20 Years On, the War on Terror Grinds Along With No End in Sight

When President Biden instructed an exhausted nation on Aug. 31 that the final C-17 cargo aircraft had left Taliban-controlled Kabul, ending 20 years of American navy misadventure in Afghanistan, he defended the frantic, bloodstained exit with a easy assertion: “I was not going to extend this forever war.”

And but the conflict grinds on.

As Mr. Biden drew the curtain on Afghanistan, the C.I.A. was quietly increasing a secret base deep within the Sahara, from which it runs drone flights to observe Al Qaeda and Islamic State militants in Libya, in addition to extremists in Niger, Chad and Mali. The navy’s Africa Command resumed drone strikes in opposition to the Shabab, a Qaeda-linked group in Somalia. The Pentagon is weighing whether or not to ship dozens of Special Forces trainers again into Somalia to assist native troops struggle the militants.

Even in Kabul itself, a fiery drone strike on males believed to be Islamic State plotters focusing on the airport portended a way forward for navy operations there. The assault, which the Pentagon referred to as a “righteous strike” to avert one other lethal suicide bombing, showcased America’s “over-the-horizon” capabilities, to make use of a phrase favored by Mr. Biden. Family members denied that the lads being focused have been militants and mentioned the strike killed 10 individuals, seven of them kids.

Twenty years after the terrorist assaults of September 2001, the so-called conflict on terror exhibits no signal of winding down. It waxes and wanes, largely within the shadows and out of the headlines — much less an epochal conflict than a low-grade situation, one which flares up sometimes, as in 2017, when Islamic State militants ambushed American and native troopers exterior a village in Niger, killing 4 Americans.

Taking inventory of this conflict is tough as a result of it’s inseparable from the dual calamities of Afghanistan and Iraq. In these nations, the United States reached past the ways of counterterrorism for a extra formidable, ill-fated venture to remake fractured, tribal societies into American-style democracies.

Those failures are etched within the shameful pictures of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq or of determined Afghans falling from the stomach of an American aircraft. They are documented within the deaths of greater than 7,000 American service members, a whole bunch of hundreds of civilians and trillions of squandered American {dollars}.

The counterterrorism conflict, a lot of it waged covertly, defies such metrics. More and extra of it entails companions. Large components of it happen in distant locations just like the Sahel or the Horn of Africa. American casualties, for essentially the most half, are restricted. And success is measured not by capturing a capital or destroying an enemy’s military, however by breaking apart teams earlier than they’ve an opportunity to strike the American homeland or abroad belongings like embassies and navy bases.

By that yardstick, say counterterrorism consultants, the conflict on terror has been an undisputed success.

“If you had said on 9/12 that we’d have only 100 people killed by jihadi terrorism and only one foreign terrorist attack in the United States over the next 20 years, you’d have been laughed out of the room,” mentioned Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism within the Obama administration.

“The fact that it had to be accompanied by two wars makes it hard for people to disaggregate how successful counterterrorism policies have been,” mentioned Mr. Benjamin, now president of the American Academy in Berlin.

There are different explanations for the dearth of a serious international assault: tighter border safety and the ubiquity of the web, which has made it simpler to trace and disrupt jihadi actions; or the upheavals of the Arab Spring, which shifted the sights of extremists to their very own societies.

Nor is it correct to say that the West has been shielded from the scourge of terrorism. The 2004 Madrid prepare bombing; the 2005 London bus and subway bombings; and the 2015 assaults on a nightclub and stadium in Paris — all bore the hallmarks of the sort of well-organized assault that introduced fireplace and demise to Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon.

“The war on terror can only be assessed as relatively successful inside the Western world, more within the United States than with respect to Western Europe as a whole,” mentioned Fernando Reinares, director of the Program on Violent Radicalization and Global Terrorism on the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid.

Still, compared to the great failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “other” conflict on terror has up to now achieved its bedrock aim of defending the United States from one other 9/11-type assault.

The query is: At what value?

The abuses and excesses of conflict — from torture to remote-control killing by drone — have value the United States ethical authority all over the world. Its occupying armies spawned a brand new era of Al Qaeda franchises, whereas the black-clad fighters of the Islamic State swarmed into the vacuum left by departing American troops in Iraq. And the monetary drain from a sprawling counterterrorism marketing campaign has been huge, fueling the navy’s budgets even years after main fight in Afghanistan and Iraq ended.

Will the United States have the ability to maintain this colossal expense in an period the place Mr. Biden is making an attempt to recalibrate American international coverage to sort out new challenges, like local weather change, pandemics and the great-power rivalry with China?

Few presidents provided a extra succinct description of this new sort of warfare than Barack Obama, chatting with the cadet graduates on the United States Military Academy in 2014. The graduates, he mentioned, would not be referred to as on to serve in misbegotten wars, however they must confront a spider internet of terrorist threats from Middle East to Africa.

“We have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin, or stirs up local resentments,” Mr. Obama declared to a subdued viewers on a cold morning. “We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.”

The president listed Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, the place the United States was both coaching native troops, supplying weapons or finishing up drone strikes. He didn’t point out Pakistan, the place he oversaw an escalation of C.I.A. drone strikes regardless of anguishing over their lack of public accountability.

Even this catalog of conflicts did not seize the octopus-like attain of American operations, which expanded additional beneath his successor, Donald J. Trump. Between 2018 and 2020, the United States was engaged in some type of counterterrorism exercise in 85 nations, based on the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

American forces have been concerned in fight, both immediately or by means of proxies, in 12 nations, together with Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. The United States has had the authorized authority to conduct particular operations in Cameroon, Libya, Niger and Tunisia. It carried out air or drone strikes in seven nations: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

American troops have performed counterterrorism coaching workouts in 41 nations. And the United States has educated the navy, police or border forces of near 80 nations, based on Stephanie Savell, co-director of the venture, at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

While the tempo of some actions slowed throughout the pandemic, she mentioned, “Biden is doubling down on these far-flung operations.”

The melting away of the American-trained Afghan Army within the face of the Taliban’s advance has solid a shadow over the idea of working with native companions, as did the wholesale retreat of Iraqi troops from Islamic State fighters, who briefly succeeded in establishing a caliphate over a lot of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and arranged terror networks in Europe.

But there are different examples the place the United States, with extra real looking ambitions and restricted targets, has been in a position to forge fruitful partnerships with native militias. Syrian Kurdish fighters, aided by American troops, evicted the Islamic State from Syria, whereas Libyan militias, helped by American airstrikes, uprooted ISIS fighters from their base within the Libyan metropolis of Sirte.

“These were urban strongholds where you had militants planning strikes against the U.S.,” mentioned Kim Cragin, a senior analysis fellow in counterterrorism on the National Defense University. “And these were not 20-year missions; more like six-month missions.”

Between regulation enforcement cooperation, navy coaching and the sharing of intelligence, the conflict on terror has been one of many higher examples of multilateralism in current many years. Unlike, say, the financial competitors with China, the United States and its allies have stayed remarkably in sync concerning the crucial of preventing terrorism because the week after the 9/11 assaults, when NATO invoked Article 5, the precept of collective self-defense, for the primary and solely time in its historical past.

“One of the biggest successes in the war on terror is the one we take the most for granted — the close bonds with our allies,” mentioned Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism knowledgeable at Georgetown University. “We could always count on being on the same page with them on counterterrorism.”

How America’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan will have an effect on these relationships is anyone’s guess. Professor Hoffman mentioned he frightened that the Biden administration’s perceived lack of session with European allies, which has angered political leaders, would filter down into the intelligence ranks

For all of the efforts to painting the American mission as humane and morally simply, the lengthy years of bloodshed disillusioned allies and hardened adversaries. Some American operations, like within the West African nation of Burkina Faso, not solely did not stamp out extremism however might have inadvertently worsened it.

