As the Biden administration addresses an old issue anew — the threat from the hostile landscape inhabited by jihadis who continue to plot attacks on the United States — it must decide whether to continue or affirm the Trump administration’s retreat from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia. In other words, after two decades of frustration to tame the region, has the time come for Washington to pack up and walk out entirely?
In a word, the answer turns on the expectation of “blowback.” Translated, will exiting increase the terror risk to the American homeland, the bedrock justification for keeping forces in the jihadi lands?
Unfortunately, policymakers have no confident response reflecting five uncertainties: mixed lessons from past walkouts; significant questions about the gravity of the foreign terrorist threat to the United States; the effectiveness of homeland security; the adequacy of native and regional resources to attenuate risks; and the comparative merits of having American forces offshore the landscape or onshore — mindful there are competing demands to allocate military resources to address a rising China and to keep Russia in tow.
An examination of each of these bends the curve toward retaining a modest ground presence in the region as a hedge to better assure that today’s worn jihadi terrorist threat to America does not regain traction to become tomorrow’s tragedy.
Leaving is not a new American approach to quagmire. But decision-makers have always executed exiting with great reluctance born of fear that blowback and reputational costs would follow.
However, in at least two instances — Vietnam (1973) and Lebanon (1984) — a walkout worked out. With the fig leaf of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, Washington never seriously looked back as Hanoi and its neighbors turned on each other, putting the final stake into the domino theory. In the early 1980s in Lebanon, the Reagan administration’s intervention to halt Israel’s invasion morphed into efforts to buttress the flailing Lebanese government. Only the 1984 walkout relieved the United States from becoming even more mired in a civil war that would run for another six years.
By contrast, leaving Iraq in 2011 and Somalia in 1994 merely served as interludes to walkbacks because of new blowback concerns. Iraq’s sectarianism, corruption and poor governance overwhelmed the nation-building that Washington sought to achieve. As ISIS forces marched through the Sunni heartland in 2014, Baghdad’s hollow army fled, putting the capital in the terrorists’ gun sights and prompting Washington’s walkback.
In East Africa, the U.S. walkback took place following the failed effort of Ethiopian troops to eliminate the militant arm of the Islamic courts — al-Shabaab — that was affiliated with al Qaeda and settled in the countryside.
However, as mired in the landscape the United States became, its presence was not without impressive tactical success. American forces eliminated senior al Qaeda and ISIS leadership and many second-tier commanders. Its air and ground assistance to locals helped destroy the caliphate, removing thousands of fighters from the battlefield while disrupting the movements’ financial networks and social media recruitment.
But now, even with the terrorists wounded, in hiding, fractured and hunted, with little capacity to hold territory (al-Shabaab being the exception), the gnawing question for U.S. security remains: Do the jihadists have the capability to strike the United States from abroad? Will that capacity grow in time?
More to the point, will walkouts prompt blowback as ISIS’s now-increasing hit-and-run operations in Syria and Iraq gain traction, while the jihadi movement attempts to get a foothold in Afghanistan over the efforts of U.S., the Afghan government and a Taliban that suppresses these terrorists on the one hand while coddling al Qaeda on the other?
Mixed public intelligence assessments fail to clarify. The National Counterterrorism Center reports that al Qaeda is in “disarray and focused simply on survival,” facing “inevitable demise,” while the FBI declares that al Qaeda and ISIS intend to “carry on large attacks in the U.S.”
Of course, intent and capacity are separate elements and now, two decades since 9/11, jihadi terrorists in and around the landscape have shown little capability to hit the U.S. homeland. While the country has suffered a few notable jihadi-inspired terrorist attacks, to date the December 2019 rampage by al Qaeda-linked Saudi air force cadet, Mohammed Alshamrani, at the Pensacola, Fla., naval air station that killed three and wounded eight marks the sole “successful” foreign operation.
Optimists among us might conclude this backdrop finds the battle to immunize the United States from foreign attack effectively is won. The beaten-down jihadists simply do not have the capacity to cross oceans to attack the United States as they fight to advance their cause in their lands while seeking to survive, leaving meaningful blowback less plausible. The view further assumes that homeland policing, informed by effective global and domestic intelligence networks and border control, will suffice to protect America.
The assumption banks on the inability of the jihadists to reconstitute in a more forgiving environment left by an American departure — to plan and execute their mayhem on U.S. soil. Locals who have benefitted from U.S. assistance over the years, along with neighboring countries, would be best situated to impose the dike to protect themselves and, incidentally, the United States.
However, nowhere in the landscape do locals have the capacity today to do so reliably. Furthermore, regional states either have been ineffective — most recently, African Union forces in Somalia — or in conflict with each other, evident in Syria, where government forces have been at odds with Turks and Kurds who see the other as the primary adversary.
Although offshore American forces could execute operations against jihadis — they failed in Somalia and Afghanistan but proved more successful in hitting ISIS in Libya — there is no substitute for an American counterterrorism ground presence working with locals to collect actionable intelligence. The result would allow U.S. homeland security to be the last layer of defense, rather than the first.
Bennett Ramberg served as a foreign affairs officer in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. A member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, he currently is a Los Angeles-based writer, foreign policy consultant and businessman.