isIt is perhaps terribly fitting that an invasion that began 20 years ago as a counterterrorism operation ended in the horror of a terrorist attack with many casualties. The US-led attempt to destroy al-Qaida and save Afghanistan from the Taliban was undermined by the war in Iraq, which spawned the Islamic State. Now the circle has come full circle as an Afghan offshoot of ISIS emerges as America’s new nemesis.
The Kabul airport atrocity shows how difficult it is to break the cycle of violence, revenge and victimization. Joe Biden’s swift vow to track down the culprits and “make them pay” likely means that US combat forces will soon be back in action in Afghanistan. If the past is a guide, mistakes will be made, civilians will die, local communities will be upset. Result: more terrorists.
It is an obvious irony that the US military leaders in Kabul are collaborating with the Taliban, their nemesis, against the common enemy of ISIS at the end of the evacuation. This suggests that negotiators, on both sides, could have done more to reach a workable peace deal. This can bode well for future cooperation, for example in humanitarian aid. But the Taliban have many faces – and many are untrustworthy.
The events of the past week have raised even more questions about Biden’s judgment and competence. He will be personally blamed. His situation is reminiscent of the fall of another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. After the disastrous failure of Operation Eagle Claw to rescue American hostages in Tehran in April 1980, Carter was dismissed from his post the following November.
Biden faces Republican calls for resignation. His approval ratings have plunged. But he defiantly insists that leaving Afghanistan is the right thing to do. Polls suggest most Americans agree, even though they are critical of the way it has been handled. Unlike Carter’s days, the next presidential election is three years away. Until then, the agony and humiliations of the past few days may be a distant memory.
The Kabul debacle also casts doubt on Biden’s new counterterrorism strategy, which would lower the threat posed by Islamist terrorism to the United States. Its national security team is keen to shift global priorities and resources to address the various 21st century challenges to US hegemony, such as China, cyber warfare and the climate crisis.
Biden would like to use the 20th anniversary of Al-Qaida’s September 11 attacks on New York and Washington to declare the end of America’s “eternal wars” – for which he will claim credit. Putting the Afghan chaos aside, he should say that the era of invasion, occupation, nation-building and the “global war on terror” is over.
This revised approach to the fight against terrorism will be less ambitious – and more self-serving. The focus will be on direct threats against the “homeland” of the United States, not the rest of the world. Improved “beyond the horizon” capabilities will supposedly reduce the need for overseas deployments and permanent bases. The United States will now attack threats from a distance. Britain will likely adopt a similar policy.
“The US approach should focus on intelligence gathering, training indigenous forces and maintaining air power as well as special forces capabilities for occasional strikes when necessary,” analysts recently argued. foreign policy Bruce Riedel and Michael O’Hanlon.
No one knows if such an expensive and difficult to organize strategy will work in the long run. But the change is already having tangible consequences. In Iraq, for example, US combat operations will cease in December. About 2,500 Americans will stay, for training and counseling. In Syria, a small number of special forces will remain. The Iraqis are rightly worried about a return of ISIS and an Afghan-style implosion.
Biden has already washed his hands of the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has waged an ineffective and highly destructive war against Iran-backed Houthi militants. Across the Gulf of Aden, Somalia, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops still stands. A recent wave of bombings by al-Shabaab terrorists has prompted limited US airstrikes – a likely future pattern.
The same story of US disengagement and disengagement is being heard across the Middle East as the US “pivots” to Asia. Fighters are being redeployed, carrier battle groups could be reassigned to the Pacific theater, and anti-missile batteries are being withdrawn from Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Most of these assets were pointed at Iran, considered one of the main sponsors of terrorism.
In the Sahel, West Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, the United States is barely getting involved in the fight against Boko Haram and various ISIS and Al-Qaida affiliates. The impressive name US Africa Command is headquartered in Stuttgart. President Muhammadu Buhari warns that Nigeria could suffer a fate similar to that of Afghanistan without a “comprehensive partnership” with the United States. “A certain feeling that the west is losing its will to fight,” he said.
For U.S. allies, all of this points to a new era of forced self-sufficiency and greater uncertainty. While Islamist-inspired attacks in the United States have been rare since September 11, in Europe several hundred people have died. Yet collective European counterterrorism efforts often lack a military edge. One exception was France’s poorly supported Operation Barkhane in Mali – until it was halted this year after suffering many losses for little gain.
The chaos in Afghanistan dramatically portrayed the continuing threat of international terrorism. With up to 10,000 foreign Islamist fighters in the country, according to the UN, fears are growing that it will once again become a launching pad for global jihad. Thus, the prospect of a less directly engaged and homeland-centered US counterterrorism approach is alarming for partners dependent on US leadership and protection.
NATO’s European allies, shooting Biden, are in denial. They don’t want to admit that his Afghan withdrawal is just the start of something bigger. And as recent events painfully demonstrate, the UK is not in a position to fend for itself.