The Forever War Isn’t Over By a Long Shot

We may be out of Afghanistan but the 'war on terror' is likely to continue indefinitely.

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In “The Forever War is Dead. Long Live the Forever War,Defense One executive editor Kevin Baron argues that President Biden in continuing in

Deep into the commander in chief’s Tuesday speech to declare the end of the Afghanistan war—yet again—Biden also slipped in yet another recommittal of American forces to fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and anywhere else on Earth that leaders desire as part of the one forever war that matters most: the global war on terrorism.

Far from ending “forever wars;” the president vowed to perpetuate them. The global war on terrorism now belongs to Joe Biden.

How so?

“Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan—the longest war in American history,” Biden said on Tuesday. A few minutes later, he said, “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries.” 

This doubletalk is maddening. American political leaders are stuck in a loop of dishonesty about the U.S. military’s interventions and missions around the globe. The lines they are feeding voters from the campaign trail to the White House too often are lies of political opportunity. Pledges to end wars flow from their lips like promises of water just over the desert horizon. Yet in the next breath they pledge to be tough on terror, to send U.S. troops to serve, fight, and die fighting terrorists and extremist movements in foreign countries—even ones, like Afghanistan, where we lack the government’s permission.

This rhetorical dance was maddening when Donald Trump campaigned and governed with it, and it’s equally maddening when it comes from a foreign-policy veteran and lifelong leader like Biden. The fact is, the current president is as guilty as his predecessor in promising to end the forever war era, when in fact, nearly all of its conflicts have continued, will continue, and should continue in some form in perpetuity, as long as others threaten the security of the United States and its allies.

Now, one can argue about whether they should continue. It’s not at all obvious that America’s military-first approach to terrorism has made us safer. But, almost certainly, they will continue. It’s practically baked in at this point. Democratic Presidents, in particular, are worried about “looking weak” if they don’t use deadly force against our enemies.

Regardless, Baron is right here:

The unwillingness of politicians to tell the truth about the purpose, necessity, and reality of sending Americans overseas to fight has backfired. Instead of an electorate honestly educated about  national-security policy directions, our body politic is too often misled than led. And it feeds what many bipartisan national security leaders identify as our greatest national security threat of all: America’s partisan divide.  

He points to polling data showing that Americans both don’t much care about these issues and tend to go along with whatever the leader of their preferred party says, which he concludes means that the public can be persuaded of the necessity for keeping the war on terror going indefinitely if our leaders would simply lead. He’s considerably more bullish on what we achieved in Afghanistan and the War on Terrorism than I am. But we agree that the last several Presidents have been less than forthright about the commitment.

Oddly, for all his cherry-picking of evidence and misdirection in leading us into the Iraq invasion, George W. Bush was the most candid about the length of the commitment. As Gabriel Rubin documents, “From the outset, George W. Bush sought to link terrorists to a worldwide conspiracy and emphasized repeatedly that the war on terror would be a long one.” Even as late as his 2006 State of the Union address, he declared, “Our own generation is in a long war against a determined enemy — a war that will be fought by Presidents of both parties, who will need steady bipartisan support from the Congress.”

Barack Obama campaigned on getting us out of Iraq and, while he took great criticism for executing Bush’s already-negotiated timetable for exit, he mostly managed to do so. (We returned in the counter-ISIL fight that was, arguably, a direct result of the 2003 invasion.) But he not only surged in Afghanistan he vastly expanded the scope of the drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere while also sending special operations forces into countless countries precisely because they operate largely off of the public’s radar screen.

Trump had no obviously coherent policy but allowed the military brass nearly unfettered ability to continue this campaign. And there’s every indication thus far that Biden will follow suit.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security
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. Scott says:

    This is what frustrates me about this kind of discussion: the loose and sloppy use of words and language that leads to wrong actions.

    One, you can’t have a Global War on Terrorism. It is not a ‘war’ with defined enemies and defined objectives. You can’t even define the enemy. Are we talking just Islamic Jihadists? Chechens? IRA? Shining Path? Palestinians? Moros? Mau Maus? Red Brigades? Aryan Brotherhood? KKK? If so, which ones? Or are we talking about “freedom fighters” by a different name? It is so loose and amorphous as to be meaningless.

    Two, it never addresses the causes of terrorism or to whom it is directed at. 9/11 was conducted by Saudis. Why were we the target? Because we were, in their eyes, defiling by our presence, their land. That’s it. If we pulled out of the Middle East, I doubt the “terrorists” coming here.

    Third, we never identify why it is important to play a role. Is it economics/trade? Is it idealism? It really boils down to our being sucked into meddling into other country’s affairs. That’s why they hire lobbyists in Washington, to whisper in various ears, on why we should meddle and why it should be in our “interest”.

    It is hard with all the smoke and mirrors to really see through to what is in our interest.

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  2. Kathy says:

    Any government policy requiring troops and/or police labeled “War On” anything, is by definition of indefinite duration and most likely to produce meager and uncertain outcomes.

    If Biden ends or reduces these operations, and there’s a terrorist attack, even one carried out entirely within the US, you’ll never hear the end of it from the Orange Ass Party.

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  3. Tony W says:

    @Scott:

    An easy test: If the “war” name contains the word “on”, then it’s not a war.

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  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Our biggest terrorism problem is domestic.
    I suggest we start at home by holding the instigators of Jan. 6th accountable.
    This will significantly weaken the American Taliban.

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  5. JohnSF says:

    @Scott:

    If we pulled out of the Middle East

    And right there is your “Forever Problem”.
    You are not going to find it easy to disengage from the Middle East, no matter what you might wish.
    You can leave Syria and Iraq alone, shrug over whatever may happen in Egypt, etc.

    But the US is politically inextricably tied to Israel; and most Arabs, and increasing numbers of other Muslims, regard the Palestinian issue as a major one.
    As long as it festers, the resentment against the US will fester with it.
    And the consequences of some possible end-points of Likud policy could have unpleasnt consequences.

    Also, as long as the oil flows from the Gulf remain vital to the global economy (at least 25 years IMO), the US will have an interest there.
    Shut them down and the US goes into depression due to the impact on exports and investments, never mind the whole petro-dollar system.
    Even were you to pull out, the first hint of China replacing your role, either as patrons of the Saudis or sponsors of a successor state, would mean US forced to contest or to be irrevocably replaced as a Global Power, as everyone else talks terms with Beijing.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JohnSF:

    But the US is politically inextricably tied to Israel; and most Arabs, and increasing numbers of other Muslims, regard the Palestinian issue as a major one.

    I don’t think that’s true. Quite the contrary, the Arabs are happy to forget the Palestinians so long as they can leverage Israel against Iran – and also make some money and gain access to some tech. The overarching concern of the KSA is Iran and the possibility of Iranian nukes. Who is the hardest of hardcore opponents of Iran’s nuclear program? Those Jews with 200 nuclear weapons. Israel is Saudi Arabia’s nuclear shield.

    I think the reality is that the world, even the Muslim world, DGAF about Palestinians.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Drone warfare is precisely what we should be doing. We have the ability to strike anywhere on the planet without risking a single soldier or even spending much money. As for who we might target and why, that’s not very hard to figure out: any terrorist organization that threatens us or our international partners.

    Calling that a ‘forever war’ is nonsense. It’s the Israeli concept of mowing the lawn. Some bright spark decides to start a terror group to target us or our allies, we blow him up. If you don’t want to get blowed up, don’t start a terrorist group that targets us or our allies.

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  8. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    The Saudis certainly don’t (nor do the other ruling clans of the Gulf) but the House of al-Saud sits atop of a smouldering powder keg that’s only kept damped down by the the oil-welfare disbursements, and the social control role of the Wahhabi side of the ruling dyarchy.

    I would not like to bet overly heavily on the long-term future of the sheiks.
    As for nuclear shields; there’s another one in play.
    That of Pakistan, funded about 50% by Saudi Arabia.

    The Saudis do like back-ups to their back-ups.
    And Pakistani public opinion is a factor; one reason why Pakistan still refuses diplomatic recognition of Israel.

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  9. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Drone strikes require targeting; valid targeting can be tricky without local eyes.
    Smarter opponents have a whole variety of techniques for evading/spoofing electronic and satellite surveillance
    Plus you have the potential issue of overflight permissions.
    Ask for them and you target may, quite coincidentally, vanish.
    Don’t, and at in at least some parts of the world you have the risk of your drone being shot down by air defence nets.
    (Not an issue in say, Africa; a big one in parts of Asia.)
    Drones aren’t a magic bullet.
    The French have and use drone technology, but still find the need to use ground forces in the Sahel.

    The need for ground intelligence has other, and awkward, implications I’ll address later.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JohnSF:
    Only a fool would bet on Pakistan for anything. Certainly a missile launch out of Pakistan would light up every radar in India. And short of firing off a nuke Pakistan can do fuck all against hardened targets in Iran. So, if you’re MBS, and you think Iran is putting warheads on missiles, who you gonna call?

    I know drone strikes have limitations. I never believed any weapon system could promise zero collateral damage. They aren’t magic. OTOH, many of the limitations are self-imposed, precisely because we are always hoping to minimize collateral damage. But what do you think the odds are of a US strike against Al Shabaab in Somalia igniting outrage? Or a strike against Boko Haram in backwoods Nigeria? Or even in Venezuela? In many cases we’d be acting with the at least tacit support of local governments, or even with covert basing rights in neighboring countries.

