plan attacks, they grow exponentially more dangerous. One of the worst aspects of the Obama withdrawal from Iraq — combined with the rise of ISIS — is that, for a time, a strong jihadist force controlled territory, gained access to resources, and used those assets to increase the pace of terror attacks and plots abroad.
Indeed, if you look at the Heritage Foundation timeline of terror plots and attacks in the United States, you’ll see a huge spike after ISIS’s blitzkrieg across the Middle East. It’s not just that victorious jihadists had the resources to launch attacks, they also enjoyed the success to inspire additional jihadist recruits.Simply look at ISIS’s deadly reach once it dominated northern Iraq and northern Syria. Europe has suffered through a deadly spike in terrorist violence, with hundreds of civilians killed and injured. Here at home, terror plots and attacks increased as well. Of at least 96 known domestic plots and attacks since 9/11, more than one-third occurred in the last four years since the rise of ISIS, and the casualty count in deaths and injuries has increased dramatically.
Denying safe havens should be the cornerstone of any counterterror strategy.
Second, wars don’t end when only one party wants to stop fighting. It’s a stubborn fact that we don’t have the ability to stamp out jihadist ideology, and so long as the ideology exists, their will be a threat. That threat can wax and wane depending on a number of factors, and it doesn’t presently merit large-scale, post-9/11 intervention, but it still exists.
It takes two to dance, but one to make war. Our enemies are at war with us and will continue to be even if we leave Afghanistan. Their ability to wage war will, in fact, increase materially. Retreating from Afghanistan now is a recipe for endless war. Worse still, it is a recipe for endless war fought on American soil, American embassies, the hotels in which American tourists stay abroad, American airplanes — in short, a war taken directly to our way of life. Winning in Afghanistan will not end that war by itself, but it is absolutely a vital prerequisite.
In one sense it is correct to say that America’s war on terror began on 9/11. After all, our nation came under direct attack, Congress authorized force in response, and we began a distinct series of military operations that continue to greater and lesser degrees even today. But in a broader sense, 9/11 represented nothing more and nothing less than an escalation of a war that began when Muhammad launched his first violent jihad more than a thousand years ago.
Violent jihad may or may not represent “authentic” Islam (I’ll leave Muslims to define their own faith), but it is indisputable that jihadist theology has been present within broader Islam since its founding. It waxes and wanes in violence and intensity, but it is there. America confronted it within years of its own founding (on the “shores of Tripoli“), Europe has faced numerous existential threats to its very civilization, and the once-thriving Christian civilization of the Middle East is nearly extinct.
Let’s analyze our challenge as clearly and concisely as we can.
There exists a jihadist enemy of our nation and civilization that doesn’t just seek to harm our national interests, it actively seeks to kill as many Americans as possible, as publicly as possible — with the goal of so thoroughly destabilizing and demoralizing our nation that we make room for the emergence of a new jihadist power.
This enemy exists not because of immediate and recent American actions (though it can certainly use some of those actions to recruit new followers) but because of an ancient, potent systematic theology. Never forget that one of the grievances Osama bin Laden listed as justifying his attack on America was the Christian Spanish reconquest of Muslim Spain. That event occurred almost 300 years before the American founding.
While it is difficult to predict any given terrorist attack, this much we can say — when terrorists obtain safe havens, they become dramatically more dangerous. The creation of a safe haven escalates the threat and renders serious attacks a near-inevitability.For reasons too obvious to outline, terrorist safe havens are always in nations and locations that are either hostile to the United States or in a state of fractured chaos. Terrorist cells may operate in places like France, but a true safe haven cannot thrive in functioning, strong allied territory.
The national obligation of self-defense is permanent. No functioning government that abdicates its duty to protect its citizens from hostile attack can remain legitimate. Preferably self-defense is maintained by deterrence. But when deterrence fails, a failure to engage the enemy doesn’t bring peace, it enables the enemy to kill your people.
For all these reasons, at the very least American military strategy should be dedicated to denying terrorists safe havens. Keep terrorists on the run. Don’t grant them the opportunity to plan, recruit, and execute attacks in an atmosphere of peace and safety. When they have that opportunity, they can do terrible things. September 11 taught us that much.
Given that safe havens exist in hostile and broken places, there is immense practical difficulty in either delegating the fight against safe havens to allies or believing you can take the fight to the enemy entirely through (relatively safe) aerial bombardments. Even air campaigns require intelligence on the ground, and air campaigns are rarely sufficient by themselves to end a land-based threat.
Compounding the challenge is that, because safe havens exist in broken or hostile places, there are rarely satisfactory allies on the ground who can take the fight to the enemy. And our record of creating satisfactory allies without being physically present to bolster their fighting strength and fighting spirit is so abysmal that it’s virtually criminal to even try it again. After all, the locations of the safe havens are broken and/or hostile for longstanding, deep-seated reasons.
So when you read news reports about detachments of Americans in far-flung places (Niger, for example), that’s not evidence of bloodthirsty commitment to “endless war” but rather the applied lessons of 17 years of direct combat with a jihadist enemy. We cannot permit our terrorist enemies (not all terrorists are American enemies) to establish safe havens anywhere without courting catastrophe, yet we cannot effectively deny those safe havens without some presence on the ground.
