Addressing the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York last week, President Biden triumphantly declared, “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war”. However, despite this rhetoric, America remains very much engaged in the fight against terrorism, albeit now from a distance. Less than 24 hours before Biden delivered his address, an American drone had targeted an al-Qaeda operative near Idlib, north-western Syria. Within the last month, the US campaign of airstrikes against al-Shabaab militants in Somalia has intensified, and as of today thousands of US troops remain in countries around the world in the name of counterterrorism – including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Further still, although there may no longer be an American presence on the ground in Afghanistan, through over-the-horizon counterterrorism measures the administration continues to hunt al-Qaeda and ISKP affiliates in the country from afar. The shift then is more political than material, and it is one that has divided many. For much of the global counterterrorism expert community, the switch to reliance on new technologies – over-the-horizon capabilities – is far from progress. It risks again reducing the fight against terrorism to one of security and defence.
Following the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 6, the Biden administration has done much to address the rise of violent extremism at home, and in June it launched the country’s first ever comprehensive national strategy to counter domestic terrorism. However, the administration’s eagerness to downplay the severity of the international terrorist threat by prematurely declaring an end to the conflict, the unwillingness to retain even a modest troop presence in Afghanistan and the shift in approach to over-the-horizon measures indicates that the global struggle against violent Islamist extremism has become deprioritised and politicised. If this conflict is to ever de-escalate however, the world cannot afford American domestic politics to relegate the international threat of violent Islamism to a second-tier concern.
Politicisation of Counterterrorism
Following 9/11 it was clear that if al-Qaeda could carry out such devastating attacks in New York City and Washington, DC – the financial and political hearts of the world’s foremost superpower, a country that spends more on defence than any other – then they had the operational capability to strike anywhere. What was of equal concern, however, was that al-Qaeda also had the ideological motive to strike anywhere. On 9/11, the US was the target of terrorism, but it was not al-Qaeda’s only enemy nor was American foreign policy the only motivator for the carnage of that day.
To bin Laden and his affiliates, all ideological opponents were enemies for the simple fact that they were ideologically opposed. Those who did not subscribe to the same extreme Islamist doctrine as bin Laden were “kuffar”, non-believers, and either members of or collaborators with an alleged “Jewish-Crusader alliance”. Islamist extremism does not recognise or discriminate between other forms of political ideology – it never has – and therefore after the attacks it was in almost every countries’ national interest to respond in some manner regardless of political affiliation because they could just as easily be targeted next. Along with strategic diplomacy, there can be little doubt that this reality was one of the key factors that prompted the world to mobilise in support of the war on terror following 9/11.
In November 2001 during a joint press conference with former French President Jacques Chirac, then President Bush asserted, “A coalition partner must do more than just express sympathy, a coalition partner must perform … [A]ll nations, if they want to fight terror, must do something … you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror”. In the two decades that followed more than 50 countries both inside and outside of NATO answered the call and committed troops to Afghanistan in support of American and NATO-led campaigns. A further 80 countries had offered operational, logistical or intelligence-gathering support. At its height, the war in Afghanistan involved one of the largest international coalitions ever assembled and significantly, one that was cross-partisan.
Indeed, our research indicates that over the past 20 years, the political ideological leanings of a sitting government did not dictate whether a country chose to commit to deploying troops in Afghanistan, nor did it predict the level of commitment. Countries with social democratic, liberal, centrist, conservative, nationalist and populist governments all had a presence in Afghanistan and committed to increasing troops at one point or another in the past two decades. There was international commitment across the political spectrum when it came to counterterrorism, something scarcely seen when it came to tackling other issues with global implications. The coalition was a truly united global front in the face of the shared global threat of terrorism - one that was prepared to stand up for all the democratic values and freedoms that Islamism sought to undermine. Further still, as our research shows it was a coalition that was convened, maintained and guided by US strategy across consecutive administrations.
Times, of course, have now changed. What started out as an apolitical intervention in Afghanistan backed by a cross-partisan coalition to counter a shared international threat became increasingly vulnerable overtime to the individualistic pull of national politics. Politicised by impatience and spun, wrongly, as a futile “forever war”, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of an era of a foreign footprint in-country, and the Taliban’s rapid return to power in many respects marks a return to the dark era of the late nineties.
It’s a move which signifies a considerable, more general shift in the US foreign-policy approach to counterterrorism. The way in which the US blindsided its allies with the withdrawal is in stark contrast to the shrewd diplomacy that helped assemble the coalition which entered Afghanistan twenty years ago. Relationships with coalition partners have become strained as a result and there now exists a notable leadership vacuum in global counterterrorism efforts. A previously united global front against Islamist extremism has become fractured and divided, at a moment in time when unity and international leadership are needed now more than ever.
Rather than receding over the course of the past two decades, the Islamist threat has only escalated and diffused with increasing sophistication and ambition. There are now at least four times as many Salafi-Jihadi terrorist groups active as there were on 9/11 and emboldened by the success of the Taliban in retaking Afghanistan so swiftly, early warning signs indicate that the threat posed by Islamism will only proliferate further in the coming years.
Defining the Next Phase of the Global Fight Against Terrorism
The proliferation of Islamist extremism since 9/11 indicates that some form of policy recalibration is required. In doing so, it is essential for global policymakers to draw on the opus of lessons learned from the past two decades of to guide the way ahead. One of the most pertinent lessons, and one of the main reasons why the United States remains embroiled in the fight against terrorism, is that the coalition has been completely outmanoeuvred by Islamists at the very heart of the conflict – along the ideological frontier. A reliance on kinetic military might has certainly helped diminish the operational capabilities of terrorist organisations but in the face of bombs and bullets, the ideology fuelling the violence has remained steadfast and proliferated across borders. While over the horizon measures will undoubtedly play an essential part in disarming immediate threats going forward, history has shown that they cannot play a defining feature in any successful attempt to achieve long-term success in the fight against terrorism.
It is along the borderless, ideological front where the world must unite and align around a proactive, compelling plan to combat terrorism. This means standing up for democratic values when they come under attack and countering extremist narratives with a positive vision of society that reconciles openness with security, and balances stability, with real reform and progress on governance and social welfare. This compelling vision must be paralleled by simultaneously leveraging all informational and ideological warfare tactics required to prevent the further spread of Islamism. As the past two decades have also highlighted, no one country can deliver on this mandate alone and though the world is now a different place, it is essential the international community channels the spirit of apolitical multilateralism that bound the coalition together 20 years ago. The transnational nature of the threat must be met with a coordinated global response, clean from the individualistic pull of national politics.
Though the process of nation-building in Afghanistan did not come without its challenges, it was the collective strength of the coalition’s internationalist mission that had brought democracy and progressive social change to the country – change which was welcomed by the overwhelming majority of Afghans. Central to that was strong US leadership and investment, which will remain key to any renewed response to Afghanistan going forward.
More broadly, to combat the growing threat of Islamist extremism internationally, the United States must firstly recognise that the war hasn’t ended for terrorists and the enemies of progress. As US General Mattis famously said in 2013, “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over. We may think it [is] over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.”
Secondly, America must repair the bruised relationships with its allies and restore unity to a divided global front against terrorism. Referring to global challenges more generally, during his UNGA address President Biden declared that “to ensure that our own future, we must work together with other partners — our partners — toward a shared future”; it is essential this ethos is rechannelled into the global struggle against terrorism.
Thirdly, the United States must look to lead an international approach focused on the ideological frontier. While extremism will inevitably always exist in one form or another, it is only by working together to address the ideological roots that fuel extremist violence that we can hope to wind down this so called “forever war”.
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