Fighting terrorist organizations is not like fighting wars of years past.
The fall of Kunduz to Taliban militants in Afghanistan last week is a stark reminder that military power, no matter how great, can’t eliminate terrorist organizations or bring stability to areas of the world where they operate.
The U.S. kicked the Taliban out of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. While the George W. Bush administration tried to tie the attacks to Saddam Hussein and Iraq as a basis to invade that country, it was the Taliban in Afghanistan that were supporting Osama bin Laden and his group of terrorists.
The U.S. and other countries joined in 2001 to push the Taliban out of Afghanistan, but just as the Russians found when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and became embroiled in a decade-long conflict they could not win, so too would the U.S. experience similar results.
The Russians had to deal with the mujahidin, resistance fighters who would engage the Soviets, inflict damage and then retreat to their mountain hideouts. The mujahidin saw the Russian invasion as an attack on their religion and culture, and they proclaimed a jihad, or holy war against the invaders.
The Taliban retreated to Pakistan when U.S. forces took control, but efforts to build a government in Afghanistan have been hugely unsuccessful. The departure of most U.S. troops and the lack of a government capable of standing on its own combined to offer the opportunity for Taliban forces to return.
Iraq, meanwhile, also continues to struggle to form a government years after the U.S. invasion. World leaders gathered last week to try and figure out a strategy to fight ISIS, the radical Islamic terrorists who have staked a claim in parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria and who have murdered tens of thousands of men, women and children in the name of their cause.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines last month when, at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he agreed to provide military assistance in fighting ISIS in that country. Last week, as U.S. planes began airstrikes in Kunduz, Soviet aircraft began striking targets in Syria, but complaints quickly arose that the targets were opponents of al-Assad, and not ISIS.
The U.S. has long tried to oust al-Assad from power, but since President Barack Obama and Congress failed to act when the Syrian leader crossed Obama’s “red line,” – the use of chemical weapons – and the invasion by ISIS into Syria, there has been little consensus about what to do in that troubled area. Ousting al-Assad would open the door further for ISIS, just as ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq opened the door for terrorist groups to gain a stronger foothold.
There is no easy answer. The U.S. and its allies may not like al-Assad, but removing him now would only further destabilize the country. Better to take care of the problem of ISIS first and hope that al-Assad and the Soviets don’t get too cozy.
Fighting terrorist organizations is not like fighting wars of years past where a country would invade another, fighting would take place and ultimately one or the other of the countries would surrender. It isn’t even like more recent conflicts where countries fight and eventually declare a stalemate and forge some sort of uneasy peace.
We may beat back terrorist groups for a while, as we did in Afghanistan, but there will always be some who slip away, quietly waiting and rebuilding until the time comes when they feel they can re-emerge successfully, as the Taliban apparently felt in Afghanistan.
The only way to keep them in check is through worldwide cooperation of developed countries that devote the resources to help developing countries form strong governments and exhibit a commitment to human rights.
But as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, even the process of building a government can be a daunting task. Still, it must be done because, ultimately, it is the countries themselves that have to root out the terrorists in their midst.
We can and should help when asked, but the job is not one that we can do for them, unless we are willing to eternally keep our forces on the ground in these countries.