The flip facet of collaboration is that the United States lashed itself to unsavory gamers, from Saudi Arabia, with its heavy-handed intervention in Yemen, to Egypt, which has carried out a brutal crackdown on its home opponents within the identify of preventing extremism.

At residence, the political consensus that undergirded the conflict on terror is fracturing, a casualty of America’s excessive polarization. Some Republicans referred to as for Mr. Biden to be impeached after the suicide assault at Kabul’s airport that killed 13 service members — one thing that will have been unimaginable to think about occurring to George W. Bush after 9/11.

Mr. Trump and former aides, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been scathing of their criticism of Mr. Biden, by no means thoughts that they negotiated the cope with the Taliban that pressured the Afghan authorities to launch 5,000 prisoners of conflict and set the clock ticking for the American withdrawal in 2021.

“Counterterrorism was always a bipartisan issue,” Professor Hoffman mentioned. “But both major parties now have deep internal divisions over it. Leaders are playing to the constituency that they believe is the strongest.”

Mr. Biden was current on the creation of the conflict on terror. In January 2002, weeks after the United States ousted the Taliban, he grew to become the highest-ranking American politician to go to the battlefield. After touring a bombed-out Kabul, he mentioned the United States ought to participate in a multinational navy power to revive order.

“I’m talking about a multilateral force with orders to shoot to kill,” mentioned Mr. Biden, who was then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Absent that, I don’t see any hope for this country.”

In the following years, Mr. Biden grew to become disenchanted with the corruption of its pro-Western leaders and skeptical that the United States might ever unify its warring tribes. He grew to become the administration’s main naysayer on using navy power, opposing the troop surge in Afghanistan, the NATO intervention in Libya, and even advising in opposition to the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Now, having fulfilled his promise to go away Afghanistan, it falls to Mr. Biden to articulate the subsequent chapter of the conflict on terror to a rustic that has uninterested in the topic. Americans are much more preoccupied with the coronavirus or the wildfires and flash floods which are a byproduct of local weather change.

“My biggest concern is that the F.D.A. has not approved vaccines for kids under 12,” mentioned Professor Cragin, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “The fact that my mom’s biggest concern when she goes to a movie theater is not a terrorist attack is a good thing.”

Mr. Biden has indicated he’s open to updating one of many relics of the post-9/11 interval: the 2001 regulation that licensed the president to wage conflict on these answerable for the Sept. 11 assaults. It has been stretched past recognition to justify navy motion in opposition to all kinds of latest enemies. Mr. Biden has additionally imposed limits on drone strikes and commando operations, pending a assessment.

The president’s matter-of-fact language shouldn’t be not like that of his previous boss, Mr. Obama. He speaks of diffuse threats from the Shabab in Somalia; Qaeda associates in Syria and Yemen; and Islamic State spinoffs in Africa and Asia. America’s “over-the-horizon” capabilities, he mentioned, would allow it “to strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.”

It is a stark distinction to Mr. Bush, who coined the phrase “global war on terror.” In the feverish aftermath of 9/11, he framed the battle in Manichaean phrases, not simply as a regulation enforcement or counterterrorism problem, however as a twilight battle between good and evil.

“Why do they hate us?” Mr. Bush requested a joint session of Congress. “They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble.”

As the conflict on terror enters its third decade — some have taken to calling it the post-post-9/11 period — American presidents not solid the battle in existential phrases. The defining contest of 2021, Mr. Biden has mentioned, is between open societies and the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing.

The query is whether or not a divided, distracted United States can have the assets or endurance to keep up an efficient counterterrorism coverage. The White House nonetheless has not appointed a counterterrorism coordinator within the State Department, an necessary submit for an administration eager on nonmilitary options.

If the conflict on terror helped stop one other lethal international assault on American soil, it completely failed to stop the proliferation of terrorist teams. With the triumph of the Taliban, these new fighters have contemporary inspiration to repair their sights on a well-recognized goal.

“People always say, ‘We can’t have another 9/11 because our security is so much better,’” Professor Hoffman mentioned. “But terrorists are the ultimate opportunists. They’re always looking for opportunities.”

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