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Withdrawing Troops Does Not End the Jihadists’ “Forever War” Against the West
Congressional Representative from Florida Matt Gaetz has made a name for himself as one of the most prominent spokesmen of the Donald Trump wing of the Republican Party, with the accompanying sexual and financial scandals that remain just within the law, which seem to be a prerequisite for membership in that faction. Gaetz’s latest wheeze is trying to have American forces withdrawn from theatres where they are holding the line against jihadism.
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Gaetz released a statement today lambasting the “Congressional War Machine” for “the occupation of Somalia”, which he feels does not serve “the interests of the American people at home”, and is, therefore, introducing a bill in the House of Representatives under War Powers Act that he hopes will “bring our troops home”.
Everything is wrong with this. Setting aside that the War Powers Act is probably unconstitutional, there is no U.S. “occupation” of Somalia: there are less than 500 U.S. troops in Somalia. These troops were deployed by President Joe Biden in May 2022 to arrest a situation that had dangerously spiralled in the year after Trump had, in one of his last actions in office, pulled out the 700 or so U.S. troops in Somalia in January 2021.
Throughout 2021 and early 2022, Al-Shabab, perhaps Al-Qaeda’s most powerful “affiliate”, took full advantage of the U.S. withdrawal to make rapid advances that reversed the fragile gains by the Somali government, such as it is, in the preceding period, and the ripple effects from this were spilling out into east Africa and the Sahel, where the jihadists have been handed the further gift of Russia displacing France in its Imperial sphere. Added to this, the Islamic State (IS) was able to consolidate its small but potent presence in Somalia, responsible for a crucial network node to sustain financial flows to IS’s divisions in Afghanistan and Yemen. (A key member of this financial apparatus, Suhayl Salim Abd al-Rahman (Bilal al-Sudani), has been killed since U.S. troops returned to Somalia.)
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” might be a terrible cliché, and Einstein might never have said it, but it doesn’t make Gaetz’s proposal any less insane: it has already been tried and it was a catastrophe.
The political embarrassment of the Somali redeployment last year need not have fallen on the Republicans alone if they had their wits about them. As even The New York Times pointed out at the time, “The move stands in contrast to [Biden’s] decision … to pull American forces from Afghanistan, saying that ‘it is time to end the forever war’.”
An eminently sustainable arrangement had been reached in Afghanistan, one that could barely be defined as a “war” at all for America: 8,000 troops, suffering less than twenty casualties annually or about four times less than die in training accidents in non-combat areas every year, were able to support the Afghan army in keeping the jihadists at bay and blunting the influence of the anti-Western China-Russia-Iran axis.
Biden terminating this settlement and handing Afghanistan back to Pakistan’s Taliban-Qaeda jihadists in 2021 damaged NATO; emboldened Islamists across the world; caused a humanitarian nightmare that is likely to spill over Afghanistan’s borders in the form of refugees, destabilising the region and potentially Europe; and recreated a situation similar to that before 9/11, only worse since Al-Qaeda is joined by a powerful and expanding IS presence.
Given that the abandonment of Afghanistan was an unforced error from Biden, a decision made for ideological reasons, which became a disaster without even a “decent interval”—and months later Biden effectively admitted as much by shelving his “over-the-horizon” counter-terrorism strategy to put troops back in Somalia—one would think this was an open goal for the Republicans. Instead, the noisiest elements of the GOP seem to have taken the Afghan debacle as a template and are relentlessly searching for another theatre to apply it in.
Earlier this month, Gaetz introduced a War Powers Resolution to withdraw the 900 U.S. troops based in north-east Syria. It was defeated rather decisively, but Gaetz clearly has not given up the idea—Syria was specifically mentioned in his statement today.
The U.S.’s involvement in Syria stems from the anti-IS campaign. President Barack Obama’s feigned support for Syria’s rebellion gave way in 2015 to deputising the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) as the anti-IS coalition’s ground force in Syria. There are all kinds of problems with this, starting with the “SDF” being a political front for the terrorist-designated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Nonetheless, despite the limitations of the “by, with, through” strategy, it allowed the U.S. to dismantle the “caliphate” with negligible American casualties.
The U.S. underwriting the SDF/PKK statelet in the aftermath in one-third of Syria has, at low cost, ensured a flood-stream of intelligence that permits the U.S. to sustain pressure on IS’s leadership and disrupt the organisation’s effort to rebuild, while keeping Bashar al-Asad’s regime, propped up as it is by U.S. strategic enemies Russia and Iran, from having the total victory it would otherwise secure.
Imperfect as the current situation is in Syria, a U.S. withdrawal would make it worse. As one analyst pointed out, “Should the Americans … withdraw from Syria, the SDF will collapse quicker than the … government in Afghanistan, and ISIS will be ready”. As well as opening space for an IS surge, Iran would have greater freedom in its war against Israel and the PKK—which has an old and intimate history with Asad, Iran, and Russia—would be restored as an instrument for the Asad/Iran system to needle NATO’s Turkey, a set-up that nearly ended in war last time.
