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Baghdadi's death marks the end of an era for 'war on terror'

8 Comments
By Peter Apps

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi this week will not mark the end of Islamic state, nor U.S. military efforts against Islamist militancy in the Middle East and beyond. But coming against the backdrop of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and growing Pentagon preoccupation with great-power rivals such as China, it may mark the end of an era in U.S. foreign and military policy.

As late as summer 2014, as IS fighters seized huge swathes of Iraq and Syria, many in the U.S. government still viewed such groups as America's preeminent national security threat and Washington's number one priority. Russia's seizure of Crimea and the beginning of its war in Ukraine the same year, however, were already beginning to shift that focus – a process that has since accelerated.

Even in the Middle East, America's actions and the dynamics of wider conflicts are now defined by great power and other geopolitical factors, with the fight against militant groups – even those that might wish to threaten the West – now simply one of multiple competing priorities.

Where once its planners, arms manufacturers and strategic thinkers were focused on failed states, improvised explosive devices and nation-building, the Pentagon' is now much more focused on hypersonic missiles, cyber, space and potential continental-level wars. Whether the United States will fare any better in these confrontations than its Middle East "forever wars", however, remains an open question.

The defeat of Islamic State and Baghdadi's death point to the paradox of U.S. power since well before September 11, 2001. Throughout that period, the United States has been able to strike and send forces often almost wherever it chooses across a huge swathe of the planet. Its tactics have evolved – sending large numbers of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan rarely broke the back of those insurgencies as expected. But through drones, air strikes, special operations forces and local allies, the United States has been able to push back but never quite defeat its extremist enemies as expected.

It would perhaps be a mistake to say America and its military feel humbled by their experience of the "war on terror". They have become accustomed – and distressed by – frequent attrition and the feeling they have failed to win. But they have also become accustomed to access to overwhelming firepower, instantaneous communications coupled with surveillance and intelligence and often friendly local forces. Even when casualties have ratcheted up to thousands over time, they have almost never been taken at the rate of more than a handful in a single day.

That, of course, is very different from the experience of Iraqi, Kurdish and other forces caught up particularly in the brutal early stages of Islamic State's expansion, or events such as the battle to retake Mosul or the Taliban's repeated attacks in Kabul and elsewhere that have often killed more than 100 in a single incident. By one estimate, up to 500,000 people have died in conflicts associated with the "war on terror" – which has cost the US up to $6 trillion in direct and indirect costs.

Those financial costs have dwindled substantially since the withdrawal of major U.S. ground forces. As Turkey's intervention in Syria makes clear, however, the region's wars may if anything get more bloody with the U.S. departure. Russia has made it clear it will willingly provide arms and diplomatic support for brutal governments, and proxy confrontations between Iran and its various nearby enemies continues to intensify. The latter confrontation may yet pull the United States back into the Gulf– albeit unwillingly, given mounting U.S. concerns elsewhere.

Despite concerns over Russia and Europe – as well as Islamist militancy around the world including Africa and Asia – the Pentagon clearly believes the next war it must prepare for most would be in the Pacific. How likely a shooting conflict with Beijing truly is remains unclear – but if it happened, it could well be the most devastating war the United States has faced since World War Two.

It would certainly be a very different conflict than the United States has become used to. U.S. drones that have operated with impunity for almost two decades would struggle in the face of sophisticated air defenses. Some officials openly argue that America's aircraft carriers would be vulnerable to Chinese long-range missile strikes – but others believe that with land bases also likely targeted, America's mobile carrier strike fleets might yet prove amongst its most, not least resilient assets.

The U.S. Marine Corps arguably takes such worries one step further, training to use its short take-off F-35 fighters from tiny islands and atolls, worrying that little else may be able to survive if war should really come. The primary stated purpose of America's growing military presence is to ensure it doesn't, and that China feels deterred from pushing its growing military footprint too far, for example by moving on Taiwan.

