On Aug. 31, 2021, the evacuation operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul came to an end. Major General Chris Donahue, former Delta Force Commander and then Commander of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, stepped onto the last aircraft, which took off into the night, signaling the end of America’s longest war. For the first time since October 2001 there were no American servicemembers or any other representatives of the United States government 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 U.S. troops and firepower that was infeasible for a host of reasons.
The decision to end the war was made by then-President Donald Trump, who set the initial timetable for U.S. 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 assuming office. They concurred with the decision and developed their own plan and timetable. The decision to withdraw enjoyed wide bipartisan support to include most veterans. However, the execution of the withdrawal was a strategic failure and an embarrassment in the face of a stalemate that historians will likely label an American defeat.
Twenty years ago, in the wake of al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States began a “Global War on Terror” that spanned 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, not long after the operation was announced, the U.S. counterterrorism mission began to morph into counterinsurgency and nation building.
This is what is known as “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, overthrow the Taliban, and prevent Afghanistan from being used as a terrorist sanctuary to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland. The U.S. 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 fighting the Taliban insurgency were much harder. This is a lesson we would fail to learn and an experience we would repeat in Iraq – and to a lesser extent in Egypt and Libya – during the “Arab Spring.”
It wasn’t until shortly after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 that U.S. policy surrounding the War on Terror began to change significantly. At the time, President Barack Obama had appointed then-Vice President Biden to oversee Iraq policy. Biden partnered with then-Central Command Commander General Lloyd Austin, the current secretary of defense, to devise and implement the strategy to bring the war in Iraq to an end. As with Afghanistan, Biden advocated a total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. The Iraqi government’s unwillingness to renew a security agreement that would have shielded U.S. service members 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 conservative enough religiously and culturally. They broke away to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The group began to rapidly expand its control of territory in Iraq as the Iraqi Army crumbled, allowing ISI to seize U.S. military hardware and additional territory, including large swaths of land in neighboring Syria. At that point, the group added an additional historic province to its name to account for 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 was in existence and under the control of terrorist leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
ISIS’s rapid growth and takeover initially caught the Obama administration by surprise; President Obama even referred to the group as “the J.V. [junior varsity] team” compared to al Qaeda, in an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the threat. However, the administration quickly backtracked and committed to a counterterrorism mission aimed at degrading and destroying ISIS. At the same time the U.S. was supporting counterterrorism operations on the ground in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS, groups opposed to its Iranian ally and Syrian Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad began to form and unify into what was known as the “Free Syrian Army.”
The Free Syrian Army
So, in the midst of this terrorist insurgency, Syria was also fighting a civil war with outside parties including the United States, Iraq, and Iran providing support to fight ISIS but also against the U.S. push to support the Free Syrian Army as both Iraq and Iran were governed by Shia Muslims similar to Assad’s Alawites. In Assad, Iran had a key ally for control of policy and territory from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to southern Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
U.S. Army MG Mike Nagata, a veteran Special Forces officer, was given the task of organizing and training the FSA. This effort ended in abysmal failure and finished his career. Just as in Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, Bashar al Assad had prevented the formation of any viable political opposition and didn’t allow anyone besides his supporters to hold positions of authority in either government or private industry. It became clear that there was no plausible post-Assad government-in-waiting and that the U.S. and others would be forced to engage in nation building and, potentially, counterinsurgency operations in addition to counterterrorism.
The “Red Line”
It was at that point that the strategic change in U.S. policy took place, a change that went unsaid and, to a large extent, unnoticed by many. After President Obama issued a public “red line,” warning Assad against the use of chemical weapons, the Syrian leader did just that and killed many civilians. U.S. Navy ships in the region began to assemble and form a large strike group to enforce the president’s red line. But after taking a walk with his then-Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, President Obama decided against military strikes in Syria.
The failure to enforce the U.S. warning on chemical weapons use would have strategic consequences that continue to this day.
At that time, President Obama had decided that American support for democratizing states was not absolute. The U.S. would support and conduct counterterrorism operations to prevent attacks against the U.S. 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 shift in U.S. policy was that it was better to leave Assad in power than to engage in another war that would require years of nation building and – potentially – counterinsurgency operations in addition to counterterrorism.
President Trump continued and then significantly enhanced the counterterrorism operation on the ground in Iraq and Syria, which ultimately lead to the collapse of the self-proclaimed caliphate.
The Defeat of the Caliphate
With the defeat of the ISIS caliphate and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, President Biden declared that for the first time in 20 years, the U.S. was no longer at war. But was this really true?
The answer is most definitely no.
The U.S. continues to maintain a military presence in both Iraq and Syria to guard against the resurgence of ISIS as a threat to the U.S. homeland and stability in the Middle East. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have affiliates all over the globe with the Islamic State conducting attacks in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Togo, and Somalia – and claiming responsibility for deadly attacks in just the past few months. The Islamic State is so extreme in its ideology that it finds the Taliban to be heretical and continues to conduct 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, that have vowed 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 gets a say in whether or not we go to war, as we learned after 9/11.
Not the End of The War
Where does that leave U.S. counterterrorism 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 notional “over the horizon” strike force that has thus far failed to materialize. The logic for keeping troops in Iraq and Syria is that they are needed to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which is exactly what is now beginning in Afghanistan. If troops are needed in Iraq and Syria, then why not Afghanistan, which may be just as acute a problem in the coming months and years? The answer appears to be more political than grounded in national security strategy and objectives.
Unfortunately, it appears to be only a matter of time before U.S. troops will once again be called upon to combat transnational terrorist threats in far flung places around the globe. The United States may have grown tired and weary of the war on terror, but our adversaries remain resolute in their pledge to attack the U.S. 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 U.S. Army combat veteran and Bronze Star Medal recipient in the Iraq war and also served in Afghanistan as Defense Civilian Intelligence Officer. He completed his federal service as the Chief of Sensitive Activities for Special Operations and Combating Terror in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He currently runs the Aerospace and Defense Practice for a management and IT consulting firm and is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.