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.
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.
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.
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.
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…