Given its collapsing Mideast clout, particularly with its Kurdish allies, the United States will be glad it killed Baghdadi when it did. But the future is uncertain, and may yet pose more dangers to America and the world that anything Islamic State could ever truly offer.

Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party.

© Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

8 Comments
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IS fighters seized huge swathes of Iraq and Syria, many in the U.S. government still viewed such groups as America's preeminent national security threat

False. That is just the basis upon which more outrageous government spending and action was justified to the the foolish American people. Those Toyotas they were driving were not submersible. Their AK's cannot shoot over oceans. America's number one security threat is in the Pentagon.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

America's number one security threat is in the Pentagon

Many if not most veterans, generals, intelligence experts, and other government officials say the real threat is living in the White House.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

U are wrong. the world war just started.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

All three comments above really made me laugh.

@Norman Goodman

America's number one security threat is in the Pentagon.

Who would that be? Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr CENTCOMM Commander?

Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, with two bronze oak leaf clusters Legion of Merit with two gold award stars Bronze Star Medal , 2nd row Defense Meritorious Service Medal Meritorious Service Medal with two award stars, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Combat Action Ribbon. Joint Meritorious Unit Award with one oak leaf cluster. Navy Unit Commendation National Defense Service Medal with one bronze service star. Kosovo Campaign Medal with service star 4th row Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two service stars. Iraq Campaign Medal with service star. Global War on Terrorism. Service Medal Korea Defense Service Medal. Humanitarian Service Medal. Navy Sea Service Deployment Ribbon with four service stars. Navy Arctic Service Ribbon. NATO Medal for Kosovo with service star. Badge

Yeah Norman Real threat those generals in the Pentagon.

@Numan.

Many if not most veterans, generals, intelligence experts, and other government officials say the real threat is living in the White House.

Why for taking the handcuffs off our military to hunt down these jihadist terror scum and make them pay?

If you look at Trumps address to the nation in contrast to Obama's address to nation when Osama Bin Laden was taken down. You will notice some very stark differences. Obama has not one branch of military flag behind him. Not one!

Trump was surrounded in the situation room by Robert O'Brien, Trump's national security adviser; Mark Esper, the secretary of defense; Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, the Joint Staff deputy director for special operations. You think these men think Trump is the real threat?

@TARA TAN KITAOKA

the world war just started.

We should be more worried about a Civil war at home with Democrats and the wack impeachment hearings.

That at the end day accomplish nothing but wasting tax payers dollars.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

The end of one era and the beginning of another.

The biggest threat to global peace are the terrorists in Washington. Under the guise of Democrats and Republicans, they are responsible for the deaths of millions over the decades.

If you really want to put an end to terror, include the US governments on the list.

And let me clarify, I mean governments - not the good people of the US.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

America "rarely broke the back of those insurgencies as expected."

Could that possibly be because the US was the insurgency?

"Russia has made it clear it will willingly provide arms and diplomatic support for brutal governments." That is, of course, something the US would never do.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Many if not most veterans, generals, intelligence experts, and other government officials say the real threat is living in the White House.

Yes, from the people that want us to stay in these wars forever, sorry, but a lot of these swamp rats are the threat.

The biggest threat to global peace are the terrorists in Washington. Under the guise of Democrats and Republicans, they are responsible for the deaths of millions over the decades.

If you really want to put an end to terror, include the US governments on the list. 

And let me clarify, I mean governments - not the good people of the US

What a load of crock. I wouldn’t even say government, I would say just the Hawks that think we should stay in these places indefinitely.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

False. That is just the basis upon which more outrageous government spending and action was justified to the the foolish American people. Those Toyotas they were driving were not submersible. Their AK's cannot shoot over oceans. America's number one security threat is in the Pentagon.

Right. Because terrorists have no idea how to take an airplane. Oh, wait...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unsuccessful_terrorist_plots_in_the_United_States_post-9/11

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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