The Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor was a wakeup call. It led to a high-intensity armed conflict that, within a few years, defeated the fascists of Europe and Asia. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington were a wakeup call. They led to a low-intensity armed conflict that, 19 years later, remains inconclusive.
So, it should be instructive to hear what President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden say about this week’s 9/11 anniversary. My best guess: Both will eulogize the victims, but say little about the policies and strategies necessary to prevent those who call themselves jihadists from achieving their goals over the years ahead.
Americans today face a complex threat matrix. We are menaced by China’s ambitious and ruthless rulers; by a virus those rulers somehow let loose on the world; by a revanchist Russia; by a North Korean dictatorship that our diplomats failed to prevent from acquiring nuclear weapons; and by an Iranian regime vowing “Death to America!” Domestically, we are a deeply divided nation. Dazzled by this chaos, you could be forgiven for thinking jihadists are no longer a serious concern. But you’d be wrong.
My colleague, terrorism analyst Thomas Joscelyn, pointed out in congressional testimony in June: “The jihadists today are waging insurgencies across Africa, hotspots in the Middle East, and into South Asia.”
Al Qaeda “has spread from South Asia into multiple other countries.” Its official branches: “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and al-Shabaab in Somalia.”
The Islamic State, aka ISIS, “is waging an insurgency across parts of Iraq and Syria. It also has noteworthy ‘provinces’ in Khorasan (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of the surrounding countries), the Sinai, Southeast Asia, Somalia, West Africa, and Yemen. ISIS has terrorist networks in other areas.”
These groups have not launched a catastrophic terrorist attack in the West in recent years, but that’s not because they wouldn’t like to. It’s in large measure because the U.S. and some allies have taken the fight to them.
The objective of what are sometimes called the 9/11 wars has not been to defeat jihadism once and for all. That would require more resources, human and financial, than we’re willing to spare given the other challenges we face. The more modest mission, as Mr. Joscelyn also noted, is “containment and disruption.”
One example: Last year, the Islamic State was deprived of the vast territory it had conquered and held in Syria and Iraq. That battle was won by tens of thousands of Kurdish and Arab forces backed by approximately 2,000 elite American warriors.
Gen. Joseph Votel, then head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, advised that to build on this success requires “a vigilant offensive against the now largely dispersed and disaggregated [Islamic State] that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts.”
Common sense, right? Not to “restrainers,” a fancy label for isolationists. They denounce such vigilance as “endless” wars.
“As with the larger war on terrorism, the U.S. military campaign in Syria has long since reached a dead end,” Andrew Bacevich asserted last week in the Los Angeles Times. “The United States has far more pressing matters to deal with, much closer to home. So prudence alone dictates a prompt U.S. military departure from Syria.”
Mr. Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute, an organization founded by billionaires George Soros and Charles Koch. Their contention that “endless wars” will end if the U.S. stops fighting is based on no evidence.
The Quincy Institute even opposes President Trump’s use of tough economic sanctions to contain and disrupt the Islamic Republic of Iran — a regime no less committed than al Qaeda and the Islamic State to jihad against the West in general and America in particular.
Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden have called the conflict in Afghanistan a “forever war.” Both appear to believe that retreat from that battlefield won’t put Americans in greater danger.
Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is among those who strenuously disagree. He and Vance Serchuk, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, argued in Foreign Affairs not long ago that, contrary to the conventional narrative, the conflict in Afghanistan should be seen as “reasonably successful.”
The U.S. military presence — now just 8,600 troops, down from over 100,000 at the end of President Bush’s second term — has “enabled the United States to eliminate the al Qaeda camps that flourished in Afghanistan under the Taliban prior to its ouster from power in late 2001, and equally important, it has kept that extremist infrastructure from being reestablished.”
It was from Afghanistan that the operation against Osama bin Laden was launched in 2011. Attempts by Islamic State affiliates to take territory along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier also have been stymied.
“Rather than a safe haven for extremists to plot devastating strikes on the United States and its allies,” they wrote, “Afghanistan over the last two decades became an outpost from which the United States and its allies could project power against the terrorists.”
Such a hard-won gain ought not be squandered. Yet, the agreement the Trump administration signed in February with the Taliban, Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Serchuk noted, “implicitly appears to anticipate the endgame the insurgents themselves have consistently articulated since 2001: a Taliban reconquest of the country.”
On the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and in the midst of a presidential election campaign, shouldn’t the prospect of such a significant jihadist advance in the 9/11 wars be a subject that reporters at least ask the candidates to discuss?
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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