“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse.” - John Stuart Mill
Standing outside 10 Downing Street on September 30th, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain triumphantly declared he had secured “Peace for our time.” By agreeing to cede portions of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, he announced that he had avoided an invasion of the country that Adolf Hitler had threatened.
History remembers this declaration as one of the most tragic and ironic declarations in history. Emboldened rather than pacified, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia the following March and then Poland in September. The most catastrophic war in human history was in full swing just under a year after Chamberlain’s tone-deaf declaration.
Neville Chamberlain’s name has itself become a cautionary tale against appeasement and the limits of diplomacy when political leaders avoid war at all cost. The warnings are several. Peace at any price can lead to war at a terrible price. Don’t blind yourself to the goals of your enemy for fear of what dealing with those goals might entail. And, don’t project assumptions upon your enemy or strategic realities that don’t match the facts on the ground.
We are living in a time where America’s political leadership, from both sides of the aisle, has ignored each of these warnings. We can only pray that similar consequences do not befall our nation or the world.
With the final and complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has similarly declared peace in our time. He says his decision to withdraw signifies “ending an era of major military operations.” He has, more or less, decided that America has long since fulfilled the reasons it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. He has determined that there wasn’t any strategic value in maintaining a presence there, of any kind, and that surrendering the country to the Taliban is of little consequence to regional, national, or international stability and security.
In other words, President Biden believes that the Taliban, a network of Jihadi terrorists with interwoven alliances to other major terrorist networks which remain committed to waging holy war against America, can be appeased by a cession of territory. He has placed his bets on believing that American foreign policy can forestall greater conflict through capitulation rather than through strength. He’s telling the American people that the Taliban and their allies will be content with control of their own backwater region of the world. But the history of Afghanistan tells us a very different story.
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the country became a Mecca of Islamic Jihad. Islamist militants and fundamentalists from across the Middle East and beyond made pilgrimages to the land where the Mujahideen had gained their victory. Terrorist training camps popped up across the Afghan landscape in droves, only rivaled by the poppy fields that paid for their operations.
As the 9/11 commission suggests, Islamic Jihad had been at war with America long before the World Trade Center attacks. Afghanistan, especially when the Taliban came into power, was the nucleus for their war effort. America was susceptible to attack because it did not recognize that Militant Islamism was already waging war upon it and because America had made no effort to deny its enemies the operational space needed to plan and carry out their attacks.
Afghanistan was already a Jihadist Mecca in the 1990s, thanks to the defeat of the Soviet Union in the previous decade. How much more so will it be considered a consecrated holy land for the forces of Jihad now? Al Qaeda, aided, abetted, and protected by the Taliban, planned and coordinated the World Trade Center Attacks from the mountains of Afghanistan. And, the American forces sent to defeat those who planned and supported the attack have been outlasted and forced to retreat (not by contest of arms, but by holding out until America’s political will to fight had been spent).
September 11th is now a Jihadi holy day. Firstly, and most obviously, because of their successful attacks in 2001. But secondly, and most concerning to our present circumstances, because the Jihadists secured a total defeat and an embarrassing capitulation from America on the eve of the 20th anniversary of those attacks.
President Biden admits that the terrorist threat is far from gone, but he asserts it has changed in ways that make a military presence in Afghanistan unneeded and further argues that such a presence would have been a distraction from dealing with threats as they actually exist.
He says, “This is a new world. The terror threat has metastasised across the world well beyond Afghanistan. We face threats from al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria in the Arabian Peninsula, and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia.”
But is this a “new world,” as he says? Was this metastasization a new development that demanded such a full and final retreat from what was our most active theater of war against the Jihadi threat? It almost seems as if Joe Biden is asserting that in 2001, terrorism called Afghanistan its only home and that this wasn’t a global threat from the start.
Al-Shabab is not a new threat. It has been an active extension of Al Qaeda since the early 2000s. It is ultimately a break-off and extension of al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI). At the time of the World Trade Center attacks, both AIAI and Al Qaeda operated terrorist training camps in Somalia.
