How will the ‘end’ of the global war on terror affect Israel?

SECURITY AFFAIRS: The short answer is that the war on terror gave Israel unprecedented cover to fight its own terror threats using aggressive measures, a luxury that Jerusalem will probably lose.

AFGHAN CHILDREN in Jalalablad celebrate in February the US-Taliban agreement to allow a US troop reduction and a permanent ceasefire. (photo credit: PARWIZ PARWIZ/REUTERS)
AFGHAN CHILDREN in Jalalablad celebrate in February the US-Taliban agreement to allow a US troop reduction and a permanent ceasefire.
For anyone who did not know, the nearly 20-year-old “global war on terror” is at an end.
It has had some ups, downs, twists and turns, but it started in Afghanistan (or rather when the Taliban and al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan) and is ending in Afghanistan.
How will the end of this global war impact Israel’s own war on terror, which predates 9/11 and is nowhere near over?
The short answer is that the global war on terror gave Israel unprecedented cover to fight its own terror threats using aggressive measures, a luxury that Jerusalem will probably lose in part.
Those measures can involve anything from airstrikes on terrorists hiding in civilian areas that also unintentionally kill civilians, to enhanced interrogation and administrative detention of terrorist detainees, to the IDF’s separate West Bank Court system’s treatment of Palestinian minors, to how incidents like the mistaken shooting of special-needs east Jerusalem resident Iyad al-Halak are handled by prosecutors.
It certainly will not help Israel on any of these issues that the International Criminal Court is considering getting deeper into probing Israel for alleged war crimes and that there is a growing conflict between Israel and most of the West (other than the US) over potential annexation moves.
But before we get deeper into those issues, what is going on in Afghanistan?
IN FEBRUARY, after years of negotiations and false starts, US President Donald Trump’s administration signed a much-celebrated peace deal with the Taliban.
Though this peace deal did not guarantee good behavior by the Taliban, it set the stage for reduced fighting, a potential ceasefire, and most importantly for the US, an end to the Taliban link to al-Qaeda and to any future threat to the US homeland.
In exchange, the US was to withdraw a large number of troops from Afghanistan and move further toward a full withdrawal, or at least a full withdrawal of combat troops.
That was until last week when a UN report said, “The senior leadership of al-Qaeda remains present in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and groups of foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban,” estimating al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan contingent numbers around 500 strong.
“The Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties,” the report added.
The UN report said “al-Qaeda has been operating covertly in Afghanistan while still maintaining close relations with the Taliban.” Indeed al-Qaeda is “quietly gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under their protection.” The terrorist group is active in 12 Afghan provinces, mostly along the border with Pakistan.
According to the UN, the senior leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban meet regularly.
The report noted at least six such meetings in the past year, including one with the Emir of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri in February.
There are “deep personal ties (including through marriage)” between the two groups that date back decades, said the report, also noting that the relationship appears to have strengthened.
Despite this report, all signs are that the Trump administration will move forward with trying to wind down the US presence in Afghanistan, ending its presence in the country where the global war on terror started.
The fact that the US would pull out of Afghanistan when even the UN (often the UN is viewed as fudging facts in the opposite direction to make it seem like rogue actors are not so bad in order to prop up diplomacy) views the Taliban as breaking the deal by engaging with al-Qaeda, shows how badly Trump wants out of the war on terror.
Trump, and many Americans, are just tired. They do not want to hear about many of the world’s problems now if no one is bothering the US mainland. They may not even be interested even if someone might threaten the mainland later, as long as they are not doing so at this moment.
In the immediate term, Israel may have support from the US for its aggressive actions against terrorists simply because Trump does not give significant weight to the democracy part of balancing fighting bad guys and democracy.
But the US withdrawal signals that the US, and the world, may be fighting less terrorists. This will eventually mean a likely rewind to pre-9/11 when neither the US nor much of the West was forgiving of Israel when it fought terrorists with aggressive measures.
Of course, the war on terror morphed at some point mostly into the war against ISIS.
There as well, the US has already withdrawn significant troops from Syria, is in the process of withdrawing some from Iraq and may withdraw even more.
Trump mostly declared mission accomplished on the ISIS front after US forces killed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019.
In addition, the coronavirus wave accelerated the withdrawal of most of the anti-ISIS coalition European countries from Syria and Iraq. This left a much smaller global force and fewer countries on the frontlines of the fighting terrorists game.
Like Afghanistan, these troop withdrawals fly in the face of the facts on the ground.
ISIS is nowhere near the threat it once posed and does not control any significant territory.
Yet, its rate of attacks has escalated since the second half of 2019, with an estimated more than 100 attacks in April alone.
Also, it has been undertaking larger offensive and coordinated attacks on prominent targets like intelligence and military bases as opposed to mere guerrilla war in the periphery.
Put simply, however weakened, global troops are withdrawing as ISIS is back on the rise and nowhere near quietly exiting the stage.
US and other Western countries troop withdrawals are taking place despite military experts’ knowledge of these realities.
This is another sign the US and the West are exhausted from fighting terrorists as well as being distracted by the coronavirus wave.
ATTACKS FROM ISIS on Israel might gather a bit more sympathy from the West even as it withdraws. But a report last week by IDC’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism pointed out that ISIS’s much reported January threat against Israel has so far failed to translate into anything concrete.
If and when Israel must confront Hezbollah, Hamas or other Palestinian terrorists, the coronavirus wave may also accrue to Israel’s benefit with countries too busy with their own problems to pay much attention to Israel’s tactics.
On the flip side, the need to deal with coronavirus and the pulling out from all of the different fronts of fighting terror may make the US and the West more impatient with Israeli tactics as an unwanted distraction from global stability.
In addition, US president Barack Obama’s administration was less patient with some Israeli tactics for fighting terror than the Trump administration. A win by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden may lead to greater pressure on the issue even though he is pro-Israel in the broad sense.
One angle which might maintain sympathy for Israel is continued ISIS attempts to perpetrate terror attacks in Europe and elsewhere – attempts which the Mossad has sometimes played a key role in helping to thwart.
Very narrowly tailored and infrequent targeting killing attacks of arch-terrorists also may retain sympathy in the West.
However, to the extent that fighting terror is not a defining issue for the US and the West at this moment, sympathy for Israel’s complex dilemmas in balancing democracy and national security will likely wane.
Al-Qaeda is probably not actually leaving Afghanistan and ISIS is definitely nowhere near eliminated from Syria, Iraq and other spots.
But going forward in fighting terror, Israel may need to remember what it was like having to explain itself to the world before regular people learned what or where Kabul, Afghanistan was.