On the 17th of September 2021, US congressman Jamaal Bowman (New York – DEM) tweeted “Our military presence in Syria must not continue without Congressional approval. The human and financial costs are too high for the American people to go unheard”.

On 21st September he followed this up with a tweet reading: “Congress has war powers to decide how and when we engage in international conflict and war. Unchecked executive powers and a lack of congressional oversight leads to endless wars. Congress and the people have a right to determine how we choose to remain in Syria”.

This kind of comment is becoming commonplace, and while the political aspect of the calls for a rethink on Syria are not surprising, the timing and frequency of these calls is somewhat alarming.


This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Jon who many of you know as Defence Geek on Twitter and Discord. DefenceGeek (find him on Twitter here) is a member of the Open Sources Intelligence (OSINT) community, with more than 16,000 followers on Twitter.

He is the Co-Host of the OSINT Bunker Podcast which is made in collaboration with the UK Defence Journal, has previously written for the UKDJ before and is a Co-Founder of the Military Aviation Tracking Alliance (MATA) group whose work providing news during the Kabul Airlift reached millions of people.

This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines


Earlier today (21st September 2021), President Joe Biden addressed the UN General Assembly boasting about an “Era of relentless diplomacy” and his defence secretary Lloyd Austin III claimed shortly afterwards that he was the first US President in 20 years to address the UN while the country was not at war (although last I checked the US is still helping fight against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, so not entirely sure what world the US government’s senior figures are living in).

It’s been around a month since the disastrous Kabul Airlift evacuations that saw a woefully unprepared US and coalition allies scramble to evacuate as many of their own civilians, along with Afghan interpreters and others before the Taliban’s end of August deadline. The efforts of the hundreds of troops and pilots should be credited with turning a disaster into a partial success, with over 100,000 people evacuated on US, UK and coalition flights in the space of around 2 weeks.

British and American transport aircraft conducting mass-evacuations lined up at Kabul.

However, it came at the cost of 13 US military personnel being killed in a bombing on 26th August 2021 and several hundred Afghan civilians also dying in the bombing and other incidents during the operation (known in the UK as Op PITTING). Earlier today it was revealed that only 3% of the 60,000 Afghans evacuated to the US were actually holders of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIVs), a scheme that US politicians had been emphasising for months as being the solution to the Afghan interpreter rescue plans.

As I warned in my previous article on the topic of the Afghanistan withdrawal (which you can read here), the scandalous withdrawal of forces has left a vacuum in Afghanistan that the Taliban are trying their best to fill, but which ultimately has led to the growth of ISIL-K and the return of al-Qaeda. Former MI6 Chief Sir Sawer speaking to Sky News emphasised that Afghanistan will return to being a safe haven for groups planning attacks on the west, and this will also encourage “home-grown terrorists” particularly in the UK and Europe.

Yet now despite the disastrous withdrawal and the repeated warnings from folks like myself, other OSINT community contributors, former Defence Chiefs, MI6 Director-Generals, CIA officials and so on… the US political class still seem hell-bent on repeating their mistakes. While I do understand that the US political direction is becoming more focused on China (and rightly so), their willingness to blindly ignore the issue of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond is alarming at best.

Calls like those by Congressman Bowman are dangerous in a world where ISIL/Daesh is not defeated, al-Qaeda has been offered space and time to return and terrorist forces are running rampant in places like Mali and Nigeria. Ultimately too many politicians are focused on trying to get out of “forever wars” and only care for the ramifications of their actions in the next few years, rather than thinking long-term (beyond their time in office) to when the consequences of their decisions will start to take effect.

When President George Bush announced the ‘War on Terror’ following the events of 11th September 2001, I suspect very few of the defence officials and generals of the time were under any illusion that this was going to be a long and hard fight. What we’re seeing now from the current Biden administration is a return to a form of Isolationism similar to the US policy that was adopted almost 100 years ago.

President George W. Bush addresses the nation, March 19, 2003, to announce the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.” The Senate committee found that many of the administration’s pre-war statements about Iraqi WMD were not supported by the underlying intelligence.

The fight against terrorism has been costly, let’s be clear. Along with 3,500+ troops killed in Afghanistan, terrorist attacks by ISIL and affiliated groups in Europe alone since 2014 have resulted in nearly 1,000 deaths and almost 3,000 wounded (the majority of these being 2016-2017). The threat from terrorism is not gone, and while ISIL remains in existence in Syria and Iraq (and now in its offshoots in Afghanistan and elsewhere), a US withdrawal from combat operations against these groups would be the single worst strategic decision since Hitler’s attempt to invade the Soviet Union in 1941.

Ultimately if the US withdraws from operations against Daesh/ISIL in Syria and Iraq, the burden of that fight will be left to the UK to lead, in an arena where Russia, Turkey and others are all actively involved with differing plans and aims. The US plan to continue fighting terrorism in Afghanistan by “over-the-horizon strikes” has already fallen flat, with the revelation last week by US CENTCOM that an airstrike conducted near Kabul Airport while they still had scouts and reconnaissance abilities in the country resulted in the deaths of more than 10 civilians (including 7 children), and possibly didn’t kill any terrorists at all.

Those kinds of mistakes are going to cost the US respect on the world stage and cause all sorts of political issues back home and although they recognise that they still need to do something about the risks of terrorism resurging on the ground, the manner in which the withdrawal was conducted and the Taliban’s demands were met has meant that they’ve tied their own hands behind their back when it comes to this threat. As I’ve said before, I expect the number of ISIL-linked terrorist attacks in the coming years to rise again, and I would not be surprised if we witness another 2016-2017 period of large deadly terrorist attacks across Europe and the USA.

One would hope that despite calls from the various Congressmen and Congresswomen calling for the withdrawal from Syria and Iraq operations, those actually responsible for the final decisions and forming policy will have been carefully making note of the mistakes made in Afghanistan so as not to repeat those mistakes here.

The Global Coalition against Daesh was formed in September 2014.

Although the UK, France and their allies are more capable of continuing the fight against Daesh/ISIL in Syria and Iraq without US support (compared to Afghanistan where a US withdrawal meant the continuation of operations by the other coalition members was no longer feasible), it would still be an uphill fight, and would not be taken well particularly by France (in light of the diplomatic fallout from the AUKUS announcement in the last week), who are already fighting with UK support against elements of ISIL in Mali.

It’s hard not to look at the US position and claim that the nation that declared the War on Terror and invoked Article 5 of the NATO Pact is now trying to squirm its way out of the fight while there is still work to be done. There’s too much focus on politicians being able to claim that they’ve helped stop “forever wars” and that they’re “peacemakers”. The very fact that we were ever negotiating with the Taliban is an indication that we’ve gone soft towards terrorist groups and those who help them. Ultimately this will be to the detriment of the world – with Europe’s major cities likely to bear the brunt of the attacks when they come.

7/7 Memorial in London. Image via ‘hahnchen’ at Wikimedia Commons.

Just over a week ago we remembered those who died in the events of 11th September 2001. I personally have been reflecting on those who died in attacks since, particularly the 7/7 attacks in London (52 dead, 784 wounded), November 2015 Paris attacks (131 dead, 413 wounded), 2016 Nice truck attack (86 dead, 434 wounded), 2016 Brussels bombings (32 dead, 340 wounded) and UK Manchester Arena bombing (22 dead, 512 wounded), most of which were events that I watched unfold on TV and across Twitter.

It would seem that after 20 years we are heading back to square one. A lack of military presence in countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and others will allow terrorist groups to grow, and those that we thought we’d defeated may return to the size they were when we started this fight.

Will the US withdraw from Syria and Iraq’s counter-terror operations? Only time will tell. But be under no illusion, whether they do or not, the threat to Europe and the US is returning, and a withdrawal from this “forever war” will only cost more lives in the years to come…

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Roy
Roy
21 days ago

Very good and thorough article. I would just add that there is no danger of the terror threat to Europe “returning” because it never went away. The reality of European societies today is that this challenge will always be with those societies regardless of what occurs in the Middle East. Certainly events in the Middle East will shape the specific nature of that threat, but the primary challenge will be about how to address what will be an internal threat. Second on Syria, the leading external power there now is Russia. Since the Russians have as much to fear from… Read more »

John Clark
John Clark
21 days ago
Reply to  Roy

It remains to be seen Roy, the organised terror threat from Afghanistan hasn’t really been ‘a thing’ since 2002/3, when the last remnants of any training facilities were attacked and destroyed by SF and air strikes. Since then we have had Islamic extremist terror training facilities to deal with in various out of the way parts of the world. Its certainly not in the new Taliban Governments (sticks in the craw that one) interest, to allow any terrorist training facilities to set up anywhere in Afghanistan. They desperately require foreign investment and funding, allowing terrorist groups and drug cartels access,… Read more »

grizzler
grizzler
21 days ago
Reply to  Roy

Agree to an extent but I would suggest the West didn’t lose the war in Afghanistan in so much as we were unable to continue it when America decided on its unilateral withdrawal under mining everything done to date.Although that says as much about limited european power/drive as it does about the American short sightedness.

maz
maz
21 days ago
Reply to  grizzler

ha ha – yeah right!

Roy
Roy
21 days ago
Reply to  grizzler

I fear the West not only lost the war in Afghanistan, but it lost it on a massive scale. The defeat is both strategic and political and it is similar to the Soviet strategic and political defeat there in 1989. Both the West and the Soviet Union sought to tranform Afghanistan into a state modelled on their own values. Both failed in a spectacular fashion. I agree that this is principally an American defeat, as was the defeat in Vietnam in 1975. But all the other allies share in this defeat, just as Australia, New Zealand other states engaged in… Read more »

George Parker
George Parker
18 days ago
Reply to  Roy

Islamic aggression and attack against Christian Europe – jihad, started 1500 years ago and has never stopped. Dr P. Warner has studied political islam, conducted data analysis and documented the process. It is very interesting to see the determined progression and relentless attacks. See Centre for the Study of Political Islam. It puts the current WoT blip into context.

Last edited 18 days ago by George Parker
John Hartley
John Hartley
21 days ago

“Throughout the Malayan conflict, an extensive campaign of psychological warfare was mounted. The objective was to encourage the surrender of the communist terrorists (CT) through disaffection, especially at junior ranks, and to win the hearts & minds of the uncommitted population.” 1950s RAF in Camera, Keith Wilson.

Peter S
Peter S
21 days ago

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a recognition of failure; not of achieving the initial purpose of the intervention, to eliminate AlQueda, but of creating a functioning state with robust institutions . This effort was always likely to fail. The example of the Soviet attempt to sustain a pro communist government in Kabul should have been a stark warning to Western leaders. The USSR fought with far less restrictive rules of engagement, could reinforce and supply from their own adjacent territory but still failed. Afghanistan now has a government that can be held to account. Any terrorist attack shown to have… Read more »

Meirion x
Meirion x
14 days ago
Reply to  Peter S

You wrong again!
Afghanistan was relatively stable at the beginning of this year, No allied ground troops involved, only for training and reassurance, and air support operations.
Most ground operations, including SF, were conducted by the Afghans.
The withdraw was a shortsighted policy decision, Not a defeet!

Any harsh retaliation by the use of air strikes will result in large civilian casualties, and most likely as hostages!
A deluded policy!

Peter S
Peter S
13 days ago
Reply to  Meirion x

You never learn, do you? The Taliban had been reasserting their control in more and more areas,particularly rural ones, for several years. The Afghan government was in effect a puppet government, sustained by vast sums of Western, mainly US, money. It is likely that earlier this year, the US intelligence assessment was that to counter the Taliban advance, a new and large troop surge would be necessary; and that this might need to be repeated again and again. My comment was clear that the failure was to create a proper functioning state and that that was entirely predictable. Analysts from… Read more »

Meirion x
Meirion x
12 days ago
Reply to  Peter S

It is highly likely the Taliban will be better prepared to host hostile forces in the future, if need be.
And gather as many hostages(civilians) they can find to place in or near targets of retalation.
So how many hostages are you prepared to be sacrificed for a harsh retaliation policy, 100, 1K, 10K+ ?
A retaliation policy, will require boots on the ground as well!

Last edited 12 days ago by Meirion x
AlexS
AlexS
21 days ago

The Al Qaeda terror threat got a great defeat with Iraq invasion. That showed to muslims what Bin Laden Al Qaeda was all about exploding in bridges, markets, mosques.

A- In 11 September 2001 there were festivities in various muslim countries.
B- When Bin Laden was killed not much of a pip.

It can return because it would adapt.
For example we saw the Taliban saying some pieties that touch the western world nomeklatura ego: climate change…

Paul.P
Paul.P
21 days ago

“The very fact that we were ever negotiating with the Taliban is an indication that we’ve gone soft towards terrorist groups and those who help them” I disagree. At some point you have to start negotiating if there is to be peace. It seems to me that the Taliban should be considered as being more like the IRA and Sinn Fein or the Viet Cong. i.e. as a political movement of nationalist freedom fighters. The real problem in Afghanistan has been its political and social fragmentation into fiefdoms controlled by tribal warlords. It is this fragmentation, the absence of national… Read more »

John Hartley
John Hartley
21 days ago
Reply to  Paul.P

The taliban seem to get on with the Pashtuns in the South, but the ethnic Tajiks & Uzbeks in the North, distrust/hate the taliban. There is talk of aa autonomous Tajik/Uzbek region, supported by neighbouring Tajikistan & Uzbekistan.

