New Terrorism in the Wake of Withdrawal
The last three American presidential elections have emphasized a commitment to “bringing troops home” and bringing an end to “endless wars.” While the sentiment is well intentioned, it is at best misinformed and at worst intellectually dishonest. It stems from a need to placate an uninformed public and earn reelection votes. Further, it discounts the reality of the situation on the ground. These platforms largely ignore relevant military advice, choosing to foster emotionally driven campaign promises rather than to pragmatically highlight the need for involvement or engagement in a given area. Most military advice of the day, which is unrelated to whether or not America should have engaged in the conflict in the first place, based on a critical assessment of historical precedents, and focused on executing the best current course of action for a peaceful, long-term solution, is being ignored. Right now, in northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) and the Kurdish people are experiencing the latest fallout from this misguided practice of placing mass public opinion and reelection hopes ahead of the greater future of the United States and the world.
The SDF were integral allies in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS) in northern Syria. They supported the execution of U.S. policy, suffered losses, and remained committed to the cause after five years of war against the terror organization. In an age when many states and groups practice individualism, the SDF did not waiver in their joint efforts with the United States against ISIS. Based solely on their long-standing commitment to supporting the United States in its mission to route ISIS, America should have remained in northern Syria to help establish security and stability with the Kurds. But even further to the point, the overt threat by Turkey against the Kurds should have heightened American commitment to their most effective and loyal regional ally against ISIS. American policy should have favored the Kurdish people and the SDF, viewing their continued success and stability in the region as a paramount concern. But it did not, and Russia is quickly stepping in to fill the void.
Some would blame the current Commander in Chief for what is tantamount to treachery in the call to retreat from northern Syria and leave the Kurds to fend for themselves against a pre-advertised invasion by Turkey, and they would not be totally remiss in doing so. However, President Trump is only one in a long line of modern American presidents primarily invested in currying popularity today, regardless of the cost tomorrow.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, following Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, President George H.W. Bush ended what had been more than a decade of ongoing aid to the Afghan mujahideen. Believing that Afghanistan was only important within the context of the bipolar Cold War, the administration accordingly withdrew from the Middle Eastern state once the Soviet threat was no longer a concern. Intelligence in the region indicated that Afghanistan would fall into a civil war within months of the United States withdrawing its influence, and some believed that the state would fail completely soon afterward. Despite this dooming intelligence, the administration determined that what happened in Afghanistan was not America's problem.
On September 11, 2001, America paid dearly for that shortsightedness. Following U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban, a conservative Islamist group with ties to Pakistan, soon took over the state. The Taliban quickly created a safe haven for a group of men with roots in the Soviet-Afghan War and a dedication to returning the world to its state at the time of the Prophet Muhammed. Those men were the early members of al-Qaeda, and their leader, Osama bin Laden, would soon become one of the most infamous men in history. Grown out of the chaos that was Afghanistan after the United States withdrew its covert influence, al-Qaeda thrived within the decentralized state, crashing onto the global scene with the shocking murder of thousands of innocent people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
Amazingly, despite the horrific backdrop of the 9/11 attacks, the United States repeated its mistake only a decade later, failing to appreciate the lessons of recent history. In 2011, eight years after the initial invasion of Iraq and one year prior to the American presidential election, President Barack Obama withdrew all troops from Iraq. Despite military advice to the contrary, President Obama had campaigned on drawing down forces and bringing troops home, and with the upcoming election year, he was committed to meeting those campaign promises.
Iraq had been plagued by almost a decade of war since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and sectarian violence, the destruction of infrastructure, and a lack of effective military created an environment of insecurity and instability in 2011. The state’s fragile security, safeguarded by the presence of American forces, was effective only with the direct support of American troops. Their withdrawal in 2011 crushed any hopes of lasting stability within the region. Despite recent history warning against such premature withdrawal, Obama had committed to ending the Iraq War, and without regard for the longer future, he fulfilled that promise.
Admirable though this goal was and still is, the Obama administration did not register the relevance of the unstable region it was leaving behind. Practicing almost blind isolationism reminiscent of the Bush administration of the 1990s, the administration failed to understand the enormous global threat that Iraq would pose as a failed or failing state. In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant rose from the ashes of the Iraq War. Trumpeting a theme similar to that of al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, ISIS claimed that it wanted to recreate the Muslim Caliphate that had dominated during the time of the Prophet and declared its number one enemy to be the United States. In violent practices denounced even by other extremist organizations, ISIS swept across the region, imbuing some of its devastated citizens with a sense of purpose and using terror to subjugate the others. In the five years since its creation, ISIS has gone on to change the face of modern terrorism and severely alter global security. Rather than "bringing troops home" for good, the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq served only to provide a short respite before those same troops were sent back to reestablish the tentative security that they had spent the eight years of the Iraq War attempting to create.
