By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
JUNE 2020—COVID19 may have stopped virtually every aspect of life in the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world, but it hasn’t stopped our jihadist enemies. In fact, the Pandemic of 2020 appears to have breathed new life into groups like ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban. The beastly attacks on a hospital maternity ward in Afghanistan, during which the Islamic State’s Khorasan wing slaughtered mothers and their newborn babies, underscore that our jihadist enemies cannot be reasoned with, rehabilitated or reformed—and are far from defeated.
Iraq and Syria
In early March, as COVID19 swept beyond China, U.S. Marines engaged a group of ISIS fighters in northern Iraq. As former State Department official David Tafuri recently reports, the ensuing battle claimed two Marines and at least 20 ISIS fighters. Soon thereafter, the U.S. suspended anti-ISIS operations in Iraq. Likewise, U.S. commando units in Syria “halted their on-the-ground anti-ISIS operations,” according to Tafuri. And it pays to recall that the COVID19 pullback happened on the heels of a wider withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and the Middle East, as ordered by President Trump last October.
By the end of March, “Australia, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Portugal and the Netherlands had withdrawn almost all of their trainers,” Politico reports. “In parallel, the U.S. withdrew from its frontline operating bases at Mosul, Al-Qaim, Qayyarah, Kirkuk and Taqaddum.”
Without anything or anyone holding them back, ISIS fighters—dispersed and decimated by Operation Inherent Resolve—have returned to the battlefield. Researchers with the Center for Global Policy detail how ISIS has carried out “large-scale and coordinated attacks in parts of Syria and Iraq” the past two months, which coincide with the COVID19 crisis. Specifically, ISIS has conducted ambushes, conventional military-style attacks, a prison break in Syria, multiple attacks against checkpoints in Iraq, IED attacks in Syria, attacks on the power grid in Iraq, and a suicide-bomb attack at a counterterrorism base in Iraq.
The reason for the increased jihadist activity in Iraq and Syria is simple: The U.S. and its allies have dialed back the pressure they had previously exerted on the enemy. Gen. James Mattis warned about this more than seven months ago: “If we don’t keep the pressure on, ISIS will resurge. It’s absolutely a given that they will come back.” And here we are.
Afghanistan to Africa
Regrettably, this jihadist resurgence isn’t contained—quarantined, if you prefer—within Iraq and Syria.
French military commanders in Africa report that jihadist groups are trying to exploit the opportunities and gaps created by COVID19. From seams in security to an uptick in propaganda, jihadists are making the most of the pandemic and its effects. It’s no coincidence that jihadists mounted their deadliest attack against military forces in Chad—killing 92 soldiers—in the middle of the pandemic. Likewise, Egyptian military officials report increased ISIS attacks in the Sinai.
Again, there’s no mystery as to why. Governments and their militaries are focusing on other threats. For instance, Nigeria has been forced to divert military equipment to pandemic-related operations. U.S. Africa Command reports “the size and scope of some AFRICOM activities have been adjusted” due to COVID19.
In Afghanistan, the pandemic struck, as in Iraq-Syria, in the wake of a planned U.S. withdrawal. Under a peace deal signed by the U.S. and the Taliban in February, U.S. troop levels will fall to 8,600 by mid-July and to zero within 14 months of the agreement. Not even COVID19 will stop the U.S. military’s withdrawal. A spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan recently confirmed, “We continue to execute the ordered drawdown to 8,600.”
Given that more than 60 percent of the public wants to withdraw from Afghanistan, President Trump is undeniably in step with the American people. As his predecessor said amidst America’s first withdrawal from Iraq, it’s “time to focus on nation-building here at home.” There’s something to be said about trying to make peace. But in unilaterally trying to end the wars of 9/11, President Trump and President Obama have ignored a fundamental truth of human conflict: As Mattis puts it, “The enemy gets a vote…No war is over until the enemy says it’s over.”
For the Taliban, which allowed al Qaeda to turn Afghanistan into a jihadist campus, the war won’t be over until they have been defeated or U.S. forces have been ejected. Just consider some of their words and deeds.
A Taliban official recently said, “We have the upper hand in the war, we are not tired of war and we are ready.” A Taliban commander vows, “We will continue our fight against the Afghan government and seize power by force.”
Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Afghan government reported 76 Taliban attacks in 24 provinces in the five days immediately after the peace deal was signed—and a staggering 4,500 attacks in the 45 days after they signed the agreement.
As Gen. David Petraeus concludes, “The Taliban are far from defeated.” And they are anything but reformed or rehabilitated. The UN reports that the Taliban continue to “cooperate and retain strong links with al Qaeda” and 20 other jihadist groups. “In return for safe havens…foreign fighters continue to operate under the authority of the Taliban in multiple Afghan provinces.” All told, there are 8,000 to 10,000 foreign terrorists in Afghanistan, and “the Taliban continue to be the primary partner” for almost every jihadist group operating where America’s war on terror began.
In short, the Taliban haven’t changed—and won’t.
The choice is not between either turning Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy or abandoning it to jihadists. There is a middle ground.
President Trump laments that in Afghanistan, “We’re almost a police force.” Perhaps that’s precisely how we should understand our role in Afghanistan. Given what Afghanistan spawned, it must be policed by someone. The notion that the Taliban can play that role is fantasy.
Petraeus has sketched out a middle-ground solution: “The U.S. must retain its own means to pressure extremist networks plotting against the American homeland and U.S. allies,” which means “some number of American forces in Afghanistan, along with substantial enablers such as unmanned aerial vehicles and close air support.” Without such a force, he predicts “the re-establishment of a terrorist sanctuary as existed when the 9/11 attacks were planned there,” ominously adding: “The cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay strategically and economically if al Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there.”
For a reminder of what that cost entails, take a look at the Manhattan skyline.
Photo: This illustration, created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shows the virus’ spiky, crown-like fringe that shrouds each viral particle—giving it a “coronated” appearance. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention )