As we head into 2019, America’s decades-long fight against the global jihad continues. The names and players shift, but the enemy is consistent in its desire to push an oppressive and violent version of Islam worldwide.
The U.S. military had a good year in 2018, with some impressive victories – especially against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But we must also take into account the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and some other regional groups that have made their presence felt.
President Trump campaigned on a promise to destroy ISIS and its caliphate, and it’s fair to say that goal has been achieved. He gave members of our military the hunting license they needed, and along with our coalition partners they destroyed ISIS’ center of gravity and physical state, but not every adherent to its ideology.
The hard part now will be ensuring that the conditions that allowed ISIS to form are not repeated. This will require major outreach and support of the Sunni tribes in both Iraq and Syria.
Neither country’s central government is capable or willing to do this, so it is left to the U.S. and our allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As fellow Sunni Muslim nations in the region, they are well-suited to support the tribes in rebuilding and providing some security assistance.
Security Studies Group, the think tank I head, suggested this approach in a plan we were asked to provide to the National Security Council.
This plan built on our exit strategy for Iraq and Syria to allow the U.S. to phase out the need for a large troop presence on the ground. It is mirrored by some of the moves currently underway in support of President Trump’s decision to end the deployment of U.S. troops in Syria.
We released some of the previously private sections of that plan on our website. Specifically, the plan said some tough decisions about NATO ally Turkey needed to be made – either to bring Turkey back into the U.S. orbit after it had strayed closer to Russia and Iran, or to consider Turkey a hostile force.
Security Studies Group Senior Vice President Brad Patty noted in his analysis: “It is my assessment that Turkey’s (President) Erdogan has committed to an incursion which brought these issues to the fore, and that these concerns adequately explain the American decision to withdraw.”
President Trump made the proper calculation that we must make a good faith attempt to improve relations with Turkey. And so part of the Syria withdrawal involved a combined arms deal and security agreement with President Erdogan.
The agreement said the U.S. would sell Turkey our Patriot missile systems and Turkey would assist with security in the northern part of Syria. This also called for Turkey to minimize operations against America’s Kurdish allies, who Turkey considers a threat.
We must also deal with Iranian influence in Syria and ensure that the inroads the Iranians made during the Syrian civil war and counter-ISIS operations do not give the Iranians a land bridge across Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean.
The small U.S. deployment of about 2,000 troops in Syria was never going to be sufficient to prevent this Iranian move. But absent the presence of U.S. forces, we must make much stronger use of other modalities of U.S. power to prevent Iran from achieving this.
Afghanistan saw much less success and even gains by our enemies there. This longest U.S. war is long past its usefulness and we must find the best possible way to end our commitment. We will not gain victory in a meaningful way, and even a peace agreement may not be all that peaceful.
But there is no reasonable belief that we will be able to do more by staying in Afghanistan than we already have. Inertia and a desire to pay off the investment of so many American lives are not good enough reasons to stay.
The U.S. is currently engaged in peace talks with the Taliban and the Afghan government, which we should push to the best conclusion possible. But we cannot let an unfounded belief that we can somehow achieve a better end make us keep repeating the same mistakes.
We should leave an exclamation point on whatever agreement is achieved, saying that if jihadist elements once again get out of hand our answer will not be a long deployment, but a short and massively destructive rain of hellfire from the skies.
The jihadist groups still represent a major threat. ISIS, the Taliban, al-Shabab and Boko Haram were responsible for almost 19,000 deaths worldwide in 2017.
But it is becoming more apparent that we must refocus on conventional state threats – especially those presented by Russia and China. A Heritage Foundation assessment of U.S. military capabilities finds significant problems that must be addressed in conventional force modernization and strategic deterrence.
Both of our main enemies have been conducting major improvements to their military strength and ability to project force. While neither Russia nor China is a match for the U.S. in a head-to- head engagement, we must ensure we take the necessary actions required to maintain a strategy of peace through strength.
This will require investments in all of our aging military systems – everything from those that support and provide lethality to our troops in combat, to our missile defense and nuclear weapons that deter our enemies from even considering taking us on.
America remains the sole global superpower, but both asymmetric threats posed by terrorists and the growth of our main nation-state adversaries will require our attention to maintain our superpower status in the new year and beyond.