What does this mean for Syria and Afghanistan? To say that ISIS has been mostly routed from northern Syria is not to say that it’s been entirely routed — especially when we know that ISIS still exists in some strength in areas ostensibly controlled by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. To let up the pressure now is to invite ISIS to return.
If we depart and leave behind the conditions for re-creating the hostility or brokenness that created the threat in the first instance, we’re not ending a war, we’re just rescheduling it for a later date. That was the fundamental flaw of the Obama withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. He rendered a fragile ally vulnerable to exactly the catastrophe that occurred three years later, and I’d argue that the Obama withdrawal was more defensible than Trump’s Syria withdrawal. Jihadists in Iraq were weaker in 2011 than jihadists in Syria today.
This is especially true when the logical successor to our influence in northern Syria or Afghanistan is either an unabashedly hostile regime (Syria) or the same jihadist force that we’ve faced since 9/11 (Afghanistan). We almost certainly know who will dominate in our absence, and we know their hostile intent.
It’s worth noting that the present American deployments are keeping terrorists at bay at a fraction of the immense cost in men and matériel of the Afghan or Iraq invasions or of the Afghan or Iraq surges. American casualties are light, enemy casualties are heavy, and the Syrian intervention has been especially successful. It’s as if we took the sum total of all our bitter lessons learned since 9/11 and applied them in one devastatingly effective military operation.
Now we risk throwing that away. And by abandoning allies in the field, we raise the risk that next time we’ll need to use more troops and lose more men and women to deal with renewed threats. After all, which local allies will be willing to spill blood by our side if they know we’ll leave them to die?
Why does the war continue? Not because our nation loves war but because our enemy — though weakened — still exists and still seeks to kill Americans. The obligation of national self-defense is permanent, and if enemies try to strike this nation, then the conflict must continue so long as the threat lasts. Otherwise, retreat doesn’t represent peace but instead merely grants our foe a much-needed reprieve. We’ve been at war a very long time, and it’s very much worth debating proper strategy and tactics, but our fundamental resolve cannot flag — no matter how long we fight.
While no one wishes for endless war, our government has a permanent obligation to defend the Constitution and our citizens. When the architects of centuries of aggression confront permanent resolve, war is the result — and there is no end in sight. We can’t solve the problem of jihadist Islam, but we can defend our nation. And if defending our nation requires another 18 years of combat (or another 180 years) then so be it.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, if there is any such thing as a bipartisan strategic commitment, it’s a commitment to never again preside over a debacle like the fall of Saigon. No president wants to be the man who watches from the Oval Office as the last helicopter lifts off the roof, leaving behind abandoned and desperate allies as sworn enemies sweep into a foreign capital. This is especially true when those sworn enemies have used that same land as base to plan, train, and inspire terrorists to strike targets inside America.
Two consecutive presidents have faced their moments of truth, and three consecutive presidents have made similar decisions (though in different ways). When Iraq teetered on the brink of collapse, George W. Bush rejected immense political pressure to withdraw and instead doubled down with a potent troop surge that for a time decisively tipped the balance of power against al-Qaeda.
His successor, Barack Obama, at first failed his test, pulling troops from Iraq in spite of multiple warnings that the consequences could be catastrophic. But then, he reversed course. When ISIS blitzed across northern and western Iraq, Obama could have stayed out. He could have left Iraq to fend for itself. But he didn’t. He intervened with decisive enough force to halt ISIS’s offensive and then slowly (too slowly) provided indispensable military force to assist counter-offensives that killed ISIS fighters by the thousands and rolled back ISIS’s gains. By the end of his second term, the Nobel Peace Prize winner hadn’t ended any wars. Instead, America had boots on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
Ironically, given his Nobel Peace Prize and his reckless withdrawal from Iraq, Obama came to understand this reality and actually implemented the beginnings of a sustainable, long-term strategy for fighting terrorists. By the end of his second term, Obama was engaged in military operations from Pakistan to Libya. Through a combination of air power, drone strikes, special forces, and limited deployments of conventional ground-combat troops, he reversed ISIS’s gains in Iraq and Syria, prevented the Taliban from replicating ISIS’s success in Afghanistan, and launched strikes against jihadist foes in multiple Asian and African nations.
Why? Why did two different presidents with very different ideologies reach such similar conclusions? Cynics and conspiracy theorists blame a foreign-policy “blob” or the persistent and allegedly pernicious influence of warmongering generals. But there’s a simpler, more obvious, and I believe more accurate reason: It is plainly and obviously not in America’s national interest for its terrorist enemies to win and maintain safe havens overseas.
It’s a simple reality that when terrorists possess safe havens, they become far more dangerous. Look at what al-Qaeda was able to accomplish when it dominated Afghanistan. It launched terror attacks that destroyed American embassies, nearly sank an American warship, and ultimately did more damage in American cities than any foreign enemy since the British burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.
