President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden don’t agree on much. But they do agree on this: America must “end” the “endless wars.” Both candidates have repeatedly said as much. The underlying sentiment is understandable, if not laudable. Few Americans truly want their fellow countrymen to continue fighting in far-flung locales such as Kabul or Mogadishu. Yet, as is so often the case, the candidates’ political rhetoric is not grounded in reality.
Consider what Biden (or more likely his advisers) wrote in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs. The Biden team set forth what their administration’s foreign policy would look like, as compared to the Trump administration’s. Here’s the relevant paragraph:
It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure. As I have long argued, we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS). We should also end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. We must maintain our focus on counterterrorism, around the world and at home, but staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.
There are several problems with this summary of the so-called 9/11 wars—that is, the conflicts unleashed by al-Qaeda’s kamikaze attack in 2001 and its aftermath. Let’s break it down.
The jihadis will keep fighting.
It would be easy for America to “end” its role in these wars. President Trump or President Biden can simply withdraw all American forces. That’s the prerogative of the commander-in-chief. Perhaps the president would face some institutional resistance, but as anyone who closely follows the Defense Department knows, there’s little desire to expend much effort in these conflicts. Even so, the president is the ultimate decider and can overrule any objections.
It is telling that in the fourth year of his presidency, Trump has not brought an “end” to America’s role. Why is that? For starters, the jihadis keep fighting. Wars do not typically “end”—they are won or lost. Would ISIS stop fighting if America left Iraq and Syria tomorrow? No. The Taliban agreed to a withdrawal deal with the U.S., but that hasn’t brought an “end” to its insurgency. The group simply turned up the heat on the Afghan government—America’s ally.
This gets to the fundamental problem with the “endless wars” or “forever wars” talking point. It is an example of strategic narcissism, framing these wars purely through the lens of American decision-making. It implies that the only party keeping these conflicts going is the U.S.
This talking point is also used to impugn the motives of those who have reasonable concerns about the terrorist threat. For example, after GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney criticized the administration’s policies in July, President Trump claimed on Twitter that she “is only upset because I have been actively getting our great and beautiful Country out of the ridiculous and costly Endless Wars.” That shifts the moral burden for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere from the jihadis—who refuse to lay down their arms—to one of President Trump’s own political supporters. Trump’s tweet also implies that Cheney doesn’t have any reasonable criticisms of his administration’s withdrawal deal with the Taliban. That same deal enshrines the idea that the Taliban—which harbored al-Qaeda prior to and after 9/11, continues to blame America for the 9/11 hijackings, remains closely allied with al-Qaeda, still brazenly lies about al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan, and regularly celebrates “martyrdom” attacks—is America’s de facto counterterrorism partner.
It does not make one a warmonger—or a proponent of “endless wars”—to recognize there’s a fundamental problem here.
President Obama already brought the “vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.”
The call to “end” the “endless wars” isn’t new. President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign was organized around a similar theme. Obama claimed to have brought the Iraq War to a “responsible end” in 2011. (Biden predicted that Iraq would be a success story after the U.S. withdrawal.) Obama then vowed to do the same in Afghanistan. He was unsuccessful in both countries, as he was forced to reintroduce American forces into Iraq (as well as deploy them to Syria) to combat ISIS, while keeping a small presence in Afghanistan to help prevent the collapse of the government.
Even so, the large-scale American military footprint came to an end before President Trump was elected. In 2008, before Obama’s inauguration, there were approximately 190,000 American troops deployed across Afghanistan and Iraq. By the end of 2016, fewer than 14,000 U.S. service members remained in those two countries.
President Trump did not significantly increase the U.S. deployment above this figure. In 2017, he increased the number of service members in Afghanistan by several thousand, but this was short-lived. By June 2020, there were fewer than 15,000 American troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. And most of them, about 8,600 U.S. service members, are stationed in Afghanistan, with further drawdowns planned for the near future. (The U.S. has informed the Taliban that it will completely withdraw by April 2021.) In addition, approximately 6,000 to 7,000 U.S. troops are located across Africa, where they were tasked with assisting others in the fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS. In sum, there were only about 22,000 American troops in jihadi theaters by mid-2020. An unknown number of contractors also play a supporting role and some forces are stationed outside the conflict zones, but not within them.
The Defense Department has suppressed information on troop deployments, so the figures above are based on press reporting. But the bottom line is this: The days of major counterinsurgency efforts have long been over. The “vast majority” of American service members have already been removed from the conflict zones.
The real questions now are: Will America continue to keep smaller deployments in the jihadi hotspots? If so, where and how many?
Al-Qaeda and ISIS won’t be “defeated” anytime soon and it’s better to think in terms of containment and disruption.
There is an obvious tension in Biden’s preferred policy course. Despite stating his desire to “end” the “forever wars,” Biden writes that Americans should “narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS).” Neither organization is close to defeat, and they certainly won’t be defeated if America leaves the fight entirely. Indeed, the U.S. is not going to pursue true victory over the jihadis, because that would require even more resources and manpower, which no one wants to commit.
