On Monday evening, U.S. officials casually announced that a hostile foreign power was responsible for a “complex, coordinated, and deliberate” attack on an outpost operated by American soldiers.
According to the Pentagon, as many as five drones armed with explosives targeted a Syria-based garrison last week where U.S. forces and Syrian opposition fighters are stationed. The drones were Iranian in origin. The attack was encouraged and materially supported by Iran. And the targeting of this base has disrupted the U.S. mission in northwestern Syria to deter and contain the Islamic State in the Levant.
Just hours later, Colin Kahl, undersecretary of Defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan represent a threat to the United States that is all but imminent. “I think the intelligence community currently assesses that both ISIS-K and al-Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations, including against the United States,” Kahl said. Current estimates indicate that the Islamic State in Central Asia could mount attacks on the U.S. homeland anywhere from six to 12 months from now. As for al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the nation’s history will again be able to hit the homeland within a year or two.
These two episodes might appear unrelated, but only to those who have forgotten the objectives outlined by George W. Bush at the outset of the West’s Global War on Terror. That enterprise was never limited to non-state actors. That war was to be conducted against terrorists and their state sponsors—“any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism.” Afghanistan is once again just such a nation. Iran always was.
This is all terribly inconvenient for Joe Biden. The president has commanded the tide of Islamist terrorism to recede, but the tide refuses to budge. Biden’s heedlessly ordered and shambolically executed withdrawal from Afghanistan has transformed that country back into the locus of transnational terror. His desire to extricate U.S. forces from both Syria (which is presently under review, ongoing U.S. operations aimed at neutralizing high-ranking terror operatives in that country notwithstanding) and Iraq (also in negotiations) appear unchanged despite the Afghan debacle. But the president is about to encounter the consequences of his commitment to America’s unconditional retreat.
The strategic consequences for the United States should Islamist elements once again manage to conduct spectacular attacks in America of the sort we’ve managed to prevent in the 20 years since 9/11 are self-evident. Islamist groups and their self-radicalized adherents all over the world will proliferate, the United States will have to reengage militarily in the regions it is desperate to abandon, and America’s position in the world will deteriorate more than it already has. The political consequences, however, are even more dire from a Democratic perspective.
Barack Obama didn’t want to reintroduce U.S. forces into Iraq just three years after he executed a campaign pledge to extricate troops from the country. He had no choice. Yes, the ostensible rationale for the reintroduction of troops was the Islamic State’s imminent threat to the Yazidi people, who were surrounded and days away from genocidal eradication. But the impetus was the strategic threat posed by ISIS’s acquisition of vast swaths of resource-rich territory in the heart of the Middle East, and the political will was provided by Americans who would not tolerate the beheading of their fellow citizens on camera. Those deaths, though few and far away, forced Obama’s hand.
A successful foreign-directed terror attack on U.S. soil during Biden’s first term would prove a catastrophic political debacle for this president and his party. It would expose the foolishness of his withdrawal and reveal the extent to which “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism operations are a fantasy without ready assets and reliable intelligence in the region (as if more proof was needed). Biden’s own administration has already told anyone willing to listen that the threat is metastasizing as we speak. When that threat reaches the point of maturity, the White House will not escape blame.
Joe Biden has a choice: Reengage with the global anti-terror war now in a visible, verifiable, and (most important) preemptive way or be compelled by calamitous circumstance to reengage later at a time and place not of his choosing. That would seem to most rational observers like no choice at all, but Biden fancies himself a peacemaker. He might think he can avoid the worst. Or, at least, that the worst won’t happen on his watch. But there will not be peace while Biden projects weakness to our adversaries. And if that weakness invites dire consequences that Americans won’t be able to ignore or dismiss, it will discredit retrenchment as a political project for years to come. It really is as simple as that.