US Retaliates Against ISIL-K

An unsatisfying first(?) response.

President Biden promised the perpetrators of the Islamic State attack that killed thirteen American servicemembers in Kabul that “We will hunt you down and make you pay.” He didn’t wait long to carry out the threat but, if this is the entirety of the US response, it’s unimpressive.

The details are scant at this point but BBC‘s report (“Afghanistan: US says drone strike killed IS-K planner“) is the most comprehensive I’ve found:

The US military says it believes it has killed a planner for the Afghan branch of the Islamic State group in a drone strike in the east of the country.

The suspected member of the IS-K group was targeted in Nangarhar province.

[…]

Capt Bill Urban of Central Command said: “The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”

He described it as an “over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation”.

A Reaper drone, launched from the Middle East, struck the militant while he was in a car with another IS member, killing them both, an official told Reuters news agency.

Most of IS-K’s several thousand extremists are believed to be in hiding in the province, east of Kabul.

So, terrorists killed thirteen Americans and dozens of innocent civilians and we’ve retaliated by blowing up one car with a “planner” and some other dude? That’s a tradeoff they’d take again and again. Hell, they sacrificed at least one person in the suicide attack itself.

UPDATE: Another report in The Hill (“Pentagon says 2 ‘high-profile’ ISIS targets killed in strike“) provides more details on the initial strike:

The Pentagon said Saturday that the U.S. military strike the day before killed two “high-profile” ISIS targets and wounded a third in the first known U.S. military action since Thursday’s deadly suicide bombing at the Kabul airport.

Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Staff for regional operations, described the two targets in a press briefing as “planners and facilitators.”

[…]

U.S. Central Command initially said Friday that an “over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation” had killed a single target, described as an “ISIS-K planner.”

However, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in the briefing Saturday that “as the assessments and information flowed over time, we were able to recognize that another was killed as well and one wounded.”

When asked if the strike was part of ongoing anti-terrorism efforts or an action in retaliation for Thursday’s bombing, Kirby acknowledged it was “a little bit of both.”

“We have the ability to conduct over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities,” he said, adding, “It’s not a coincidence that it happened just a couple of days after we lost 13 brave service members.”

A more recent story by POLITICO‘s Lara Seligman (“‘Guidance is to just do it:’ Military expects additional retaliatory strikes on ISIS-K“) indicates that this is, indeed, just the opening salvo.

The U.S. military is actively hunting terrorists connected to the deadly attack in Kabul this week and expects to carry out additional airstrikes in the coming days and weeks, according to U.S. officials.

President Joe Biden has given the Pentagon the “green light” to strike any targets affiliated with the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, ISIS-K, the group responsible for the attack, without seeking White House approval, according to three U.S. officials with knowledge of the operation.

Senior Pentagon leaders already had this authority, but Biden reaffirmed it in instructions to the military on Friday, one of the officials said.

The president’s “guidance is to just do it,” the person said. “If we find more, we will strike them.”

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    It depends. Is this it, or more like the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in WWII?

    If you really want to screw these guys, send them trump.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy:

    Is this it, or more like the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in WWII?

    I don’t think anyone needs convincing at this point that they’re in the range of American airpower. If this were a targeted strike on the command element, I would get it. But some random planner? I’m not sure I’d even bother announcing that.

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  3. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:
    Isn’t one of the things that makes terrorism so heinous is that retaliation is inherently unsatisfactory? The direct actor is already dead, if there is a “command element” they are for all practical purposes an unknown fanatic drawn from a seemingly bottomless pit of fanatics, there is no headquarters to flatten, and there are no depots of military assets to blow to smithereens.

    Would it have felt better if this planner were called the mastermind of the attack instead?

    Also too, “in the range of American airpower” is one kind of message, while “within a matter of hours, we can find you in your car and destroy you with a robot from the sky” is another.

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  4. wr says:

    @Scott F.: “Would it have felt better if this planner were called the mastermind of the attack instead?”

    They should have done what Republican administrations do and called him the second-in-command of Isil-K.

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  5. a country lawyer says:

    You seem to imply that this strike is a “one and done”. The attack on the Marines demanded a quick response and I expect that the target hit was the only one which could be quickly identified and struck. It was as much as anything a statement that although the ground forces are being withdrawn we will continue to retaliate when attacked. More targets will follow.

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  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    What would qualify as a “satisfying” response to you?

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  7. HarvardLaw92 says:

    A good opening move. More is required.

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  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So, terrorists killed thirteen Americans and dozens of innocent civilians and we’ve retaliated by blowing up one car with a “planner” and some other dude? That’s a tradeoff they’d take again and again. Hell, they sacrificed at least one person in the suicide attack itself.

