Biden’s Syria strike is an important win — but underscores the folly of leaving Afghanistan
Last Thursday’s successful targeting of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi has been trumpeted by President Biden as “testament to America’s reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they try to hide anywhere in the world.” Some pundits have gone even further: declaring that the raid is proof positive that a combination of U.S. military and intelligence over-the-horizon capabilities can effectively eliminate terrorist threats and keep the homeland safe.
Both are wishful thinking that ignore key differences between the killing of al-Qurashi and that of Osama bin Laden a decade ago. Moreover, the undeniable success achieved by U.S. special operations in northern Syria would be extremely difficult to replicate in Afghanistan precisely because of the U.S.’s withdrawal last August. Lost in the details of the latest successful assassination: According to sources, the raiding party flew from an existing U.S. special operations forces base in Syria, where the United States maintains a modest military presence in a largely withdrawn role. The strike targeting Qurashi was not a so-called “over-the-horizon” strike. It was actually the exact opposite.
America’s advantages in Syria — where there is an ongoing, albeit modest, U.S. military presence — compared to Afghanistan are manifold. Even in the Levant, where the U.S. has treaty relations with two countries bordering Syria — Turkey and Jordan — a combination of problematical relations even among two members of the same alliance (NATO) and the limited airborne range of helicopters limited U.S planning options. Fortunately, the small footprint manned by some 900 U.S. military personnel in northern Syria obviated the need for the Biden administration to request territorial access to either the country.
In Turkey’s case, longstanding policy disagreements over the Syrian civil war, security arrangements there, and American support of Kurdish forces, made requesting Ankara’s assistance a “mission impossible.” The ever-obliging Abdullah, King of Jordan, may have been less reluctant to help the U.S. but the flight path was just too distant to accommodate the rapid insertion and safe extraction of the raiding party.
A second key asset, which the administration credited with the mission’s success, was the help provided by local, on-the-ground, indigenous assets in the Syrian Democratic Forces. These Kurdish fighters, whom the U.S. has worked with and supported throughout the coalition campaign to defeat ISIS between 2014 and 2019, were lauded for the critical assistance they provided — presumably with human-sourced intelligence and eyes-and-ears on the ground as well as backup firepower, if needed. The group remains an extraordinarily reliable and capable partner — a luxury the U.S. now conspicuously lacks in Afghanistan.
And, the final, perhaps essential element was the excellent, precise intelligence that both pinpointed al-Qurashi’s location and determined that the wheel-chair bound ISIS commander would be present when the raiders descended. The intelligence, in fact, was so good that the raiders knew to evacuate a civilian family living on the first floor — thus adhering to the administration’s call to always prioritize civilian lives. It was likely “all-source” — acquired from technical means (communications intercepts and satellite imagery), human sources (from Kurdish and U.S. agents and informants), and acquired from drones. Although drones can travel further and longer than helicopters, close proximity to a target increases their critical ability to “loiter” above a target for long periods of time — as opposed to deploying aircraft from Qatar, when the distance then greatly diminishes its ability to remain over Afghan air space.
On the contrary, in the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. no longer has any in-country bases from which to operate. The U.S. now cannot even count on any of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries to avail such facilities for a military operation, has no indigenous, local allies from which to acquire intelligence. The U.S. would be hard-pressed because of time and distance to flood any target space with drone surveilliance. The “Zero Dark Thirty” option was therefore off the table.
In addition to distance and speed, weather was crucial. Although the attack plan was presented to Biden a month ago, winter conditions and visibility issues repeatedly thwarted its execution. Afghanistan’s even more formidable climate and geography thus are an immense added complication to any long-distance “over-the-horizon” strike.
The strike earlier this week was an important victory for the Biden administration, who’s national security record was blighted by the Afghanistan withdrawal, Houthi dominance in Yemen and escalating tensions with Russia. But, it does not vindicate the decision to depart Afghanistan, nor does it prove the promise of “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism.
On the contrary, it should stand as testament to the value of an enduring, elite counterterrorism presence in unstable areas plagued by terrorist groups. The success of this strike does not at all change the fact that such missions will be exceedingly difficult in Afghanistan — where the U.S. now lacks a presence, and therefore has no basing, no proximity and likely significantly crippled intelligence capabilities.
And, therefore, the strike underscores why maintaining this modest American military and intelligence presence in Syria and Iraq in the long-term is indeed prudent.
Bruce Hoffman is the senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University.
Jacob Ware is a research associate for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations.