The Frustrating Necessity of Staying in Syria and Afghanistan, Explained

Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near the Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria, November 4, 2018. (Rodi Said/REUTERS)
We almost certainly know who will dominate in our absence, and we know their hostile intent.

One of the primary problems with our endless debates over (seemingly) endless American conflicts with jihadists overseas is that we rarely go back to first principles. We rarely take a step back and accurately define our strategic and tactical challenge. We don’t do this in debates between pundits, and we don’t do it in public arguments. Instead, all too often we resort to sloganeering and sniping, with serious pieces like those of my colleagues Andy McCarthy and Michael Brendan Dougherty (who disagree, by the way, with my counsel to stay in Syria) the welcome exceptions to the dreary rule.

Moreover, there is a distressing tendency to sweep together the last several Republican and Democratic administrations as if they’re all part of the same foreign-policy establishment that tries to do the same things the same way and then falls prey to the same temptations to turn to American military force as a first resort in the face of persistent Middle Eastern challenges. In reality, however, different approaches have confronted a series of difficult realities, and those realities have necessitated military intervention.

Let’s analyze our challenge as clearly and concisely as we can.

First, there exists a jihadist enemy of our nation and civilization that doesn’t just seek to harm our national interests, it actively seeks to kill as many Americans as possible, as publicly as possible — with the goal of so thoroughly destabilizing and demoralizing our nation that we make room for the emergence of a new jihadist power.

Second, this enemy exists not because of immediate and recent American actions (though it can certainly use some of those actions to recruit new followers) but because of an ancient, potent systematic theology. Never forget that one of the grievances Osama bin Laden listed as justifying his attack on America was the Christian Spanish reconquest of Muslim Spain. That event occurred almost 300 years before the American founding.

Third, while it is difficult to predict any given terrorist attack, this much we can say — when terrorists obtain safe havens, they become dramatically more dangerous. The creation of a safe haven escalates the threat and renders serious attacks a near-inevitability.

Fourth, for reasons too obvious to outline, terrorist safe havens are always in nations and locations that are either hostile to the United States or in a state of fractured chaos. Terrorist cells may operate in places like France, but a true safe haven cannot thrive in functioning, strong allied territory.

Finally — and this is critically important — the national obligation of self-defense is permanent. No functioning government that abdicates its duty to protect its citizens from hostile attack can remain legitimate. Preferably self-defense is maintained by deterrence. But when deterrence fails, a failure to engage the enemy doesn’t bring peace, it enables the enemy to kill your people.

For all these reasons, at the very least American military strategy should be dedicated to denying terrorists safe havens. Keep terrorists on the run. Don’t grant them the opportunity to plan, recruit, and execute attacks in an atmosphere of peace and safety. When they have that opportunity, they can do terrible things. September 11 taught us that much.

But here’s the problem: Given that safe havens exist in hostile and broken places, there is immense practical difficulty in either delegating the fight against safe havens to allies or believing you can take the fight to the enemy entirely through (relatively safe) aerial bombardments. Even air campaigns require intelligence on the ground, and air campaigns are rarely sufficient by themselves to end a land-based threat.

Compounding the challenge is that, because safe havens exist in broken or hostile places, there are rarely satisfactory allies on the ground who can take the fight to the enemy. And our record of creating satisfactory allies without being physically present to bolster their fighting strength and fighting spirit is so abysmal that it’s virtually criminal to even try it again. After all, the locations of the safe havens are broken and/or hostile for longstanding, deep-seated reasons.

So when you read news reports about detachments of Americans in far-flung places (Niger, for example), that’s not evidence of bloodthirsty commitment to “endless war” but rather the applied lessons of 17 years of direct combat with a jihadist enemy. We cannot permit our terrorist enemies (not all terrorists are American enemies) to establish safe havens anywhere without courting catastrophe, yet we cannot effectively deny those safe havens without some presence on the ground.

What does this mean for Syria and Afghanistan? To say that ISIS has been mostly routed from northern Syria is not to say that it’s been entirely routed — especially when we know that ISIS still exists in some strength in areas ostensibly controlled by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. To let up the pressure now is to invite ISIS to return.

If we depart and leave behind the conditions for re-creating the hostility or brokenness that created the threat in the first instance, we’re not ending a war, we’re just rescheduling it for a later date. That was the fundamental flaw of the Obama withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. He rendered a fragile ally vulnerable to exactly the catastrophe that occurred three years later, and I’d argue that the Obama withdrawal was more defensible than Trump’s Syria withdrawal. Jihadists in Iraq were weaker in 2011 than jihadists in Syria today.

This is especially true when the logical successor to our influence in northern Syria or Afghanistan is either an unabashedly hostile regime (Syria) or the same jihadist force that we’ve faced since 9/11 (Afghanistan). We almost certainly know who will dominate in our absence, and we know their hostile intent.

It’s worth noting that the present American deployments are keeping terrorists at bay at a fraction of the immense cost in men and matériel of the Afghan or Iraq invasions or of the Afghan or Iraq surges. American casualties are light, enemy casualties are heavy, and the Syrian intervention has been especially successful. It’s as if we took the sum total of all our bitter lessons learned since 9/11 and applied them in one devastatingly effective military operation.

Now we risk throwing that away. And by abandoning allies in the field, we raise the risk that next time we’ll need to use more troops and lose more men and women to deal with renewed threats. After all, which local allies will be willing to spill blood by our side if they know we’ll leave them to die?

I’m in complete agreement with Andy McCarthy when he argues that American military intervention in Syria is presently unconstitutional. I’ve made that argument repeatedly, even before Trump’s present decision. When ISIS blitzkrieged through northern Syria and northern Iraq, beheaded Americans, and inspired deadly attacks here at home, President Obama should have gone to Congress and sought the necessary authorization to respond. He did not. Congress should have introduced and voted on its own resolution. It did not.

That is a shameful, bipartisan failure that deprived us of exactly the kind of debate and discussion necessary to establish public support for renewed conflict. That failure further damaged our constitutional order and further bolstered the strength of the imperial presidency.

But the remedy for that bipartisan failure isn’t a headlong retreat but instead a new resolution. The remedy is for the commander in chief and congressional allies to make the case to the American people for the most responsible military strategy.

Instead, we’re compounding failure with failure. While there are thoughtful arguments for and against the American military presence in Syria, don’t think for a moment that the present American withdrawal is the product of a thoughtful, intentional, and informed decision by a thoughtful and informed commander in chief. It’s an impulsive act by an ignorant man, and while military professionals will do their best to mitigate the damage of his impulsiveness and ignorance, Trump’s decision-making process is no way to run a war or defend a nation.

The Trump administration is making bad decisions through a bad process, and our nation has lost its foremost warrior in protest. While it will likely take time for the renewed threat to materialize, Donald Trump is repeating one of his predecessor’s worst foreign-policy mistakes. I pray that we don’t see a repeat of the same terrible consequences.


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