If there’s one thing we learned from the last two presidential election cycles, it’s that the United States has become more politically partisan and divided than at any time in its modern history. Vigorous debate is a hallmark of democracy, but bipartisanship is essential to protecting our nation from foreign adversaries.
Bearing in mind President Kennedy’s admonition that while “domestic policy can only defeat us, foreign policy can kill us,” the stakes could not be higher. Following a bitter and acrimonious campaign, the incoming Biden administration will be on the hook to grapple with a wickedly complex range of threats, including Iran, nuclear proliferation, North Korea, Russia and China.
But it is the threat of terrorism that is arguably the national security threat with the shortest fuse.
The Trump administration decimated Islamic State’s so-called “caliphate” and eliminated terrorists such as ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hamza bin Laden, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Qassim al-Raymi and AQAP’s chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, whom former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell called the “most significant international terrorist removed from the battlefield since Osama bin Laden.”
And just last week, reports confirmed that two unidentified men on motorcycles gunned down al Qaeda second-in-command Abu Muhammad al-Masri, planner the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, on the streets of Tehran. The Trump administration has not yet officially commented on the strike, which Israeli operatives were suspected of having carried out.
At the heart of the policy debate going forward will be the U.S. commitment of personnel and resources in overseas combat zones, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Trump administration has just announced plans to reduce total forces in each country to 2500.
ISIS, which has thrived in a petri dish of economic and political upheaval as well as ethnic and sectarian divide, has now melted into an insurgency, with roughly 20,000 fighters at large mostly in Iraq and Syria and 10,000 in detention.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to mount lethal attacks with impunity. Top Taliban official Sirajuddin Haqqani, whom the State Department officially designated a global terrorist in 2008, leads the notorious Haqqani Network, which allows al Qaeda and its shadowy leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, to find a haven on its territory. The Haqqani Network has mounted violent suicide attacks against U.S. and allied forces, the government of Afghanistan and innocent civilians.
President-elect Biden should have learned from the Obama administration’s precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, which proved a significant factor in creating the conditions for the growth and spread of ISIS. Mr. Trump removed significant numbers of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and now, in a pre-election pledge, promised to bring all but about 2,5000 U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by early 2021. Doing so, however, would risk making the same policy mistake as Mr. Obama, who was forced to send U.S. troops back into Iraq in 2014 to combat the surging Islamic State threat.
One of the most important lessons we learned from September 11 was appreciating the value of a robust forward presence of intelligence officers, diplomats and troops to detect and preempt threats from places where no government exercises its authority.
There is rightly no interest in another troop surge or costly “nation-building,” but the U.S. should maintain a forward presence in Afghanistan and Iraq — as small as feasible — to keep working with local security forces on counterterrorism operations and be prepared for unilateral action for as long as the threats persist.
The U.S. must also remain diplomatically engaged in support of Kabul and Baghdad. Specifically, the U.S. must make real power-sharing arrangements in Afghanistan a precondition for any full withdrawal. The U.S. should also commit greater support to Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi, a valuable regional ally who is dealing with an economy in recession, a COVID-19 crisis, and continuing pressure from Iran and its allies inside Iraq. Iran’s widespread use of proxy extremist militia forces in Iraq only heightens the intensity of sectarian conflict, which is oxygen for terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer eloquently articulated a strategy of “forward defense” — confronting our enemies “over there” rather than play defense as they plan attacks on the homeland.
Our personnel serving on the front lines deserve a clearly articulated strategy, one that explains and justifies the risks they are willingly taking on.
If there is one thing our fractured political system needs, it’s a national consensus on foreign policy. There is no better place to start than counterterrorism. If Democrats and Republicans need any motivation, they should keep in mind that nothing less than our nation’s security, which they took an oath to protect, hangs in the balance.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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