During an interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times, President-elect Joe Biden briefly discussed his incoming administration’s priorities. Their conversation understandably focused on the coronavirus pandemic, its effects on the domestic economy, and the challenges posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Still, there was not a single word on what many now call the “endless wars”—that is, America’s post-9/11 effort to contain and disrupt the terrorists of ISIS and al-Qaeda, as well as their allies.
The outgoing Trump administration hasn’t ignored this issue. In the closing days of his administration, President Trump and his loyalists are taking steps to limit America’s involvement even further. As I’ve written previously, the days of large-scale counterinsurgency efforts are long over. President Trump inherited a much smaller U.S. military footprint from President Obama than the one President Bush bequeathed to Obama. Today, that footprint is even smaller, with fewer than than 10,000 U.S. servicemembers stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, plus another small contingent in Africa. If Trump has his way, there will be even fewer troops stationed in these theaters by the time Biden assumes office. And some key figures are pretending that the jihadist threat has been all but eliminated. This, simply put, isn’t true.
On Monday, Christopher P. Maier, who led the Pentagon’s Defeat ISIS Task Force since March 2017, was forced to resign from his post. Maier was told that his services were no longer needed. Why? According to the New York Times, a White House appointee informed Maier that the U.S. “had won that war and that his office had been disbanded.”
But ISIS hasn’t been vanquished. The group has lost its territorial caliphate—a major blow for its cause. Yet, the jihadists fight on as insurgents. As the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General reported in early November, ISIS continues “to wage a low-level insurgency in both” Iraq and Syria, “operating mainly in rural areas and targeting mainly security forces with small arms and improvised explosive devises.” At the zenith of its power, the jihadists controlled contiguous territory the size of Great Britain., and it may be the case that ISIS is incapable of seizing as much ground as it once did. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t recapture some ground in the future. U.S. CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. has warned “that ISIS could regain territory in a short time if there is a decrease in counterterrorism pressure.”
Meanwhile, the Trump White House is arguing that no counterterrorism pressure will be necessary after the coming year. Defense Onereports that the Trump administration has continued to work on a proposed defense budget even though it will be dead on arrival. The incoming Biden administration will draft its own funding proposal for the Pentagon. The Trump defense budget appears to be a political ploy, as it serves no realistic purpose beyond allowing the outgoing administration to critique the Biden team’s cuts and reallocations. Tellingly, according to Defense One, the Trump White House is demanding that the Pentagon “‘zero out’ all funding for the counter-ISIS fight by 2022.”
That is, the Trump White House doesn’t think any military funds will be required to fight ISIS—an international terrorist organization that currently conducts attacks on a daily basis—after the upcoming year. That is not a reasonable forecast. There are ample reasons to think the U.S. will have to play some military role, even if it is only a small one, in the anti-ISIS campaign during the Biden administration.
In Afghanistan, the Trump team is drawing down from approximately 4,500 troops to 2,500 by January. As part of its deal with the Taliban, the Trump administration agreed to withdraw all American forces by May 2021. In return, the State Department endorsed the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances. The Taliban agreed to prevent al-Qaeda from operating on its soil or threatening the U.S. and its allies. To date, there is no evidence that the Taliban is willing to adhere to this alleged pledge. Al-Qaeda’s men continue to fight alongside the Taliban members as they wage jihad to overthrow the Afghan government.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller has volunteered to justify this drawdown—and to explain away the al-Qaeda threat, in general. In his initial letter to U.S. military personnel, Miller argued that “[w]e are on the verge of defeating Al-Qaeda and its associates.” Miller didn’t offer any reason to think this is the case. He just stated his opinion as if it were a fact. But in his previous writings, Miller has offered a demonstrably erroneous model for understanding al-Qaeda. Miller’s definition of al-Qaeda is absurdly narrow, as he wrongly believes that Ayman al-Zawahiri is the group’s “sole remaining ideological leader.” (It’s easy to point to other veteran leaders around the globe.) He has also seemingly dismissed as irrelevant al-Qaeda’s sprawling insurgency operations, which span several countries.
Al-Qaeda’s insurgency is especially potent in Somalia, where the group’s East African arm, Shabaab, is waging jihad to form its own Taliban-style state. The Trump administration intends to withdraw all of the more than 700 American servicemembers from Somalia by January, while keeping forces in the neighboring countries of Kenya and Djibouti.
Trump has called upon Miller to oversee this withdrawal, as well as a desperate attempt to buy off Shabaab. As first reported by the Times, Miller, who was then the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, flew to the Middle East in October as part of a gambit to convince “Qatar to help devise plans to buy off or otherwise marginalize some senior leaders of” Shabaab, namely, those “who are more committed to attacking the West.”
Readers should know that Shabaab is quite vocal about its allegiance to al-Qaeda and regularly celebrates this intimate relationship in its media. Miller’s quixotic plan was based another misunderstanding of al-Qaeda—namely, that there is some clear dividing line between the “local” jihadist ambition to conquer Mogadishu and the “global” threat to the U.S. That is not true. When he was alive, Osama bin Laden was quite clear about al-Qaeda’s objectives in Somalia. In his private correspondence, bin Laden referred to Shabaab as an Islamic emirate and devised plans to buttress its rule, while privately accepting the group’s allegiance to him. If anything, bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been even more forthright concerning al-Qaeda’s objectives. Al-Qaeda’s chief goal in East Africa is to build an Islamic state. But according to the Times, Miller believes this is a mostly “nationalistic” agenda, advanced by younger Shabaab commanders—as opposed to a “group of about 10 older leaders with strong personal ties to Al-Qaeda.”
There is no good reason to think Miller is right about this—or anything else. In any event, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly nixed Miller’s desperate ploy. Subsequently, in mid-November, the State Department sanctioned two Shabaab leaders, with Pompeo describing the group as “one of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliates.” While true, this observation cuts against Pompeo’s own desire to downplay al-Qaeda’s global network, as he has previously described al-Qaeda as a “shadow of its former self.”
What’s this all about? When it comes to Trump World, it is always difficult to say—exactly. It appears to be political and, to some extent, ideological. Trump has repeatedly inveighed against the “endless wars,” claiming he would “end” them. As I’ve written previously, there are many problems with this talking point. And it may be the case that Trump simply wants to take credit for “ending” America’s role in the post-9/11 conflicts, or at least coming close to it—regardless of what is actually transpiring on the ground.
ISIS hasn’t been completely eliminated. Al-Qaeda isn’t a shadow of its former self. The Taliban isn’t our counterterrorism partner. And Shabaab isn’t 10 guys away from breaking with al-Qaeda.
President-elect Biden will inherit these problems from President Trump, just as Obama left many of the same issues to Trump. There is little reason to expect that Biden wants to expand America’s role once again in the post-9/11 conflicts. But Trump is making it even more difficult for the Biden team to maintain a small counterterrorism presence in some of the world’s most dangerous jihadist hotspots.