Al-Qaeda, since its inception, has had contacts and affiliates in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and throughout the Arabic world. Bin Laden himself, along with most of the 9/11 hijackers, were Saudi Arabian. ISIS is a renewed Al-Qaeda In Iraq, itself a product of Jihadists flooding into Iraq from all corners of the Middle East to fight Americans after the 2003 invasion.
Asian terrorist networks and affiliates of Al-Qaeda, like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, have been active since the late 1980s and have engaged in deadly terrorist attacks both before and after the World Trade Center attacks.
The metastasization of Islamic Jihad was a development that occurred in the last two decades of the previous century, foreshadowing the horrifying events of September 11th, 2001. This is not something that has happened recently. It has not happened because our presence in Afghanistan distracted us or limited our ability to engage with threats elsewhere. And, this metastasization had one constant element: a link to Afghanistan, whether through training or directly by leadership deriving from veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war.
Indeed, nearly every terror network President Biden mentioned, and many more which he did not mention, are led by Jihadi veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s and 2010s, those trained in Afghan terrorist camps in the 1990s, or veterans of the Mujahideen that fought the Soviets in the 1980s. No matter how you slice the realities of Islamic Jihad, Afghanistan is the centrifugal force, a cradle for Militant Islamism.
There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that a pattern observed over the course of 40 years will end because America and its leaders lost the will to continue a mission that had denied Jihadi militants the key operational space in its history. And there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the observed pattern will only accelerate in the wake of a victory that the militants will see as even greater than the one they achieved against the Soviets.
The Taliban has not changed. They remain so interwoven with Al-Qaeda that, functionally, they are extensions of each other. The Taliban is an organization marked by terror, torture, and the cruelest of acts against its enemies. What reason do we have to believe it can morph into something it has never been, especially after claiming victory against the greatest military in the history of the world?
Islamic Jihad has not changed. It has not metastasised from a regional threat to a global threat. It has always been a global threat. It has been a threat whose core goal has always been growth and expansion. Afghanistan provided a chief common factor in that growth and expansion for nearly half a century. Retreating from Afghanistan grows the threat of Islamic Jihad; it cannot possibly lessen it. Islamic Jihad has been granted its own holy land and can now celebrate its own holy days, all centered on attacking, outlasting, and defeating the United States of America.
What has changed is America’s understanding of the threat it faces, America’s willingness to deal with its enemies as they are and not how it wishes them to be, and American leadership’s unwillingness to present the truth to the American people and to reckon with the realities they face even if those realities don’t play well in opinion polls.
What has changed is that America has fallen for the traps of appeasement, for the notion that diplomats can change the hearts and minds of those who want American blood, and for tone-deaf political narratives that peddle the idea that we can end a war without defeating those who started it in the first place (and who remain committed to waging that war against us).
What has changed is that America has become steeped in cynicism, nihilism, and defeatism passed off as realism. America doesn’t know what it stands for anymore, is uncertain of its place in the world, and has covered itself in dishonor and moral ambivalence as its foreign policy becomes hostage to its domestic dysfunction.
We cannot secure peace through defeat, retreat, appeasement, surrender, placation, weakness, or uncertainty. We can end conflict, for a time, with such things. But history teaches us that peace is best secured through victory, strength, and preparation to engage in war, even if it’s the last thing we wish.
The generally peaceful world order of the latter half of the 20th Century that stands in stark contrast to the bloodshed and upheaval resulting from two world wars was an American-led world order. America pursued its war effort in World War II until it achieved absolute victory. It followed that victory with a Cold War Doctrine that, except in a few cases, rejected Neville Chamberlain’s approach and was unafraid to project its strength and deal with its enemies as they were.
President Biden is fond of saying, “America is back.” But America is not back. America is far from back. America has lost its confidence in itself. We may have rained hellfire down upon the Jihadists and killed droves of terrorists over the last twenty years, but in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, they have gained a victory over America far more consequential than any body count. They have slain American greatness, honor, and perseverance in the hearts of the American people.
If we don’t find a way towards truly declaring that America is back, rekindling faith and hope in the hearts of the American people, and re-establishing a foreign policy doctrine that understands America’s place in an American-led world order, one that is clear-eyed about the realities of America’s enemies, peace for our time seems an unlikely thing.