Gaetz has not yet got around to trying to withdraw the 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, but he surely will—and the ground is already being prepared by far-Left and “Realist” forces. As in Syria, Obama’s chosen ground force for the anti-IS war in Iraq—the Shi’a militias run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—has created a deeply problematic situation. But the cornerstone of realist statecraft—actual realism, not the “Realism” of the present time that serves only to explain why the West’s enemies should be given what they want—is that foreign policy is usually a choice between bad and worse options.
The Iranian-dominated Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are deeply dysfunctional: deficient in essentially all materiel down to fuel and ammunition; unable to perform pretty basic military manoeuvres like indirect fire with artillery; incompetent in communications to the point they struggle taking tactical decisions because they do not know where their own troops are; so staggeringly corrupt that many troops exist only on paper; the command and control structure is riven by personal and political rivalries; and meaningless metrics are used to report “success” against IS.
What maintains a modicum of ISF functionality, as the Iraqi government itself has said publicly and IS has noticed, is the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, which provides such logistics as the ISF has, financial support to keep together the more capable ISF units, processes digital and other captured IS material to uncover the group’s agents and supply actionable intelligence, and above all provides air support.
If the U.S. force was withdrawn, Iraq would go the way of Afghanistan—or, indeed, of Iraq the last time. The U.S. misread IS’s “defeat” in 2007-08 as a discrete event, rather than a process that had to be maintained. IS waited out the U.S. after Obama’s announced withdrawal in February 2009, avoiding direct engagement with the U.S. while shaping the local landscape, facilitating a quick surge once the U.S. was out in December 2011. Obama’s disengagement from Iraq even on a political level exacerbated the chaos in Baghdad and meant the centre did not hold when IS rampaged in the summer of 2014.
There is clearly a desire in many quarters to put the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) era behind us. Gaetz likely speaks for many on the Left, as well as his fever-swamp corner of the Right, when he denounces the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Al-Qaeda and its allies as “a global permission slip for every neocon fantasy”. The problem with this is the enemy gets a vote.
The reduction in the jihadists’ capacities and the strategic reorientation of Al-Qaeda away from global terrorism did not happen by wishing for them; this outcome is the fruit of twenty years of sustained effort. Jihadist ideology has not changed: if they are allowed to recover their strength and regain the impression that attacking the West can be done at an acceptable price, they will do so. Usama bin Laden’s incitement to attack America was based on a perception of its weakness, not its strength. “Hit them and they will run”, Bin Laden intoned to his followers again and again, believing America had been made so soft by luxury it could not tolerate casualties even in a war of self-defence.
Somalia is unlikely to have a state that exercises sovereignty in any recognisable sense any time soon. Al-Shabab will continue to hold swathes of the countryside, especially in the south. Creating a stable and self-sustaining Somali state whose writ runs all across Somalia would require an actual occupation lasting many years. Such Mandatory projects are not the done thing any more, and certainly are not intended by the U.S.’s small-scale deployment. What is notable is that under-500 U.S. soldiers have helped the Somali government firm-up its control of Mogadishu, drive back Al-Shabab in the centre of the country, and be poised for an offensive against the jihadists in the south—possibly unwisely, but the fact such a thing can even be contemplated is astonishing. Meanwhile, the flows of intelligence gathered on the ground are enabling the U.S. to strike down dangerous jihadists that facilitate mayhem elsewhere in the world and support the U.S. Navy in securing the vital sea-lanes.
What might have been in Iraq and Syria with a different anti-IS campaign is irrelevant; we are where we are. Iraq’s government and the “SDF” rely on the U.S. to survive. As with the Afghan government, Iraq and the SDF have key capabilities supplied to them by the U.S. and its allies, and if these capabilities are removed they would be unable to cope with the IS challenge, which is, like the Taliban, in a “forever war” with these ruling authorities. Likewise similar to the Afghan government, there are gruesome aspects to both the Iraqi state and the “SDF”, though unlike the Afghan state these alarming elements—the IRGC in Iraq and the PKK in “Rojava”—are dominant in these polities, not merely negative elements in a state structure where the West has real friends in positions of real power as it did in Afghanistan. Again, what’s done is done; wilful failure in one theatre is no argument for wilful failure in another.
The use of small numbers of U.S. troops to support partner forces against jihadism inevitably limits the possible outcomes: they cannot enforce a solution and at any given time the situation is not going to look especially pretty. But it is the focus on “outcomes” and “solutions”, even when the U.S. was prepared to deploy larger numbers of troops, that led strategy astray. The U.S.’s “light footprint” missions have proven remarkably successful in managing the security challenges from the jihadists—and management is victory by another name in foreign policy.