    James, I love how you explain the futility of “tit for tat” while expressing a desire for more of the same.

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  9. Chip Daniels says:

    I was kinda hoping that the lesson we take away from our twenty year debacle is that foolishness of grounding our foreign policy in adolescent revenge fantasies.

    Maybe we need to have our asses beat some more. I hope not, but maybe that’s the only language we understand.

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  10. JohnSF says:

    @Chip Daniels:
    Revenge is the foundation of international order.

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  11. Teve says:

    Capt Bill Urban of Central Command said: “The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”

    He added, “this was a completely pointless operation, but Americans are morons who’d rather blow foreigners up than have healthcare, so whaddya gonna do? G-T-L! G-T-L!”

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  12. Teve says:

    I was kinda hoping that the lesson we take away from our twenty year debacle is that foolishness of grounding our foreign policy in adolescent revenge fantasies.

    I’m sure, at different times, the same thought was shared by Assyrians, and Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, Byzantines…

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  13. Teve says:

    I would add the British, but the sum total of my knowledge of British history is the collected works of P.G. Wodehouse.

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  14. Jim Brown 32 says:

    James,

    This guy was probably all they had on the target list that was immediately accessible and had all the requisite collateral damage blocks for his location checked.

    Because we have ripped all our assets out–responses are going to take alot longer to complete the process for the green light to strike. Contrary to what the liberal media would have people believe–there is a process designed to minimize mistakes and civilian casualties. We don’t operate like the wild west.

    There will be more retribution–but the military staffs running operations right now aren’t focused on targeting–literally all hands are on deck to close out the evacuation operations. It might be a few weeks before they can pivot back to developing a more satisfying target set.

    The silver lining is this will be the first imperative to drive the discovery learning that will inform our “over the horizon” CT approach and refine it to shorten the kill chain.

    Much like the negative incentives for social media–Terrorists aren’t going to get a lot of love from funders by attacking local targets in the middle east or other muslims. They need external attacks against the West to get the money rolling in. These groups have been laying low in Afghanistan awaiting this moment–the Taliban cannot deny Afghanistan as a planning and training safe haven to Jihadist groups. We’ll need the ability to trim the weeds from somewhere outside of Afghanistan but it’ll take a little practice and trial and error.

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @a country lawyer: @HarvardLaw92: As noted in both the subhead and the lede, I hold out hope that there are more moves to come.

    @Scott F.: @Stormy Dragon: @Chip Daniels: Allowing a terrorist group to get away with murdering a baker’s dozen American servicemembers and dozens of civilians with a slap on the wrist is a bad look. I’m not suggesting that we reorient our entire foreign policy around retaliation but more than this is warranted. I would expect a broader degradation of their command and control capabilities, at a bare minimum.

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  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    There will be more retribution–but the military staffs running operations right now aren’t focused on targeting–literally all hands are on deck to close out the evacuation operations. It might be a few weeks before they can pivot back to developing a more satisfying target set.

    I was surprised we had a target lined up on such short notice, and also surprised Biden did not wait til the evacuation was over. Evidently we were pretty sure the Taliban were not going to be upset by us killing this guy.

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  17. JohnSF says:

    @Teve:

    I would add the British…

    Churchill after the bombing of Coventry:

    “They have sown the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind.”

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Chip Daniels:

    foolishness of grounding our foreign policy in adolescent revenge fantasies.

    I wouldn’t count on anyone picking up on that. Especially not here. 🙁

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  19. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Evidently we were pretty sure the Taliban were not going to be upset by us killing this guy.

    Taliban may have been the source if the intelligence.

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  20. JohnSF says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    The big question is how are the ISI going to move.
    I think they really don’t want anti-West and/or anti-Arab regime fanatics screwing things up this time around.
    If they make up their mind excision is required, they are certainly going to be in a position to pass along intelligence and even targeting.
    And they may not even ask too high a price, given their own agenda.

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  21. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Revenge fantasies are futile; actual revenge is not.

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  22. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    I would expect a broader degradation of their command and control capabilities, at a bare minimum.

    You mean like attacking the people in charge of their planning?

    So what’s your actual complaint here? That the entire organization hasn’t been rolled up within 24 hours of the attack?

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  23. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I don’t know that I have a complaint. I simply observed that this strike alone was hardly a deterrent and expressed a hope that more would be forthcoming. It appears that it will.

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  24. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Evidently we were pretty sure the Taliban were not going to be upset by us killing this guy.

    The Taliban and ISIS-K have been fighting for ages.

    There is some reporting that we have been de facto providing air power for the Taliban in that particular fight for several years — no direct agreements, but hitting ISIS-K when the Taliban ground forces were in a position to press that advantage.

