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

When President Biden informed an exhausted nation on Aug. 31 that the final C-17 cargo aircraft had left Taliban-controlled Kabul, ending twenty 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 warfare grinds on.

As Mr. Biden drew the curtain on Afghanistan, the C.I.A. was quietly increasing a secret base deep in 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 battle 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 males being focused have been militants and stated the strike killed 10 individuals, seven of them kids.

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

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga troopers trying over the  wreckage left after a pleasant fireplace accident in 2003 in northern Iraq. Such incidents harm the United States’ ethical authority in the world.Credit…Ruth Fremson/ The New York Times

Taking inventory of this warfare is tough as a result of it’s inseparable from the twin calamities of Afghanistan and Iraq. In these international locations, the United States reached past the techniques of counterterrorism for a extra formidable, ill-fated challenge to remake fractured, tribal societies into American-style democracies.

Those failures are etched in 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 in the deaths of greater than 7,000 American service members, lots of of hundreds of civilians and trillions of squandered American dollars.

The counterterrorism warfare, a lot of it waged covertly, defies such metrics. More and extra of it includes companions. Large elements of it happen in distant locations like the Sahel or the Horn of Africa. American casualties, for 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 specialists, the warfare 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,” stated Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism in the Obama administration.

Refugees fleeing the warfare in Yemen in April 2015, arriving at the port in Djibouti, Ethiopia. The warfare on terror has put the U.S. in the unsavory firm of Saudi Arabia in Yemen.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

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

There are different explanations for the lack of a significant overseas 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 practice 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 type 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,” stated Fernando Reinares, director of the Program on Violent Radicalization and Global Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid.

Still, in comparability to the complete failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “other” warfare on terror has thus far achieved its bedrock aim of defending the United States from one other 9/11-type assault.

Opposition troopers and volunteers stand on the streets and fireplace into the air in jap Libya. The Libyan battle is one among the success tales of the warfare on terror.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The query is: At what value?

The abuses and excesses of warfare — from torture to remote-control killing by drone — have value the United States ethical authority round 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 be capable to maintain this colossal expense in an period the place Mr. Biden is attempting to recalibrate American overseas coverage to deal with new challenges, like local weather change, pandemics and the great-power rivalry with China?

A New Kind of Warfare

Few presidents supplied a extra succinct description of this new type of warfare than Barack Obama, talking to the cadet graduates at the United States Military Academy in 2014. The graduates, he stated, 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.

President Obama arriving for his speech at the U.S. Military Academy the place he referred to as for a brand new type of warfare.Credit…Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times

“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 didn’t seize the octopus-like attain of American operations, which expanded additional below his successor, Donald J. Trump. Between 2018 and 2020, the United States was engaged in some type of counterterrorism exercise in 85 international locations, in line with the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

American forces have been concerned in fight, both instantly or by proxies, in 12 international locations, 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 international locations: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

American troops have carried out counterterrorism coaching workout routines in 41 international locations. And the United States has skilled the navy, police or border forces of near 80 international locations, in line with Stephanie Savell, co-director of the challenge, at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

A coaching train involving African, Western and U.S. counter-terrorism forces in 2015 on the fringe of the Sahara Desert. Much of the warfare on terror is waged out of sight in distant areas of the globe.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

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

The melting away of the American-trained Afghan Army in the face of the Taliban’s advance has forged 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 reasonable ambitions and restricted objectives, has been capable of 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 in the Libyan metropolis of Sirte.

“These were urban strongholds where you had militants planning strikes against the U.S.,” stated Kim Cragin, a senior analysis fellow in counterterrorism at 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 warfare on terror has been one among the higher examples of multilateralism in latest a long time. Unlike, say, the financial competitors with China, the United States and its allies have stayed remarkably in sync about the crucial of preventing terrorism since the week after the 9/11 assaults, when NATO invoked Article 5, the precept of collective self-defense, for the first 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,” stated Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism professional at Georgetown University. “We could always count on being on the same page with them on counterterrorism.”

A person waving folders with paperwork at U.S. Marines final month at the Kabul airport. The failures of Iraq and Afghanistan have obscured the undisputed success of the warfare on terror.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

How America’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan will have an effect on these relationships is anyone’s guess. Professor Hoffman stated he fearful 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 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 in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, not solely didn’t stamp out extremism however might have inadvertently worsened it.

The flip aspect 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 in the identify of preventing extremism.

At residence, the political consensus that undergirded the warfare 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 might have been unimaginable to think about taking place to George W. Bush after 9/11.

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

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

Biden’s Shifting Positions

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

Mr. Biden at a information  convention at the American Embassy in Kabul in 2002. Once a powerful supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he turned disenchanted with them over the years.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“I’m talking about a multilateral force with orders to shoot to kill,” stated 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 ensuing years, Mr. Biden turned disenchanted with the corruption of its pro-Western leaders and skeptical that the United States may ever unify its warring tribes. He turned the administration’s main naysayer on the use of navy pressure, 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 warfare on terror to a rustic that has bored with the topic. Americans are way more preoccupied with the coronavirus or the wildfires and flash floods which might be a byproduct of local weather change.

“My biggest concern is that the F.D.A. has not approved vaccines for kids under 12,” stated 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 among the relics of the post-9/11 interval: the 2001 regulation that licensed the president to wage warfare on these answerable for the Sept. 11 assaults. It has been stretched past recognition to justify navy motion in opposition to all types 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 is just not 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 stated, 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 warfare on terror enters its third decade — some have taken to calling it the post-post-9/11 period — American presidents not forged the battle in existential phrases. The defining contest of 2021, Mr. Biden has stated, is between open societies and the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing.

People anticipate a bus outdoors a war-damaged and abandoned constructing, January 2007 in Mogadishu, Somalia.Credit…Michael Kamber for The New York Times

The query is whether or not a divided, distracted United States may have the assets or persistence to keep up an efficient counterterrorism coverage. The White House nonetheless has not appointed a counterterrorism coordinator in the State Department, an vital publish for an administration eager on nonmilitary options.

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

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