Paul.P
Paul.P
21 days ago
Reply to  John Hartley

No surprise I guess. As my grandmother used to say blood is thicker than water. This is a test of the ability of the Taliban to form an inclusive state based on Islam as the lowest common denominator. Hope they succeed but if not it wouldn’t be the only divided country on the planet.

Meirion x
Meirion x
13 days ago
Reply to  Paul.P

A very big difference with the Taliban is that they force lifestyle changes on you!
Unlike the IRA or Viet Cong which did not!
So if you are ok with that, and you like a wife that is younger enough to be your Grandchild and treated no better then pet?

Last edited 13 days ago by Meirion x
Paul.P
Paul.P
13 days ago
Reply to  Meirion x

Not sure I agree there. The great majority of the Afghan population is rural. Only a tiny minority lived in Kabul and the other cities, where they got a taste of western lifestyles. And even in the cities the return to order after the chaos of evacuation was remarkably fast. I don’t think there is as much fear and oppression involved as the western press make out. I suspect that Taliban leadership don’t need to try very hard to impose their interpretation of Islamic society. Their faith is a foundational cultural layer that both facilitates an ordered society and confers… Read more »

Paul.P
Paul.P
21 days ago

The West has lost its faith. The Taliban have not. That’s why they have triumphed.

Bringer of Facts
Bringer of Facts
20 days ago
Reply to  Paul.P

It is also a case of the Taliban can be as ruthless as they want in their tactics , nobody can or will hold them to account , whereas our troops are under constant scrutiny and criticism by the international media and left leaning citizens.

Paul.P
Paul.P
20 days ago

True enough. I guess the faith issue was most relevant to the relationship we had with the Afghan army. They had faith in the US leaders but non on themselves. Anyway, what’s done is done.

Bringer of Facts
Bringer of Facts
20 days ago

Total military victory over terrorists and insurgents is extremely difficult , the best we can do is a ‘whack a mole’ style of suppression. Ideally you would diminish or destroy their fighting capabilities until they give up. In many situations a substantial number of the locals view the insurgents as freedom fighters and fully support them and openly help them. Couple that with the facts insurgents hide amongst civilians and may be financially and technically supported by a major power. So to totally defeat any insurgency you would not have to not care about targeting the civilian areas that the… Read more »

Last edited 20 days ago by Bringer of Facts
Frank62
Frank62
20 days ago

Sadly agree. Shocked & deeply ashamed at the USA pulling out of Afghanistan, the ensuing collapse of resistance, Taliban take over & humanitarian disaster. Plus the clear signal emboldering every foe worldwide. After throwing the Kurds to the wolves(Turkey) why would anyone trust us?

Johan
Johan
19 days ago

Have to say, as the UK stopped using local interpreters in 2014, and i keep hearing and seeing middle-aged Afghans now living in the UK. But there wives and families left behind. one the other day said my wife couldn’t pass the English test in 6 years ?????? if my arse was going to be on fire i would learn another language.

it was just easier to not.

sorry UK is falling apart currently

Damo
Damo
19 days ago
Reply to  Johan

No it isn’t falling apart. Jeez….

Mike
Mike
19 days ago

Time to step of the American coat tails and to stop wasting lives and tax money on lost causes. Go read your history books.

Lepke Buchalter
Lepke Buchalter
19 days ago

It’s worse than 20 years ago. Most civilized nations have allowed the immigration of thousands of terrorists.

George Parker
George Parker
18 days ago

The “War on Terror” turned into country building and an investment opportunities for the boys. When it should have been nothing more than an extermination exercise of known terrorists and those who gave them shelter. Be that Afghanistan, Pakistan or wherever. Combined with maximum devastation of every poppy field and death of every poppy farmer in the Afghanistan area.
Iraq was of course a complete and very embarrassing mistake. A clear abuse of intelligence agencies by politicians.

Jan Allen McDaniel
Jan Allen McDaniel
14 days ago

1. The War on Terror was a strategic mistake that contained the seeds of its failure. It has failed. We lost that war a long time ago. Afghanistan is merely an acknowledgement of that fact. 2. Therefore, we should immediately remove all our troops from all Islamist countries. They are not defendable in the war that is coming. 3. Now we must do what we should have done on 9/12/2001: identify our Muslim enemies and our Muslim friends. 4. Non Muslim countries should define and criminalize Islamism–political Islam. 5. Non Muslim countries should then start deporting their Islamist citizens. Without… Read more »