October 2016 – President Barack Obama often emphasized that he “was elected to end wars, not start them.” Yet with U.S. forces now hitting ISIS positions in Libya, Obama has opened a new front in the widening war against ISIS and other jihadist groups.
The airstrikes in Libya underscore that almost eight years after Obama’s election—15 years after 9/11—the U.S. remains deeply engaged in what used to be called the global war on terrorism. A three-day stretch in September saw U.S. warplanes bomb jihadists in six different countries. In January 2009, by contrast, there were just three “active theaters of U.S. military involvement”: Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Today, U.S. forces are conducting ongoing kinetic operations in seven countries.
Obama decreased the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan from 100,000 in 2011, to 32,000 in 2014, to 9,800 today, and he pledged to withdraw all combat forces “by the end of 2016.” But he has reversed course in recent months.
We don’t hear much about it from the White House, but airstrikes in Afghanistan spiked this summer, as everything from unmanned drones to massive B-52 bombers have been called back into the fight. The number of strike sorties in Afghanistan for 2016 is on track to surpass the 2015 total.
Why the change? The Taliban controls more of Afghanistan today than at any time since 2001. The al Qaeda franchise in Afghanistan is back in business. According to DNI James Clapper, “al Qaeda nodes” in Afghanistan are “dedicating resources to planning attacks.” U.S. and Afghan forces have discovered five al Qaeda bases since mid-2015. As of late September, U.S. forces were actively targeting al Qaeda fighters in seven Afghan provinces. Plus, ISIS has set up training camps in southern Afghanistan.
Between August 8, 2014, and September 13, 2016, U.S. aircraft conducted 6,657 airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq. In addition, as many as 10,000 U.S. troops and military contractors are in Iraq and Syria. Again, we seldom hear about it from the administration, but U.S. troops are exchanging fire daily with ISIS. Some have been wounded. Some have been killed. To blunt and reverse the ISIS blitzkrieg, U.S. forces have built FOBs in Iraq, seized airbases in Syria, fired artillery from Jordan and Turkey, and launched airstrikes and cruise missiles from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.
Tragically, “Iraq War 4.0” (following Desert Storm in 1991, the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the postwar war and surge of 2004-2009) was avoidable. The Pentagon consensus in 2010-11 was that Iraq needed the U.S. military’s support to sustain the upward trajectory of the surge and to keep a lid on jihadist flare-ups. U.S. commanders in Iraq recommended maintaining a force of 20,000 troops beyond 2011. Then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen urged the White House to keep 16,000 troops in Iraq. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis concurred. “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq,” Gen. Martin Dempsey noted.
But Obama always saw U.S. involvement in Iraq as a problem to be corrected, rather than a commitment to be sustained. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laments, the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” Thus, with U.S. stabilization forces withdrawn, Iraq predictably became unstable. The remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq fed on that instability, and by 2012 they became the building blocks of ISIS. By February 2014, ISIS was rampaging through western Iraq. By June 2014, ISIS had captured Mosul. By July 2014, ISIS was conducting a campaign of genocide against Yazidis and Christians. By August 2014, Obama grudgingly ordered U.S. forces to return to Iraq. By November 2015, ISIS and its followers would hit Paris, then San Bernardino, then Brussels, then Orlando, then Nice, then suburban Minneapolis. Doubtless, ISIS will add to this list of atrocities in the months to come.
As Tony Blair shrewdly observed of our jihadist enemies, “The moment they cease to be fought against, they grow.” An administration eager to “turn the page” on years of war has learned that the hard way.
As of September 13, 2016, the U.S. had conducted 4,901 airstrikes in Syria. In addition to airpower, there are at least 300 U.S. commandos in Syria.
In its early phases, Syria’s civil war was one of those rare cases where conscience and national interest coincided: Using airpower to level the battlefield (as the United States did in Bosnia, Serbia and Iraq in the 1990s) might have saved thousands of lives and prevented Syria from becoming what Gen. David Petraeus called “a geopolitical Chernobyl spewing instability and extremism.” It might have checked Iran; blocked Russia’s reckless return to the region; prevented Assad from reopening the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare; protected Europe from a refugee tidal wave; and prevented the birth of ISIS.
The next administration won’t have time to think about those might-have-beens. Thanks to Washington’s delayed reaction, the war in Syria now threatens Turkey, Jordan and Israel, fuels the global jihad, spawns unspeakable atrocities, and has opened the door to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Perhaps worst of all, it has served as an incubator for our jihadist enemies. “There will be a terrorist diaspora some time in the next two to five years like we’ve never seen before,” warns FBI Director James Comey. “They will try to come to Western Europe and they will try to come here.”