As should be obvious by now, when fighting a militaristic theological movement conventional military “victory” simply isn’t attainable. While there may be political settlements in given regions at given times, there won’t be a USS Missouri moment with al-Qaeda, ISIS, or any successor jihadist group. They’re not going to lay down their arms, and thus it’s not really even in our power to truly end the war. Wars end when both sides stop fighting, not when just one side wants to make it stop. We can certainly diminish the jihadist threat, and we can certainly cripple jihadist forces. We cannot, however, extinguish the jihadist impulse.
Advocates of an American withdrawal should think hard about the consequences. They should consider whether a Taliban-led government in Kabul is in America’s best interests or whether it’s worth expending a very small fraction of our military power to keep a jihadist enemy from winning a historic victory. Indeed, denying terrorists safe havens should be the cornerstone of American military strategy, and that requires constant vigilance and potentially a permanent military commitment.
Perhaps one day the Taliban will exhaust themselves and seek peace. Likely not. But we in turn cannot grow weary in our own commitments to our own defense. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge should be our goal. In other words, “victory” is a process, and while the aim is to inflict a “lasting defeat” on America’s enemies, there is no timetable for this war.
Our enemy doesn’t have a timetable. Jihadists have fought the perceived enemies of Islam for more than a thousand years. Our nation’s commitment to its people should be clear. Each and every year that jihadists are willing to fight is a year that we are ready and able to defend ourselves, to deny them safe havens, and to strike them before they can strike us.
True enough, these measures don’t on their face do anything to address the serious challenge of internal jihadist radicalization, and continued drone strikes abroad are used to recruit terrorists from the American Muslim population. But no military policy comes without risk, and critics often misunderstand the extent to which terrorist safe havens and terrorist military successes overseas facilitate terrorist recruitment. Simply put, defeating terrorists with military force deters future jihadists. Denying them their safe havens abroad is, in fact, one of the best ways of preventing radicalism at home. Presidents should take the right steps toward permanent, effective self-defense against a long-term jihadist threat.
Aren’t we overstating the threat, being that its almost 18 years after 9/11? There have been a few attacks on US soil since 2009 and even more attempts disrupted after they were well underway. In December 2009 Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully got an explosive device (in his underwear) onto an aircraft and attempted to detonate it over US soil. The attempt failed only because the device was faulty — not because we disrupted the attack. In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad got a vehicle loaded with explosives into Times Square in New York City. Again, the attack failed only because he had built the bomb badly and it was discovered before it exploded.
If he had designed the bomb properly (which is not all that hard to do), the attack would have succeeded. In Fall 2010, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (in Yemen) hid bombs in printer cartridges and got them into the parcel delivery system headed to targets in the US. The bombs were discovered en route. In April 2012, a Saudi informant tipped Riyadh off about another underwear-bomb plot, which was disrupted while underway by Saudi and US officials.Al Qaeda franchises have grown dramatically in strength and capability since 2009. Al Qaeda in Yemen retains a much larger safe haven in that country than it had in 2009, despite recent successes by US direct-action operations and Yemeni counterinsurgency operations. It has used that safe haven, as we have seen, to attempt attacks on the US even as it fought against Yemeni forces.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, almost destroyed and operationally insignificant when Obama took office, re-established itself following the withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, born in Algeria, was an almost-irrelevant group limited to kidnap-for-ransom operations a year ago. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently revealed, it has now expanded across North Africa and was responsible for the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed our ambassador. It has also spread into Equatorial Africa, using unrest in Mali to establish a foothold there.
These groups are all directly linked to and affiliated with the core al Qaeda group now led by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, from Pakistan. We have killed leaders of that core group for 11 years, but it can recover very quickly if it regains freedom of action in Afghanistan, especially since it can now harness the strength and expansion of franchises that did not exist in 2001.
It is a great blessing that the United States has the power to keep the jihadist threat largely suppressed while exerting but the smallest fraction of our military strength, but exerting that strength still requires courage. It still requires young men and women to take their turn as the guardians of our Constitution. God bless them. We need them every bit as much as we did on September 11th 2001.
The route to more war — and to potential attacks here at home — is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.
It’s time for Americans to stop thinking about the military “endgame” and forthrightly declare a commitment to the prudent prosecution of ongoing, messy military conflicts. So long as our enemy exists — so long as jihadist ideology, sectarian violence, and Middle Eastern strongmen persist — we must sustain a will to fight.
While there are thoughtful arguments for and against the American military presence in Syria, don’t think for a moment that the present American withdrawal is the product of a thoughtful, intentional, and informed decision by a thoughtful and informed commander in chief. It’s an impulsive act by an ignorant man, and while military professionals will do their best to mitigate the damage of his impulsiveness and ignorance, Trump’s decision-making process is no way to run a war or defend a nation.
The Trump administration is making bad decisions through a bad process, and our nation has lost its foremost warrior in protest. While it will likely take time for the renewed threat to materialize, Donald Trump is repeating one of his predecessor’s worst foreign-policy mistakes. I pray that we don’t see a repeat of the same terrible consequences.
David A French
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