In my view, it is better to think of America’s strategy as two-fold: containment and disruption. With respect to the former (containment), it is important to keep the jihadis’ central goal in mind. Both al-Qaeda and ISIS want to resurrect an Islamic caliphate. Even though ISIS claimed to have fulfilled this goal, its territorial success was short-lived. In Syria, this was because a small American presence of approximately 2,000 U.S. Special Forces was able to harness the manpower of 60,000 local fighters. This was not a D-Day-level war effort, because that wasn’t necessary. But it was effective. ISIS still launches daily attacks, but it isn’t close to declaring another Britain-sized caliphate today. Nor is al-Qaeda. But that could change quickly.
Both organizations wage jihad as insurgencies. They are attempting to overthrow existing governments in several hotspots and then replace these bodies with totalitarian regimes that rule according to their strict version of Islamic law (or sharia). These regimes would govern as Islamic emirates, which could then be (hypothetically) joined together in a new caliphate sometime in the future. In some cases, such as in eastern Africa (Somalia) and Afghanistan, America and its allies are all that stand in the way of the jihadists quest to form emirates. Nascent emirates already exist in Afghanistan, East Africa, West Africa, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, though they are stronger in some of these areas than others. The jihadists have operational hubs elsewhere as well.
If the U.S. and its Western allies were to remove all of their forces from the 9/11 wars, the jihadists would undoubtedly succeed in some areas—with emirates popping up in at least a few regions. The current, smaller American footprint isn’t going to “end” the jihad in these areas (that’s the real reason these are “endless wars”), but it has at least contained the jihadists’ ambitions. After a full American withdrawal, al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, a group known as Shabaab, could sack Mogadishu and continue exporting terror throughout the region and possibly the world. The Taliban, which hasn’t betrayed al-Qaeda, despite the Trump administration’s claims, could easily regain more ground in Afghanistan and allow its allies to continue to export the jihad to other countries. ISIS could also make a comeback, of sorts, by forming smaller emirates in some of its former strongholds. Other locales, such as Yemen, are threatened as well.
Some may claim that none of this really matters to American interests. But what they are really saying is that they do not care if deeply anti-American terrorist organizations win the so-called “endless wars.” No one should be foolish enough to assume that al-Qaeda, which was founded on an anti-American conspiracy theory, will suddenly lose interest in attacking the U.S. after forming one or more emirates. Some, including President Obama, assumed that the predecessor to ISIS was only interested in seizing ground and, therefore, not filled varsity-level, international terrorists. That assumption was quickly disproven. ISIS has orchestrated attacks in Europe and inspired (at a minimum) numerous plots inside the U.S. We can only imagine how much worse the ISIS threat would have become if American counterterrorism officials hadn’t disrupted a string of attempts.
Which brings us to the second component of America’s current, unannounced strategy: disruption. President Trump has touted his administration’s success in hunting down top terrorists such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the leader of ISIS) and Hamza bin Laden (Osama’s heir). Earlier this year, the White House trumpeted the death of Qasim al-Raymi, a terrorist who led Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and oversaw plots against the U.S. Dozens of lesser-known threats have been eliminated since 2017. And the Obama administration could similarly point to a number of high value targets who were neutralized—most famously, Osama bin Laden himself. It should be recalled that the May 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan was launched from inside Afghanistan. (Biden’s advice to Obama was “don’t go,” meaning he didn’t think the operation should be launched at the time.)
Which raises a fundamental question: How will the U.S. continue to hunt down the terrorists who threaten Americans if all of the remaining forces are brought home, as some want? In that event, it strains credulity to think that the U.S. counterterrorism mission—which is focused on disrupting emerging threats—would continue unimpeded. It would be all the more difficult to detect terrorist hideouts in, for example, the remote lands of Afghanistan, Mali, and Yemen. America’s counterterrorism interests clearly require some military footprint overseas. Biden has left himself some wiggle room, as he didn’t call for all forces to come home. But how can he, or Trump, square a limited presence with the desire to “end” the “endless wars.”
It isn’t clear how “other instruments of American power” aren’t being inhibited by America’s current counterterrorism missions.
As the above analysis hopefully makes clear, the U.S. is no longer really “entrenched in unwinnable conflicts,” as Biden claims. It’s true the U.S. isn’t going to win in Afghanistan, but our country also hasn’t been invested there or elsewhere to the degree it once was. The real issue is whether or not the U.S. will continue to provide some degree of support to its allies, who are the principal ones keeping the jihadists at bay in Afghanistan, Somalia, West Africa and in other locales.
Biden argues, in effect, that the U.S. needs to do less because the current war fighting “drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.” But is that true? The vast majority of the Defense Department’s budget (which is admittedly difficult to decipher) is already spent on other issues—not the 9/11 wars. With respect to countering Chinese threats, it should be noted that U.S. Indo-Pacific Command already has “four times the assigned forces as any other geographical combatant command.” That is far more than any other combatant command, including CENTCOM and AFRICOM—the two commands that are principally responsible for containing and disrupting the jihadists.
An endless jihad.
None of the above should be interpreted as a blanket defense of America’s current warfighting. Longtime readers know that I think there is much to criticize about the wars.
But the “endless” or “forever wars” narrative is vacuous. The terrorists are waging an “endless jihad.” America cannot simply assume that the terrorist threat will go away once all service members are brought home.
Photograph by Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images.