Can Biden Overcome Accusations of Weakness With ISIS Raid?

The former vice president has witnessed two presidents successfully capitalize on daring raids against terrorist leaders that won broad approval at home. Yet his own achievement remains elusive.

President Joe Biden along with his supporters on Thursday appeared eager to capitalize on a much-needed national security “win,” touting his decision to risk the lives of American service members in a raid to kill the Islamic State group’s latest leader rather than risking Syrian civilian casualties with an airstrike.

The language the commander in chief espoused in brief remarks from the White House mirrored that of his two immediate predecessors, who ordered similar raids and boasted of their consequences – even as those for al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden in 2011 and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 offered far greater name recognition and cache than for the latter’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who was killed hours before Biden spoke Thursday morning.

Though his administration yearns to move beyond the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, which culminated in 13 dead Americans from an ISIS-affiliated attack, it remains unclear whether the latest news will prove consequential enough for the average American to believe in Biden – who considers himself a key player in the bin Laden raid – as the U.S. president who can protect them and the homeland.

“Last year’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan really hurt Biden’s brand of competence on security and more broadly on governing – his drop in the polls coincided with America’s unforced errors in Afghanistan,” Brian Katulis, the Middle East Institute’s vice president for policy, tells U.S. News.

“This raid will help restore some confidence, but the challenges Afghanistan may pose on the counterterrorism front may produce new challenges,” he adds. “Just like the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq resulted in the initial rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, some new challenges are already emerging in Afghanistan, and Americans will be impacted by how things evolve there.”

Some of the president’s most vociferous critics wasted no time in singling out the work of the U.S. commandos who carried out the violent and bloody raid while attempting to separate their achievements from Biden’s decision-making.

“These are dangerous missions against very dangerous and evil people. ISIS right now is growing once again. It’s trying to reconstitute itself inside of Afghanistan to target, not just American interests in the region, but to come after us here at home,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, once a darling of the Republican Party before the presidency of Donald Trump, said at an appearance on “Fox & Friends” on Thursday morning.

He quickly pivoted to a central GOP talking point: “It’s good to see raids like this. It’s concerning that we don’t have the ability to do the same thing in other parts of the world where ISIS can now be found and are organizing like in Afghanistan.”

Fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina issued a similar statement moments after the conclusion of Biden’s remarks with similar plaudits for the troops and even for the president’s decision to order the raid.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “the Biden Administration is deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to the growing radical Islamic threats emerging from Afghanistan and how a completely porous and unsecured southern border presents an opportunity for terrorism to make its way back to the United States.”

Those who have followed closely the threats from Islamic extremists facing the U.S. agree that Thursday’s news marks a severe blow to ISIS’ ability to carry out attacks against American interests in the Middle East and abroad – and serves a useful purpose in providing Biden’s domestic audience with a general understanding of his plans to protect them from foreign enemies.

The issue, however, is that the threat those enemies pose has only grown more complex.

“Eliminating the leader of ISIS is likely to give a boost to Biden’s credibility on security in the eyes of many Americans,” Katulis says. “Most Americans understand that there are dangerous terrorist networks in the Middle East, and actions like this tend to win support.”

Biden’s own national security officials have warned, for example, that ISIS could reconstitute and attack the U.S. within a matter of months.

“All in all, things are actually looking up for ISIS at the moment,” says Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior director of the Counter Extremism Project. “They were able to counter al-Qaida pressure in West Africa, integrate most of Boko Haram – by essentially destroying the competing faction in Boko Haram that remained independent – establish a new affiliate in Central Africa as well as increasing their activities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.”

“It would be risky to relax and take the death of al-Qureishi in combination with the slightly reduced number of terror attacks in Europe and the U.S. – mainly due to COVID restrictions reducing the soft target environment – as a sign that this is over or better. We are still very much in the middle of the fight here,” Schindler adds.

Others see Thursday’s raid as a successful demonstration of the “over the horizon” operations that Biden used as a central justification for withdrawing from U.S. bases in Afghanistan and that have come under intense scrutiny among those who don’t see how drone strikes can replace a U.S. presence in that particular hotbed of violence.

“This successful raid is important for two other reasons. First, it demonstrates that President Biden, who as vice president famously recommended against President Obama’s decision to send a team against Osama bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan, is now more willing to take such actions as president himself, with all of the accompanying risks,” William Wechsler, who served as a senior counterterrorism official in the Obama administration, said in an email.

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“Second, it suggests that President Biden will be willing to execute the potential ‘over the horizon’ counterterrorism missions that are now all that is really left of his Afghanistan policies,” he added. “It is only a matter of time before the Islamic State, [al-Qaida] and other similar groups operating in that country build the capacity and demonstrate the desire to conduct external attacks. Given the distances involved, such operations will be even more challenging and risky than the one just conducted in Syria.”

Thursday’s raid shows that Biden “was willing to accept the risks today, and the positive outcome from that decision, increases the likelihood that future decisions will be made dispassionately and with resolve,” said Wechsler, now senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs.

“I think the raid is marginally useful to deflect criticism about leaving Afghanistan undermining counterterrorism,” says Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at the non-interventionist think tank Defense Priorities. “It shows that Biden was right that we can do raids in areas where we don’t have ground forces. That said, I think that criticism is almost entirely bad faith attacks so it won’t matter much.”

“What should matter to this criticism is that al-Qaida long ago more or less ceased to meaningfully function in Afghanistan, the Taliban are at war with ISIS-K,” he adds, referring to the group’s Afghanistan offshoot, “and terrorism aimed at the United States isn’t emanating from Afghanistan under Taliban rule.”


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