Last month, President Donald Trump said the following about the threat from the Islamic State: “We did a great job. … We have 100 percent of the caliphate, and we’re rapidly pulling out of Syria. We’ll be out of there pretty soon. And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems — along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We’re 7,000 miles away.”
In other words, the Islamic State has been largely defeated and no longer represents a direct threat to our country. Let other, closer countries handle the faraway problem.
That has always been the false promise of isolationism — that distance can shield us from the threats in the world. It did not work for those who argued in the 1930s that the oceans could protect us from Nazi Germany. And it will not work in the 21st century in confronting the global threat of terrorism.
According to U.S. and Iraqi military and intelligence officers and a Defense Department inspector general report, the Islamic State is gathering new strength, conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria, retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits. The terrorist group has mobilized as many as 18,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. As a key part of their fundamental goal — control of a worldwide Islamic state — these terrorists relentlessly target the United States and other Western nations.
To abandon our efforts to fight and contain the Islamic State and other terrorists is an open invitation for them to reestablish a base of operations from which to launch attacks against our country.
The attack on 9/11 was a wake-up call for the United States. We went to war against the leadership of al-Qaida to make sure an attack like that would never happen again. NATO and other allies joined us in the fight.
Special forces were deployed using intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities. Working with allies in the region, we were able to develop improved security and intelligence operations that were critical to protecting their nations and ours. But to make these operations credible required a strong support system and a clear commitment that the United States would be there to help.
Whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, the United States must remain focused on not allowing terrorists the opportunity to establish a base of operations from which to attack our country. The simple truth is that we cannot trust the word of terrorists. Thus, the first principle of U.S. policy used to be never to negotiate with them. But if we do, we certainly cannot assume that they will do what they promise. Any agreement with terrorists will fail without a comprehensive plan of enforcement supported by the United States and the security forces of the country involved. The ultimate goal is to establish governments that can govern and secure themselves. But that will not happen without U.S. leadership and support. We do this not just for their security but also for our own.
We learned a bitter lesson in 2011 when we completed the withdrawal of all our forces from Iraq. That left the Islamic State free to establish a caliphate that was the size of Britain and control the lives of up to 12 million people. We were forced to send troops back into Iraq and Syria to destroy the caliphate. We should not make that same mistake again.
Of course, it would be nice if other nations took care of this problem for us. But they never have and never will. The last issue of concern to Iran, Russia, Turkey and Iraq is the national security of the United States. The responsibility for protecting our own country belongs to us and nobody else.
We have made progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan in promoting social, political, security and humanitarian gains. We know that these challenges are difficult and that terrorists will continue to disrupt these efforts. But to simply withdraw our forces and abandon any responsibility in the fight against terrorism is to jeopardize our own security.
This month, a U.S. Marine Raider, Gunnery Sgt. Scott Koppenhafer, 35, was killed in northern Iraq during an operation with local forces — the first American killed in combat in Iraq this year. It is tragic when we lose the life of any American serving their country. But Koppenhafer was fighting an enemy that, if given the opportunity, would be willing to brutally kill thousands of innocent Americans. The choice is not between fighting or leaving. The choice is between protecting our country or pretending that the threat has gone away.
Yes, we have been fighting wars for too long since 9/11. But because of that fight and U.S. leadership, we have been able to protect the United States from another major terrorist attack. Unfortunately, that fight is far from over, and to pretend that it is could be a prescription for disaster.
Panetta served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2011 and as defense secretary from 2011 to 2013.