At a time when the Biden administration has its hands full trying to reverse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and manage a US-China relationship stuck in the doldrums, America’s vast, lethal counterterrorism machine continues to be in high gear.
The US intelligence community, in close partnership with America’s special operators, are tracking and hunting down terrorists in several countries -- Syria and Somalia, most especially -- with such regularity that it barely makes a dent in the news cycle anymore.
You can be forgiven for thinking the decadeslong war on terrorism was declared officially over the moment the Biden administration withdrew US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021. President Joe Biden seemed to indicate just that a month later when he addressed at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war,” Biden said during his first speech to the world body. “We’ve turned the page.”
If that were indeed the case, then it would be an accomplishment worth bragging about. Yet 20 months after Biden delivered that address, it’s clear that the war on terrorism sparked by the 9/11 attacks is still very much alive. The big difference between now and then is how the US is waging this stage of the war: quietly and discreetly.
While the radio silence isn’t totally surprising, it’s still a bit mysterious. It’s not as if US troops aren’t on the ground, exposed to the elements. Roughly 2,500 US troops remain deployed in Iraq, nearly 5 1/2 years after the Iraqi government formally declared the war against the Islamic State group’s territorial caliphate. Almost 1,000 US troops remain stationed in eastern Syria, where they occupy a series of small bases that are frequently harassed by Iranian-backed militias. (It should be noted that Islamic State lost its last stretch of land in Syria more than four years ago.) Almost 500 US forces are in Somalia, a country that has been in a state of continuous civil war since the early 1990s and whose government finds it difficult to extend its remit beyond the capital city of Mogadishu.
According to US Central Command’s own statistics, there have been 119 operations in Iraq alone so far this year. A significant amount of US military activity is occurring across the border in Syria as well -- and unlike in Iraq, US forces there often operate unilaterally.
The operations are too numerous to cite in a single column, but some of the more noteworthy ones include: a Jan. 18 helicopter raid in northeast Syria targeting an Islamic State facilitator; a Feb. 17 helicopter raid that killed Hamza al-Homsi, a senior Islamic State leader (four US military members were wounded as well); an April 4 drone strike against another Islamic State leader in Syria; an April 8 operation that captured Islamic State attack facilitator Hudayfah al Yemeni; and a drone strike last week that neutralized a senior al-Qaida leader in Idlib province.
The US has been quite active in Somalia, too, mainly through the air. Unlike in Syria, where the central government has wrested back control of most of the country’s territory, Somalia resembles a backwater in the Horn of Africa whose authorities are largely propped up by an African Union peacekeeping mission. Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida affiliate, controls much of central and southern Somalia, where the Somali government’s overworked Danab counterterrorism unit (trained, mentored and financed by the US) seeks to kill or capture the group’s leadership and retake ground.
The US isn’t so much fighting a counterterrorism battle in Somalia as much as a counterinsurgency campaign, aiding and abetting the Somali government’s war against an extremist insurgency whose main objective is to rule the entire country.
In Syria, the US tends to focus on individuals. In Somalia, however, the US targets entire groups of insurgents who try to overrun Somali military bases or checkpoints. The aim isn’t to capture or kill terrorists threatening the US but rather to support the Somali government as it tries to defeat, or at least hold off, a 17-year insurgency that shows no signs of losing steam. Most US military operations in Somalia are close-air support missions directly assisting Somali forces on the ground. The result often involves higher casualty rates for the opposing forces.
In January, the US struck a large al-Shabaab formation that was trying to capture a Somali army base about 250 kilometers from Mogadishu, killing 30. On Feb. 10, the US conducted a similar strike against yet another column of al-Shabaab fighters to assist the Somali army’s ground campaign, wiping out 12 insurgents in the process. Several days later, yet another US air attack in support of the Somali government killed five insurgents. Based on news releases from US Africa Command, the most recent US strike in the country occurred in March.
The point here is not to regurgitate each and every US military operation that happens halfway around the world. There are too many to count, and after a while, all the strikes start to look similar.
The point, rather, is to underscore that the US is still very much a country at war, notwithstanding what US political leaders claim in speeches. The conventional view that the US has moved on from the terrorism and counterinsurgency wars of the past to focus on a renewed era of great power competition is simply inaccurate. The reality is the US is trying to do it all.
It’s no wonder why the US defense budget is mindlessly approaching the trillion-dollar mark.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)