Last month, the U.S. Central Command said it conducted 20 joint operations in Iraq and 11 in Syria, killing five Islamic State operatives and capturing 30 fighters.
Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, CENTCOM head, emphasized that partnerships with Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish allies were “crucial to addressing challenges posed by ISIS within the region.”
According to Combined Task Force Commanding Gen. Matthew McFarlane, the U.S. has “seen a dramatic reduction in ISIS activity and effectiveness across our area of operations.”
The Pentagon has some 900 troops in Syria and 2,500 troops in Iraq. They have compiled an outstanding record dealing with terrorist threats in the region before they could be visited on our shores.
Partners like the Kurdish-Syrian Defense Forces serve as a force multiplier for protecting our nation’s security. And then there’s Afghanistan.
For the past two years, the U.S. has had no official military presence in the country, where al Qaeda, IS and Pakistani Taliban (TTP) all homestead in Afghanistan’s ungoverned space. The Taliban are willfully providing aid and comfort to those who seek to do us harm.
The Hellfire missile strike that eliminated al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri a year ago in the heart of Kabul was an extraordinary U.S. tactical counterterrorism success. But the strike also revealed the strategically toxic nature of Taliban rule and the relative impunity enjoyed by al Qaeda, which orchestrated the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan two decades ago when the Taliban were last in charge.
Taliban acting Minister of Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani, whom the State Department designated a global terrorist some 15 years ago over the Haqqani Network’s ties to al Qaeda, reportedly oversaw al-Zawahiri’s security, including a “safe house” for the terrorist leader and his family.
In South Asia, the past is prologue. Al Qaeda, which was created in 1988 in Peshawar, Pakistan, settled in Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in the late 1990s. After the U.S. overthrew the Taliban regime, al Qaeda reconstituted in Pakistan.
With the Taliban having returned to power, al Qaeda once again enjoys sanctuary in Afghanistan, just as it did before the Sept. 11 strikes.
For the past three decades, al Qaeda’s leaders have sought refuge where the U.S. and its allies cannot target them. That’s why, after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2021, Afghanistan is arguably a more clear and present danger to our nation than ever. Al Qaeda has for decades targeted the U.S. as its “far enemy” and Pakistan as its “near enemy.”
The Taliban government claims it is targeting Islamic State forces, but the regime has a poor record of preventing the group’s terror attacks. Earlier this month, IS claimed responsibility for a massive suicide attack in Pakistan’s Bajaur region.
The Taliban also provides haven to the TTP, which, along with Islamic State and al Qaeda, has Pakistan’s civilian population, government and nuclear program in their crosshairs.
Pakistan responded with airstrikes and entreaties to its erstwhile ally, the Haqqani Network, which brokered only a short-term cease-fire, after which the TTP launched over 100 attacks in Pakistan.
This past January, the TTP carried out a deadly suicide bombing at a mosque inside a police compound in Peshawar, resulting in over 100 dead and 200 wounded. Created in Pakistan in 2007, TTP is a close ally of al Qaeda and enjoys a tight relationship as well with the Afghan wing of the movement, which has falsely claimed it would not allow terrorists to launch attacks against any nation from its territory.
A report to the U.N. Security Council in July warned that al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent is “providing guidance to the TTP for conducting increased attacks within Pakistan.”
In Afghanistan, we no longer own or occupy the battle space. Our closest ally and partner was the former government of Afghanistan, whose intelligence service and special forces units were a potent ally for our mission.
There has been much justifiable debate about the overextended, 20-year U.S. mission in Afghanistan, which sought to build democratic institutions in conflict with local tribal customs, even as a war was going on. As the late Charles Krauthammer advocated, it might have been better to pursue a strategy of “forward defense” — targeting our adversaries “over there” with a force limited in scope and mission, as we do so effectively in Iraq and Syria today.
With support from Republicans in Congress, the Biden administration should recognize that the threats from al Qaeda, Islamic State and the TTP emanating from Afghanistan are as dangerous today as they were on Sept. 10, 2001.
Without a viable South Asia counterterrorism strategy, we will have failed to learn the most valuable lesson of all from 9/11, preempting terrorists with immediate and decisive action before they cause harm to our citizens.