    Now we actually have direct contacts with the Taliban, coordinating the withdrawal and evacuation, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were providing us information on our common enemies.

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  25. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:
    I’m in support of further response. I’m just not expecting any response to serve as a much deterrence and I’m suggesting that damaging a terrorist organization’s “command and control capabilities” to be something like Whack-a-Mole and therefore ultimately unsatisfactory from a retribution perspective. It’s the nature of the foe.

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  26. JohnSF says:

    @Gustopher:
    It is factions.
    Some elements within the Taliban are in conflict with IS-K; others are not.
    The Taliban are no more a homogenous, centrally managed, rules-based operation than is Afghanistan itself.
    Taliban have killed IS-K (and vice versa) but the Haqqani Network is an element in the Taliban coalition and has in the past had quite amicable relations with IS-K.

    The main problem is going to be reliable intelligence. If you rely on the Taliban you are likely to run in the same problem US/NATO has had for yers, but with new labels on.

    “Taliban” local forces commander (in fact, the head of one local clan group who has been busy muscling out local rivals) identifies a camp of “IS-K militants” for an airstrike (in fact the pestiferous younger son of a rival landlord, who has been disputing the local pasture ownership).

    That’s why the ISI may be a more reliable source of targeting intelligence: more detached from local squabbles.
    Usually.
    As long as involvement of some of their factions in the heroin trade isn’t in play.

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  27. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.: Exacting a high price changes the risk calculus. I have no illusions that we can defeat ‘terrorism’ writ large but we degraded the crap out of core al Qaeda and the original ISIL And tit for tat beats long term nation building.

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  28. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Gustopher:

    There are already reports of the CIA meeting with the Taliban. The Taliban have a country to run, they don’t need loose cannons starting trouble.

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  29. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Not really a surprise, we know whos who and drones are always providing overwatch over our people so if you have some current intel that can be validated, its nothing to revector it for a strike.

    Also, dont assume this was a US asset either….we have capable partners.

    Hopefully Biden has sidelined the White House Staff that got him is this mess and is giving more weight to recommendations by the professionals running this on the ground. A quick strike was necessary to show we can kill and evacuate at the same time. It will buy us some time as Terrorist cells revalidate their own protection posture. All we need is a few days.

    My gut feeling is that ISIS-K and Haqanni in the same boat as we are…they have 1 maybe 2 ops up their sleeve and theyve blown their load. This is an environment where everyones head is on a swivel so no one is completely free to go all in on any one mission. All these groups are trying to set the battlespace geometry and deny their adversary advantage within it at the same time.

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  30. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Sleeping Dog: You would be surprised how deep the rabbit holes can go in things like this. Wouldn’t be surprised if the “real” deal with the Taliban was for them to provide on ground human sourcing for intel on these other groups in exchange for being left alone if they moderated a couple of their more extreme practices.

    This would basically be a veiled “weakest tribe” gambit which I felt was warranted in the first place. Other than denying them spiking the football, I dont have anything against the Taliban. If they can keep order and stop raping children…let em.

    I would have taken a deal like that myself. But its a deal that can never be revealed if it was made or the Taliban would lose legitimacy.

    God I miss being in the fray….

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  31. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @JohnSF: I think they have 90% of the same goals we do there. They’d probably like the area a tad more destabilized than we’d like it…but they have to make tradeoffs. If it gets too destabilized, they don’t want a bunch of CT ops in their backyard and border areas…so they need a slightly stronger Taliban that can either swack problem groups themselves or who will facilitate their swacking.

    Interesting times

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  32. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: You want to hurt them? Follow the money. It’s not as satisfying as blowing shit up, but it is a whole lot more productive.

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  33. JohnSF says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Southern Afghanistan is opium poppy central; about 75% of the global supply.
    Billions of dollars a year.
    Money is the least of their problems.

    Especially as Holy War is quite cheap, all things considered.

    What little money they get from external sources can be processed largely outside the modern western-centric digital banking.
    Letters of credit between traders, or the gold merchant networks from the Gulf to Karachi, can get the job done well enough.
    The Arabian Sea region mercantile links are centuries old and highly resilient.

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  34. JohnSF says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    They also have the problem that if they let groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba get too frisky, they now have a BJP government in India that is inclined to punch back.
    Pinpricks in Kashmir may be one thing; Mumbai 2 another.

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  35. dazedandconfused says:

    If I were leading the Taliban I would not want to put myself in a position of being the guy who rats out to the CIA under any circumstances. I would be compromised. The CIA could threaten to broadcast I work with them secretly.

    I would want us, the Taliban, to take out ISIL all by ourselves and see no reason to think we need any help. If the CIA wants to help they must use the ISI as a buffer.

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