After U.S. special operations forces dealt a violent end to the leader of the premier jihadist group in Iraq, the president hailed the importance of the moment.
The man was a monster, the president declared, responsible for a regional campaign of devastation, even the beheadings of American hostages. True, the killing would not mean the end of the broader war, the president noted, but the U.S. had dealt “a severe blow” to the jihadists.
George W. Bush said this in 2006, following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
After U.S. special operations forces dealt a violent end to the leader of the global jihadist movement, the president hailed the importance of the moment. The man was a monster, the president declared, responsible for a global campaign of devastation, and particularly the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. True, the killing would not mean the end of the broader war, the president noted, but the U.S. had reaped “the most significant achievement to date” against the jihadists.
Barack Obama said this in 2011, following the killing of Osama bin Laden.
After U.S. special operations forces ensured a violent end for the leader of a new global jihadist movement, the president hailed the importance of the moment. The man was a monster, the president declared, responsible for a global campaign of devastation, even the beheadings of American hostages. True, the killing would not mean the end of the broader war, the president noted, but it showed that “these savage monsters will never escape their fate.”
Donald Trump said this on Sunday, following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
These three fatal milestones all point to the strategic incoherence within a global war that has now lasted an entire generation. No one, not the Trump administration nor its critics, believes that the so-called Islamic State is finished because Baghdadi is dead. As proficient as U.S. special operators have become at manhunting these past 18 years, and as central as manhunting has been during that time, there is no campaign plan, not even a theory, by which the killings of jihadist leaders knit up into a lasting victory. Asking for one would require reckoning with the catastrophic failure represented by a war that only perpetuates itself.
There would have been no Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had Bush not invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. That war created an opportunity for a mass murderer, Zarqawi, to construct an al Qaeda franchise more bloodthirsty than even the one bin Laden created. Even after Zarqawi’s 2006 death, bin Laden could never rein in al Qaeda in Iraq, documents recovered after the 2011 raid on his Abbottabad compound showed, and he grew particularly dyspeptic over the offshoot’s clear desire to declare a caliphate.
Some believe bin Laden is the real victor of the war on terrorism, since he succeeded at provoking the U.S. into endless war in unfamiliar terrain. But the rise of ISIS showed bin Laden lost control of the movement he started. Bin Laden did not believe the time was right for a caliphate. Baghdadi took advantage of both the Syrian civil war and Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq to make the caliphate a brutal fascist reality, complete with misogynist enslavement and opportunities for men to find meaning through sanctified violence. When al Qaeda and the elder generation of jihadist theorists opposed ISIS, Baghdadi’s organization—now an actual state, complete with an army, and a flag—had no problem attacking them. Baghdadi was less visible than bin Laden, rebuking the leadership style of a previous generation and signaling that the caliphate was more important than he was. The caliphate was ISIS’ triumph over bin Laden, whose children ate his revolution.
This history matters because it shows that the expansive war the U.S. launched does not fight against a static enemy. It generates enemies—the slain al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki is another example—and provides opportunities for new ones to arise. Baghdadi himself experienced four years of captivity in the U.S. detention facility at Camp Bucca in Iraq before his 2009 release. Trump on Sunday recalled the horror of seeing American detainees dressed in orange jumpsuits without recalling that ISIS chose the orange jumpsuits to evoke the ones worn by detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
No one should think the fall of the caliphate, let alone Baghdadi’s death, means that U.S.’ jihadist adversaries have achieved their final form. Whatever else the war on terrorism is, its history shows it yielding further generations of jihadists as long as there are American forces hunting, surveilling, and killing Muslims worldwide. Part of that dynamic involves those newer generations emerging when U.S. forces pull back but leave intact the apparatus of the war on terrorism—the drone strikes, the surveillance dragnets, the lethal raids—as happened in Iraq in 2011 and, very likely, will happen in Syria now, in 2019. Maintaining that apparatus is supposed to hedge against withdrawals from agonizing ground conflicts. Yet at each turn of the war’s ratchet, the jihadists have only come back in more violent form and greater mass, the exact opposite of what any war is supposed to achieve.
Trump’s pullback from northeastern Syria, like from the Forever War more broadly, was never total. Like Obama before him, Trump’s rhetoric about wishing to be done with endless wars obscures the reality of how he prosecutes them. Trump escalated drone strikes in the undeclared regions of the war on terrorism and, in Afghanistan, escalated air strikes, with a commensurate rise in civilian deaths. Syria has long displayed the decadence of a strategically exhausted war on terrorism: Obama invaded without congressional approval—to no real congressional outrage—and Trump has made the residual mission one of plundering oil and, in the background, threatening Iran. Trump made clear last week that he expects “Turkey, Syria and others in the region” to do the work of preventing an ISIS return.
All that means ISIS, in whatever future form, has a new lease on life. A series of ISIS jailbreaks occurred after Trump’s green light for the Turkish invasion led the United States’ Syrian Kurdish partners to prioritize their own survival. Like Baghdadi out of Camp Bucca, new generations of ISIS leadership may have made their way out of the Syrian prisons. The U.S. is hardly the only actor that matters here: the unconcluded Syrian civil war helps set the context for whatever comes next, and the U.S. has never been able to shape events within that war. Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center from the dawn of the anti-ISIS war until 2017, tweeted that Baghdadi’s death was a “big blow” to ISIS but “may not leave us safer from ISIS attack.”
Trump’s pullback from northeastern Syria has troubled American strategists. The persistence of the war on terrorism, which set the context for that pullback, troubles them less. At a Reuters forum in September, I asked former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis why military officers never put forward a theory of victory in the war on terrorism. He responded that terrorism was a persistent reality, “an ambient threat,” and so was an American response. “This desire to have the war over, I understand it, but this is a war that springs from root causes that will have to be addressed at the same time we’re fighting,” Mattis said. “It will be there throughout our lifetimes.”
Terrorism, as old as human history, will indeed be present throughout our lifetimes. But that elides the choice America makes to wage a war against it that only makes jihadism worse. While the bombs drop, American officials never get around to addressing Mattis’ undefined “root causes,” because some of those root causes are the bombs themselves. And all that means Baghdadi’s death gains the U.S. as much as the broader war on terrorism does: ultimately nothing, only a fleeting feeling of national pride briefly concealing the worsening wreckage of a generation.