Preventing a future terrorist attack requires not only regionally-based rapid reaction forces, but also a willingness to go after safe havens and state sponsors of terrorism.
Twenty years of war in the Middle East and in Central Asia has left the U.S. military overburdened and fatigued. Much has changed since the 9/11 attacks and America’s counter-terror strategy needs a complete overhaul.
While Afghanistan was the hub for jihadism in 2001, today jihadis are more numerous. The epicenter has moved westward to places like Syria and into the African Sahel just south of the Sahara Desert.
Jihadism has also changed—a major attack is just as likely to be planned in Mali, Libya or Syria as it is to be planned in Afghanistan. Attacks in Paris, Brussels and Manchester all had ties to jihadists based in Libya and Syria. Various jihadist factions have set Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Somalia and Mozambique ablaze. At present, the United States only has a light footprint in the region, which has seen Al-Qaida and ISIS factions at war with each other.
On September 11, America stood astride the world like a colossus without any peer competitors. Now, China and Russia threaten the United States in Europe and in East Asia, and military resources are spread exceptionally thin. Both nations have exploited decades of counterinsurgency warfare to catch up technologically and militarily.
America’s leaders forgot the lessons of Vietnam—a war that meandered aimlessly for nine years and was hampered by micromanagement by political leaders in Washington. In the Vietnam War, Washington held back against seizing the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the Viet Cong and NVA operated in Laos and Cambodia with impunity. Throughout the course of Vietnam, American soldiers and Marines would capture hills from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong, only to surrender them.
History has repeated itself in Afghanistan. American leaders failed to confront Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) or to combat its support for the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami or Laskhar-e-Taiba.
Al-Qaida and the Taliban found a similar safe haven in Waziristan, Pakistan’s autonomous Tribal Region, following the Battle of Tora Bora in November 2001. No matter what North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops have done in Afghanistan, the Taliban has been able to rely on a safe haven in Pakistan.
Bombs and bullets have failed to quell violence in jihad-ravaged areas.
U.S. strategy should now focus on soft-power solutions in conjunction with a rapid-reaction force that would work with the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. and allied intelligence agencies to neutralize imminent threats. Such a rapid-reaction force would be comprised of elements of the elite Special Operations Forces of the Army, Navy and Marines along with airborne or light mobile infantry that could be inserted when needed.
If America had such a force along with a military doctrine that called for an overwhelming violent response in the years prior to September 11, the attack might have been thwarted.
In the light of declining resolve at home and the need for budgetary resources elsewhere, the U.S. should work hard to negotiate with neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to host a forward operating base for the rapid reaction force to confront threats in Afghanistan. A similar solution could be found with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to deal with threats in Iraq or Syria. Another could be found for threats in the Sahel.
The U.S. should pivot from a counterinsurgency-based strategy to a mission-based strategy aimed at preventing future attacks on the homeland. Use of the rapid-reaction force should also reflect former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s doctrine that victory must be assured; in the vital interest of the U.S. and its allies; and that it must have popular support.
There’s also no way of getting around the need to counter the state sponsors of jihadist terror including Turkey, Pakistan, Qatar and Iran.
War in Afghanistan continues in part because Pakistan’s ISI insists on supporting the Taliban, and that has become a proxy war for the ISI. U.S. support for the corrupt Karzai government alienated many Afghans, empowered the Taliban and undermined many of the gains made in the early years of the war.
To date, the United States has done little to sanction the ISI for its support for terrorism. Washington should also work at mediating peace between Pakistan and India over Kashmir because the Pakistanis view the Taliban as a buffer against India. It should threaten to bring full sanctions against Pakistan until it dismantles the ISI and ends its support for terror against Pakistan’s neighbors.
President Biden should also pressure NATO ally Turkey to end its support for Muslim Brotherhood-backed jihadists in Syria and Libya. Robert Ford, President Obama’s ambassador to Syria, told me in August that Obama’s failure to lean on Turkey to end the flow of jihadists into Syria was his greatest frustration prior to his resignation in 2014.
Economic sanctions should also be leveled against Qatar to pressure it to cutoff the financial spigot to jihadist groups across the majority Muslim world.
And the United States also must support the Iranian opposition because the Iranian mullahs remain a major supporter of terrorism.
None of this is easy, but it’s essential to implement a strategy that combines soft power and military force to neutralize jihadism.