Mike Morrell, former acting director of the CIA under President Obama, warned against the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2016, as Obama has promised.
“One of the places in the world where we are at risk of seeing another 9/11-style capability is unfortunately in Afghanistan. When U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, if that were to happen, it’s probably going to happen, then the best case outcome is that the Taliban is going to have safe haven in the south and the east,” Morrell said during a debate titled “The Global War on Terrorism: Is it Time to Double Down?” on Thursday evening at the Navy Memorial.
“When that happens, the remaining al-Qaeda cadre in Pakistan is going to come back across that border and find safe haven with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and if the United States is unwilling and unable to do anything about it they’re going to resurge and they’re going to regroup and they’re going to come at us again,” Morrell also said at the event, sponsored by the McCain Institute of Arizona State University.
Fran Townsend, former assistant to President George W. Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism, said Obama is committed to a timeline of withdraw in Afghanistan that could lead to a situation similar to ISIS expanding in Iraq.
“There are very specific timelines. Those people are coming out [of Afghanistan] regardless of the nightmare scenario Mike posits,” said Townsend. “If that’s happening, those people are still coming out. Are we still OK with that? I don’t think so. We shouldn’t be because we will face that threat.”
Daniel Benjamin, former State Department ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism under Obama, said the U.S. had a “very good capacity building process” in Iraq but the political process was “terrible.”
Benjamin said the U.S. allowed the government to run on a “sectarian principle that gutted the army and intelligence service.”
Morrell argued that the Iraqi army still needed assistance when U.S. forces left the country.
“The Iraqi military was not ready to stand on its own when we left at the end of 2011. It still needed our help,” said Morrell.
“Just as the Afghan army still needs our help now and you will see the same failure there if you withdraw on a time basis as opposed to a conditions basis,” Townsend said in response.
Townsend pointed out that 2013 was the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008.
“The Islamic State is not merely a terrorist group. It is any regular army using terrorist targets,” said Townsend.
“Ignoring them is not a strategy. A great military leader once said hope is not a strategy. Being quiet and hoping they away is not going to work. They beheaded two Americans. Mike is right in my view that those are direct terrorist attacks against the United States,” she added.
Townsend suggested the U.S. work with local partners like foreign intelligence services to stop ISIS.
“But then you have to do more than talk about that. The Free Syrian Army, we have not adequately trained, manned or equipped them. We’ve done a lot of talking about it. We’ve done a lot of talking about spending money on it but I will tell you from everybody in the region and from representatives of the Free Syrian Army, we haven’t done it,” she said.
Morrell said ISIS has made clear they will target the U.S. once they settle into a safe haven.
“One of the things you learn in foreign policy over time is your adversary always tells you what they are going to do,” said Morrell.
Benjamin disagreed, arguing that ISIS is not focused on the U.S. right now, but rather on tearing Iraq apart.
“I think we do face a long-term threat with ISIS,” he said. “We should not own this struggle. It belongs to the Iraqis and their neighborhoods.”
Benjamin said a ground campaign designed to destroy ISIS would fail.
“To have being the leading point of sphere on this would be a big mistake,” he said, arguing that the U.S. does not have the intelligence to decapitate the ISIS leadership.
“They have no state supporters. They have no unlimited resources. Change the currency in Iraq and they’ve got nothing in the bank. There are things that we can do and it’s not clear to me that we have to once again be in the position where the United States is bombing Muslims and giving the global Muslim community reason to question what it is we’re really interested in,” Benjamin added.
Philip Mudd, former deputy director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center in the Bush administration, said terrorist groups like ISIS are not resilient.
“They cannot replace this leadership faster than we can kill them – that’s not a supposition, that’s a fact,” he said.
“First, you look at the pace at which we are eliminating this leadership. They cannot come up with another Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – someone who lived in the United States. Second, I listened to them when they spoke to us when I was managing at the counterterrorism center. We had detainees. They hate drones. I like to listen to what the adversary doesn’t like because that’s generally what I like,” he said to laughter from the audience.
Townsend, Morrell, Benjamin and Mudd expressed support for the use of drones to combat ISIS.
“The drone campaigns are incredibly effective when they target the leadership,” said Townsend. “It’s easiest to do that in ungoverned spaces as Dan alluded to but I will tell you it was the running joke when many of us served that if you were the No. 3 in Al-Qaeda, you had the single shortest lifespan.”
Townsend recalled that many No. 3’s in al-Qaeda have been killed and the individuals that replaced them were less experienced and obsessed with their personal security, which made it difficult to plot attacks.
Mudd said the U.S. should focus on the flow of British or American citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria.
“Let me be blunt. We’re striking in Iraq – the channel is not in Iraq, it’s Syria. Forget about whether the president is delaying, whether he’s on the golf course,” Mudd said.
“Do we have the intelligence picture of the command and control of the adversary that’s responsible for foreign fighters so that we can conduct a fairly surgical operation without putting men and women from the United States at great risk? I don’t know the answer to that but I agree with Dan – if we have that picture, my question today would be: why aren’t we going because they’ve already killed Americans? But that’s a surgical operation.”