Arguably the two largest and most dangerous terror organizations in modern history grew out of a blind commitment to "bringing the troops home" or ending wars that politicians no longer felt met the critical standard of today's American public. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, America no longer has the luxury of adhering to an isolationist foreign policy. Globalization has eroded the protections once provided by physical boundaries, and America can longer rely on vast oceans to validate her isolationism. If America does not choose to meet the threat today, globalization has ensured that the threat will meet her at her doorstep tomorrow. The September 11 attacks and the lone-wolf attacks inspired by ISIS support this assessment.
Consequently, the United States can only embrace the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria at its own peril. This withdrawal comes as President Trump reaches a similar campaign point to that of Obama in 2011. Having campaigned on withdrawing troops and ending "endless wars," Mr. Trump looks to fulfill those promises prior to the 2020 election. But such withdrawal will create a power vacuum like that seen in Afghanistan prior to the rise of al-Qaeda or in Iraq before the rise of ISIS. The United States, with an understanding of this history, cannot in good faith ignore these precedents and make the same decision in Syria. Further, this withdrawal fosters and exacerbates the mistrust towards Americans in the region. Each time the U.S. engages convinces civilians and regional militaries to trust America instead of their dictatorial or extremist neighbor, and then withdraws, leaving them to fend for themselves, she reduces her credibility, making it harder to win allies in future conflicts. Leaving the Kurds without support will create comparable regrets in the future to those felt on 9/11 and in 2014 when the terrorism that had been held at bay by an American presence was unleashed on innocent people. Our history has already foretold what will happen if we withdraw from Syria, leaving our allies to defend a fragmented peace, and at this point, we cannot pretend otherwise. If we continue with this withdrawal, we will have only ourselves to blame when our future is once again blighted by a terror organization that festered and grew out of our own ignorant, self-centered neglect.
Importantly, it is America’s lack of a Grand Strategy that has allowed such politically driven errors to continue to be made. The last, true American Grand Strategy was Containment, the Cold War-defining doctrine first coined by George Kennan in 1946. Containment guided American foreign policy through nine different presidencies on both sides of the aisle and informed political decision making for almost half a century. The doctrine, although adapted slightly during each administration, added a coherency to American foreign policy that allowed both our allies and our enemies to reasonably predict our behaviors, often serving as a deterrent against future threats. Further, this coherent foreign policy provided both continuity in the U.S. military and clear and concise direction to their civilian superiors.
However, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union came at the end of America's most dominating foreign policy doctrine. The task of establishing the next Grand Strategy fell to the Clinton administration, which failed to pick up the gauntlet, instead turning inwards and pushing foreign policy affairs to the side. This lack of a Grand Strategy has permeated American policy and decision-making for almost three decades, hampering the effectiveness of the U.S. military and handcuffing it with ineffectual guidelines. Today, despite "Grand Strategy" occupying the center of the modern political science discourse, very few developments have lent themselves to be the basis of the next American Grand Strategy.
In 2002, this lack of strategy prevented American forces in Afghanistan from capturing Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. In 2014, American forces fought redundantly in Iraq to recapture territory lost during the three years between the end of the Iraq War and the beginning of the invasion against ISIS. In Afghanistan today, the United States is in the middle of the longest war in its history against the Taliban, but a failure to establish mission clarity based on a larger strategy has resulted in fragmented military engagement in the region. In Syria, the American withdrawal again shows that the lack of overarching strategy allows for a misinformed and self-centered policy process that ultimately results in future violence and war.
America needs the modern-day version of Containment, but we seem to be missing our Kennan. Absent a Grand Strategy, we will continue to flounder – re-fighting battles that we have already won, making good on ill-advised and personally motivated campaign promises and severely weakening both National and Global security to the detriment of mankind.
Faith Stewart studied military history and political science at Duke University. Since graduation, she has held internships with the Hudson Institute and the Counter Extremist Network, focusing her research on terrorism and grand strategy. She has published pieces on al-Qaeda, U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan, and the crisis in Yemen. Her current research focuses on the rise of terrorism in Afghanistan, spanning from the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979 and concluding in 2002 with the failure to capture UBL at Tora Bora.