U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft began hitting targets in Libya in 2015. But the latest airstrikes are part of more concerted campaign against ISIS called “Operation Odyssey Lightning.” The U.S. has averaged more than three airstrikes per day in Libya since August 1, hitting tanks, armored vehicles and fighting positions with Harrier strike jets and Cobra helicopter gunships flying from the amphibious carrier USS Wasp, along with land-based UCAVs. U.S. assets have hit as many as 13 targets on a single day in Libya. (By comparison, the U.S. conducts about 15 airstrikes per day targeting ISIS in Iraq/Syria.)
Why all the military activity in Libya? Before Washington intervened, ISIS in Libya had built up an army of 6,000 fighters and seized 200 miles of prime Mediterranean coastline.
Recall that this is round two in Libya for Obama. The president sent U.S. assets to support NATO’s air war in 2011, which toppled Moammar Qaddafi. Back then, the Obama administration boasted about its “lead from behind” approach and “time-limited” operations. Five years later, we know that didn’t work.
The U.S. has conducted 30 airstrikes in Somalia during the Obama administration (13 this year, including two in September). U.S. airstrikes have killed some 400 suspected militants, mostly fighters connected to al Shabaab (al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia). In addition, Navy SEALs have deployed into Somalia to target jihadist leaders. A 2013 raid triggered a massive gun battle.
The U.S. has carried out 166 airstrikes against targets in Yemen during the Obama administration, including drone strikes that killed five suspected al Qaeda fighters in August and six in September. Along with drones, F-15E Strike Eagles from nearby Djibouti reportedly have conducted operations in Yemen. In addition, the U.S. has provided intelligence, aerial surveillance and mid-air refueling to Saudi Arabia in its protracted war against Iranian-backed militias in Yemen.
Most Americans know that the long hunt for Osama bin Laden ended in 2011, when Obama ordered SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan to eliminate the terror mastermind. What many Americans don’t know is that the U.S. has conducted 355 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2009, killing as many as 3,067 people.
This laundry list of targets and tallies is not necessarily a reflection of Obama’s failure “to end wars” (although it may say something about his inability to grasp a fundamental truth of human conflict: the enemy gets a vote). Rather, it’s a reflection of the world as it is. The return to kinetic airstrikes in Afghanistan, the relentless drone war over Pakistan, the counterterror operations in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Libya, the proxy war in Yemen—all of this brings us full circle. The United States is a nation at war, just as it was 15 years ago. What began under the Bush administration has continued under the Obama administration—and will stretch into and beyond the next administration.
Indeed, there’s more to come: U.S. military commanders warn that ISIS is branching out into the Asia-Pacific region. Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines has pledged allegiance to ISIS. ISIS has claimed responsibility for recent attacks in Bangladesh and Indonesia. These nations are bracing for their radicalized sons to return from Iraq and Syria, which could prompt Washington to expand counterterror operations.
To anyone who listened to national-security leaders back in 2001, the long duration and global scope of this war comes as no surprise: Days after 9/11, President George W. Bush braced America for “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen,” asking for “patience in what will be a long struggle.” British Adm. Michael Boyce suggested the war would “last 50 years.” Dempsey called the struggle against jihadism “a 30-year issue.” If we accept their timeline, we are perhaps midway through the war on terror.
Why will it take so long to wage and win this war? The jihadist movement is a guerilla insurgency on a global scale, and insurgencies take time, patience and tenacity to defeat. A RAND report provides the details: It took Senegal 21 years to defeat the MFDC insurgency, Uganda 15 years to defeat the ADF insurgency, El Salvador 14 years to defeat the FMLN insurgency, Algeria 13 years to defeat the Armed Islamic Group insurgency. We can add to that list Colombia (which fought the FARC insurgency for 52 years, only recently signing a peace deal) and Sri Lanka (which took 25 years to crush the Tamil Tiger movement).
This is unsatisfying and uncomfortable to the American people, long accustomed to immediate solutions and push-button wars. Yet the U.S. has confronted and defeated insurgencies in its history: the Civil War in the 1800s, the Philippines in the 1900s, Iraq (and even Colombia) in the 2000s.
Regrettably, Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq gambled away all Petraeus had gained in his masterful counterinsurgency campaign. That decision serves as a metaphor for Obama’s approach to the jihadist threat in the years between the death of bin Laden (2011) and the rise of ISIS (2014). Those lost years were costly for the counterterror campaign. Thus, rather than ending old wars, Obama has been forced by events to launch new wars.