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Eighteen years ago this week, radical Islamic terrorists hijacked four airplanes and used them as weapons of mass destruction. They killed nearly 3,000 people in an attack against symbols of American power and hegemony.
Confronted by a new threat and an unfamiliar enemy, but united in the aftermath of the tragedy, Americans steeled themselves for a war and the sacrifices it would come with. They vowed: “Never again!”
A generation later, the fighting drags on. Unresolved and with no clearly-defined end state, the conflict has devolved into a state of indefinite war.
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Consider where things stand:
In Iraq, Christians and other minorities face persecution by Islamic State (ISIS) holdouts, who continue to wage an insurgency to reclaim their former caliphate in Mosul. The 5,000 U.S. troops who remain in the country to mitigate that threat are becoming the focus of Iranian ire through Tehran’s proxies in Shia militias.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. has been negotiating with Taliban representatives with the aim of reducing our military presence in return for the Taliban cutting ties to Al Qaeda. President Trump’s recently-revealed plans to hold peace talks with the Taliban and the Afghan government at Camp David were reportedly canceled following a Taliban bombing that killed a U.S. serviceman. The revelation of these planned talks, and the suspension of negotiations, raise the risk of retaliatory Taliban violence and of pushing Afghanistan to the edge of another civil war.
In Syria, ISIS is escalating its insurgency and plotting new ways to use Syrian territory as a launching pad for more attacks in the region and abroad. Perhaps more significantly, Iran is progressing rapidly toward realizing its ultimate objective: a Shia “crescent of influence” that completes the physical link between Tehran and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
And here at home, ISIS-inspired ideology presents a continuing and evolving challenge to law enforcement. In August, federal agents foiled an ISIS-inspired knife attack in New York City, and disrupted a plot by two women to attack New York transit hubs with homemade bombs.
There is also the question of what to do with the untold number of U.S. citizens who traveled to join the terror group, are now detained in Iraq and Syria, but will soon be returning home under various extradition agreements.
As a former CIA officer who worked in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently as a filmmaker documenting the war against ISIS, I know firsthand the sacrifices made by those who have served in our global campaign against terrorism.
But with 7,027 U.S. forces killed in the line of duty since that day in 2001, 50,000 more suffering with the physical and mental scars of war, and a staggering financial cost, the American people are weary of this perpetual war. Indeed, President Trump seems keenly aware that impatience and practicality are eroding the “never again” mantra.
Notwithstanding a period of heightened tensions with Iran, the administration is seeking to reduce our footprint across the entire Middle East and South Asia, beginning in Afghanistan. Despite continued, recent evidence that the Taliban has not abandoned political violence as a tool of statecraft, the Trump administration had been pursuing a “peace” deal with the insurgent group that would formally mark the end of our military involvement in that country.
But foreign policy experts have warned that any agreement that allows groups like the Taliban to operate with minimal oversight will only take us back to where we started 18 long years ago. Similarly, the success of Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS (in Iraq and Syria) hangs in the balance if the U.S. prematurely withdraws critical training, support and intelligence for our Iraqi government partners.
Beginning in 2011, President Obama made a hasty retreat from Iraq and we witnessed the disastrous results. The withdrawal of our military, diplomatic and development personnel catalyzed ISIS to quickly develop into a global threat and allowed Iran and other regional actors to replace American influence in the region.
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Likewise, reducing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan today will mutate the Taliban into a new threat. It will breed a resurgence against which we have no antidote. Negotiating a deal that favors the Taliban will cost us two decades of sacrifices.
When all of this is forgotten, it is easy to question why U.S. troops have been stationed in the Middle East for more than 6,000 consecutive days. Our safety comes at a price, however. Around the world and around the clock, thousands of military and intelligence professionals are working diligently to identify and thwart terrorism at its source, stopping the threats before they reach our shore.
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Yes, this conflict is exhausting. As a former CIA officer who worked in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently as a filmmaker documenting the war against ISIS, I know firsthand the sacrifices made by those who have served in our global campaign against terrorism.
To reconcile this dangerous time with those sacrifices and commitments made by a generation of Americans, we must return to the resolution that we embraced in those early days: “Never again.” That promise that we made to the victims of 9/11, to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and to future generations, is just as relevant this September as it was in 2001.
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