America’s Forgotten, And Forever, Wars
The Editors at The New York Times catalog the extent to which America’s military commitments around the globe have metastasized in the sixteen years since the September 11th attacks:
The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of 9/11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories. While the number of men and women deployed overseas has shrunk considerably over the past 60 years, the military’s reach has not. American forces are actively engaged not only in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen that have dominated the news, but also in Niger and Somalia, both recently the scene of deadly attacks, as well as Jordan, Thailand and elsewhere.
An additional 37,813 troops serve on presumably secret assignment in places listed simply as “unknown.” The Pentagon provided no further explanation.
There are traditional deployments in Japan (39,980 troops) and South Korea (23,591) to defend against North Korea and China, if needed, along with 36,034 troops in Germany, 8,286 in Britain and 1,364 in Turkey — all NATO allies. There are 6,524 troops in Bahrain and 3,055 in Qatar, where the United States has naval bases.
America’s operations in conflict zones like Africa are expanding: 400 American Special Forces personnel in Somalia train local troops fighting the Shabab Islamist group, providing intelligence and sometimes going into battle with them. One member of the Navy SEALs was killed there in a mission in May. On Oct. 14, a massive attack widely attributed to the Shabab on a Mogadishu street killed more than 270 people, which would show the group’s increased reach. About 800 troops are based in Niger, where four Green Berets died on Oct. 4.
The Times editors go on to note that the American people have accepted these missions and assignments in parts of the world that most of us have only limited awareness of at best and our involvement in conflicts that most of us are unaware of. I’m not sure that this is true, however. In reality, it seems to more be the case that most of these involvements are not unfolding in front of us on television the way the Iraq War did between 2003 and 2011, or the Persian Gulf War and Vietnam Wars before it. This has been especially true of the war in Afghanistan, which has received only limited press attention virtually from the time it started in October 2001 largely because of the fact that it is much more difficult for American news media to get reporters into the country, and more importantly into the areas where the fighting was taking place. Because this war wasn’t unfolding live on our television screens every day and the fact that casualty rates in Afghanistan have always been far below those we experienced in Iraq,
The same is even more true of the shadow wars taking place across the globe now that American forces have been committed, usually without the knowledge of the American people and, apparently, without the knowledge of members of Congress and the Senate. Quite often, as in the case of the apparent deployment in Niger that most Americans were unaware of prior to the October 4th incident that resulted in the death of four Green Berets, these deployments only become public when something goes wrong. Otherwise, they remain secret and the American people remain in the dark about what is being done in their name not only in nations like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but also in nations in Africa and elsewhere that most of us have never even heard of fighting a supposed enemy that neither the Defense Department nor the White House has even tried to identify. It’s because of this that Americans have developed what Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army Colonel who has become a critic of current American foreign policy calls ”a collective indifference to war [that] has become an emblem of contemporary America.” It’s not surprising that the American people are indifferent when the media isn’t covering the conflict and the government isn’t telling us about them.
The editorial goes on to argue that, due to the expanded nature of the so-called War On Terror, it is long past time for the part of the government that is supposed to represent the American people most closely, stepped up to the plate:
it’s time to take stock of how broadly American forces are already committed to far-flung regions and to begin thinking hard about how much of that investment is necessary, how long it should continue and whether there is a strategy beyond just killing terrorists. Which Congress, lamentably, has not done. If the public is quiet, that is partly because so few families bear so much of this military burden, and partly because America is not involved in anything comparable to the Vietnam War, when huge American casualties produced sustained public protest. It is also because Congress has spent little time considering such issues in a comprehensive way or debating why all these deployments are needed.
Congress has repeatedly ducked efforts by Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, and others to put the war against the Islamic State, which has broad popular support but no specific congressional authorization, on a firm legal footing. President Trump, like his predecessor, insists that legislation passed in 2001 to authorize the war against Al Qaeda is sufficient. It isn’t. After the Niger tragedy, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, has agreed to at least hold a hearing on the authorization issue. It is scheduled for Oct. 30.
Congressional inaction in this area is hardly a new development, of course. Since the end of World War II the United States has engaged in numerous military conflicts across the globe without a formal declaration of war as required by the Constitution, and in many cases has done so without the knowledge of most of the members of Congress except perhaps for those who serve as the Chairman and Ranking Member of a handful of Congressional Committees. The Korean War, for example, was fought pursuant to United Nations resolutions rather than any kind of real Congressional debate or authorization beforehand. The same was true of the numerous engagements in Central and South America that the U.S engaged in during the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War.We saw it again in 2011 when the Obama Administration committed American forces to intervene in the ongoing civil war in Libya without any Congressional debate whatsoever. Instead, the Administration claimed to have all the authorization it needed from a series of United Nations resolutions and Congress did nothing in response.
Even in those situations where there was a Congressional debate and vote on something that was arguably similar to a declaration of war, such as the Authorizations for Use of Military Force that were debated and passed by Congress in advance of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the authorization was so open-ended as to be essentially meaningless. For example, notwithstanding a legal argument that is at best dubious and at worst disingenuous, the government has taken the position that the ongoing operations against ISIS are authorized by the AUMF that was passed authorizing operations against al Qaeda and whoever else was responsible for the September 11th attacks. As I’ve argued before, see here and here for example, the connections between ISIS and al Qaeda are tenuous at best, and the fact that Congress has sat back and done nothing with regarding to the war against ISIS with the exception of routinely authorizing new defense spending going to a conflict that has never been specifically approved by Congress.
Now, as we find out that there are American forces engaged across the globe in conflicts that haven’t been fully explained to the American people, we find once again that Congress has been left out of the loop. The fact that these commitments are relatively secret and limited means that they are flying under the radar, and it’s only because of the tragic deaths of Sgt. La David Johnson and his fellow soldiers, and the controversy that has arisen in the wake of their deaths, that the American public even knows that this mission is taking place. There’s been little explanation of what the goals of these missions are, how many troops are committed and where they are committed, and what the measures of success or failure might be with regard to these missions. In the process, we are likely creating new enemies that we will be forced to deal with at some future date. The fact that the American people and their representatives are largely unaware of all of this is not only tragic, it’s downright criminal. It’s time for the Administration to start answering questions, and for Congress to start doing the job the Constitution gave it to do.