The bizarre, often make-believe, world of the United States’ fight against dangerous terrorist organizations and militants has suffered a bad few weeks, and there are no signs of things getting better soon. This is a critical moment in that tug-of-war between those around the world who call on the United States to assist or protect them from dangerous foes, and others who say the U.S. is not a reliable partner because broadly it does not know what it is doing when it sends its military into action in distant lands. Three simultaneous developments this month support those who distrust the United States or see it as incompetent in foreign military action.
The first was the announcement by the U.S. Defense Department that it only had 60 trained Syrian soldiers in the field fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or “Islamic State”), after Congress last summer allocated over $500 million to train thousands of “moderate” Syrians to join this battle. Of the 60 that were prepared and sent to fight, the majority were killed or captured, and only 5 or 6 remained at their posts last week. In one case some of the American-supplied equipment and supplies with these troops ended up with the local Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat el-Nusra.
The second embarrassing news was the revelation in a New York Times article earlier this week quoting a confidential report being prepared by American intelligence analysts, which reportedly concludes that, “nearly 30,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Iraq and Syria from more than 100 countries since 2011. A year ago, the same officials estimated that flow to be about 15,000 combatants from 80 countries, mostly to join the Islamic State.”
The report suggests that around 1000 fighters from all parts of the world are traveling to join ISIS every month. So the U.S. government claim to have killed 10,000 ISIS fighters or personnel during the last year of military bombardments seems not to have done irreparable damage to either ISIS’ ability to maintain its control in those areas it rules in Syria and Iraq, or to its fighting capabilities. This is more of an indictment of the governments of the countries neighboring ISIS, especially Syria and Iraq, than of the United States, as one would expect the local powers that are threatened by ISIS to be the main ones fighting. The combination of the incompetence of the governments in the Middle East with the limited impact of the American air strikes is doubly shocking and depressing.
The third nasty development for the anti-terror and anti-Islamist militancy forces was the news this week that the Taliban in Afghanistan have taken control of the strategic northern town of Kunduz. This would be the first provincial capital that the Taliban have recaptured since the U.S. invasion in 2001 drove them from power. The resurgence of the Taliban in numbers and organizational capabilities that allow them to seize provincial capitals suggests that all the money and effort the United States and NATO allies put into the battle against the Taliban — not to mention the 2361 dead Americans and over 20,000 others injured in the last 13 years — has not been able to put the Taliban out of business.
These three developments can be interpreted in many ways, and some of them may be reversed over time, though I doubt that very much. I suspect we are witnessing the totally expected consequences of a major Western power sending its armed force into battles in faraway lands where it is almost totally oblivious to the issues on the ground that drive citizens to join militant organizations like Al-Qaeda, ISIS or the Taliban. The fundamental problem for the U.S. government is usually two-fold. First, its military use of massive power often causes immense destruction that breeds resentment against the United States and weakens the local governance structures, which drives many ordinary but desperate citizens in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan into the arms of the militant Islamists who promise order and a better day ahead. Second, the United States usually supports corrupt and authoritarian local governments that end up enriching a small circle of their friends and business associates, while hardly touching the miserable living conditions and life prospects of millions of ordinary citizens.