Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

The War Against Terrorism Is Far from Over

In policymaking circles in Washington DC, it has become common to hear the claim that twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, the war on terrorism is finally coming to an end. For some, this is because the United States is withdrawing from “forever wars” like in Afghanistan and reducing its deployments in Iraq and various theaters in Africa. For others, the war on terror is simply no longer necessary because of assessments that the US homeland has not been as safe as it is today from a spectacular terrorist attack than at any point since 9/11.

As the Western world takes its first steps out of a debilitating pandemic, the US is not the only country to be re-assessing its priorities. A global health crisis and its impending economic repercussions is understandable – and rightfully – reorienting governments towards their domestic priorities. However, that should not mask the real-world consequences of precipitous disengagements or the assumption that non-intervention brings guaranteed protection.

In America, political support for military engagements abroad has been declining for a long time. Former President Trump’s administration pursued a foreign policy strongly defined by principles of minimal engagement and coerced burden sharing, which directly impacted US counter-terrorism missions abroad, with withdrawal from Somalia, two attempted withdrawals from Syria, and drawdowns in multiple theaters, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Isolationist tendencies play a visible role within the Republican Party, but they have arguably become the dominant trend for the Democrats. So far, the Biden administration appears to be attempting to balance a core electoral demand to “end the forever wars” with the real-world reality that doing so is not easy and riddled with dangers.

The decision in May to withdraw altogether from Afghanistan was met with domestic fanfare in America, as a military intervention that has lasted two decades and cost nearly $1 trillion was finally being brought to an end. But removing troops from Afghanistan is not ending the war there. In fact, conflict and terrorism has increased catastrophically, with approximately 20% of the country having fallen directly into Taliban hands since President Biden announced the planned withdrawal. Roughly half the country is now controlled or overwhelmingly influenced by the Taliban. By withdrawing, the US has thrown fuel on an already raging fire. The geopolitical consequences are likely to be enormous and the implications for terrorism threats are clear and worrying.

As Afghanistan spirals into crisis and the Taliban turn their eye towards Kabul, al-Qaeda must be breathing a sigh of relief. Years of highly effective counter-terrorism pressure on al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan have successfully forced it into hiding – often unable to communicate with its affiliates and slowly losing control of its global movement. As rumors swirled of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s possible death earlier this year, his deputy, several leading commanders and global media chief were all swiftly killed in Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. With news that the US military will only conduct airstrikes in Afghanistan to neutralize a detected plot to attack American soil, al-Qaeda’s central leaders must glimpse their first opportunity to recover on Afghan soil for many years.

Facing similar domestic pressures, France recently announced its plans to withdraw militarily from Mali – a country home to a deeply fragile government that has been victim to two consecutive military coups in 2020 and 2021, as well as an increasingly politically intelligent, militarily flexible and potent al-Qaeda affiliate, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin. Like the US in Afghanistan, France is not withdrawing from Mali amid strategic success and in reality, it is leaving behind a clearly tenuous government that is existentially vulnerable to terrorist challenge.

In truth, the world is tired of fighting terrorism. For the West, terrorism and its many root causes - political instability, sectarianism, economic decline, ethnic strife and extremist ideology – are now somebody else’s problem to be dealt with. But in reality, they have always been a collective problem, whose only solution is a shared one. They also represent a long-term challenge likely to last generations and which demand a much more multifaceted response than we have seen until now. In the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, these threats are greater in number, more diverse in scope, and more potentially potent in terms of intent than at any point since 9/11. Over the last 20 years, al-Qaeda and then ISIS have grown into global movements, with increasingly expansive networks and a proven capacity to grow locally and destabilize both regionally and internationally.

Twenty years after 9/11, it is important to acknowledge our shortcomings, particularly regarding our failure to pivot from military action to longer-term initiatives aimed at stemming root causes, like stabilization, development and reconstruction. Terrorism and extremism do not exist in a vacuum and they will continue to thrive while their drivers remain unaddressed.

While we may have become particularly adept at militarily combating terrorists, that allows us only to win battles, not the war. By choosing to close our eyes to terrorism and to disengage from the unstable environments in which terrorism exists, we almost certainly guarantee that terrorism will thrive. We also abandon millions of innocent civilians to a life of terror and daily fear – some of which may be our doing and much of which we could help to prevent. That is not “progressive,” by any means. In all likelihood, the case of Afghanistan and its impending collapse will come to haunt the Biden administration, but its lessons should not escape us. The struggle against terrorism is far from over and we all must step up to confront it.