    Also I’m using ‘drone’ very loosely to include any stand-off weapon that affords our people with near perfect safety.

    What do you see in every other action movie? Good guy has a gun on bad guy (or the reverse) and does what? He moves closer so bad guy can grab the gun and they can have a fight scene. We are the guy with the gun. We don’t need to monolog, we don’t need to get closer, we can just shoot from across the room.

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  11. Andy says:

    The war isn’t over in Afghanistan, nor is our participation over. It’s just not going to have an overt ground presence anymore.

    A lot will depend on how the relationship with the Taliban goes and if the resistance holed up in the Panjshir will get any traction.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It’s the Israeli concept of mowing the lawn. Some bright spark decides to start a terror group to target us or our allies, we blow him up. If you don’t want to get blowed up, don’t start a terrorist group that targets us or our allies.

    Having been part of this effort for a few years, I think that’s a good analogy. And it’s probably the least bad option currently if it’s used judiciously. But it needs to be viewed in context – it doesn’t actually solve anything and comes with objective downsides. Other efforts must be made to go after the terrorism problem from another angle.

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  12. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Only a fool would bet on Pakistan for anything

    True.
    But any actual deal between Riyadh and Islamabad will be a warhead transfer, not a launch.
    In which context the Saudi’s Chinese CSS-2 IRBM’s are suggestive; too much error to be conventional precision strike weapons, but if anyone knows the characteristics of the Pakistani warheads, it’s China.

    “short of firing off a nuke, Pakistan can do…”little

    Certainly; but can Israel guarantee a pre-emptive excision without nuclear weapons use? Maybe, maybe not.
    The periodic eagerness of some in Israel to get the US to disarm Iran suggests a degree of doubt.

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  13. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Sure drones, and other long range systems, are going to be a big part of your operation.
    But my main consideration wasn’t collateral damage: its finding your target in the first place.
    If they are smart, it can be very difficult unless you have local “eyes on” reports.

    And that, if the “eyes” aren’t yours, opens up a whole can of nasties.
    There are reports that in Afghanistan, local lords would quite often feed fake intelligence in the hope of getting an annoying local rival killed.
    Or the ISI would provide information on targets that were in reality just an unfortunate bunch of goat herds.

    But it gets worse: the Taliban (and ISI) may now have a perverse incentive to have IS-K or whoever attack you, in order that they can provide co-operation against them. For a very reasonable price.

    As to the potential for outrage for strikes on Boko Haram or whoever, how much has there been about the French drone strikes?
    Unlikely to be a factor.

    If you can see them, you can kill them.
    It’s the seeing bit that’s the tricky part.

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  14. Lounsbury says:

    @Scott: yes frankly it’s entirely analytically incoherent, war on abstract concept / phrase.

    @Michael Reynolds: Yes, it’s a missive from 1975. Sure most Arabs consider the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to be reprehensible. But not the core and key political issue of the region, whereas in the 1960s, 1970s, even 1980s one could reasonably say this was the case, or a very leading issue. However the lingering effective death of pan-Arabism… not really.

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  15. dazedandconfused says:

    So you thought President Joe Biden would end “forever wars.” Think again.

    Thus, Baron kicks off with a strawman. Who thinks ending US ground presence in Afghanistan was an ending of efforts to check radical Islamic jihadism? Nobody with half a clue.

    “Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan—the longest war in American history,” Biden said on Tuesday. A few minutes later, he said, “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries.”

    This doubletalk is maddening.

    More silliness. Since when has this “war” on terrorism been though of as strictly Afghanistan? I missed the memo. The double speak is indeed maddening, Mr. Baron. Please keep it between your ears, from whence it started.

    This shows what what the burr under his saddle really is, a terrible fear we might not give him and his industry something to bark about. Smell the fear of anything that merely suggests we might not :

    Another 20 years, in Afghanistan and beyond. No matter how Republican or Democratic presidents spin it, the forever war of counterterrorism operations against violent extremism will and must continue, likely throughout our lifetimes. Pentagon leaders always seem to know it. It may not be good politics to say so, but it certainly is more presidential.

    What he really wanted to write: “Our Presidents MUST keep yelling about this! They MUST!!”

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  16. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Drone warfare is precisely what we should be doing. We have the ability to strike anywhere on the planet without risking a single soldier or even spending much money.

    Absent ballistic flights that stay above 100 km, it seems that at some point no one is going to allow us overflight privileges. Saying “Bugger off, we’ll bomb targets in Afghanistan with platforms launched from the Indian Ocean if we want,” to Iran and Pakistan seems like an invitation for both of them to sign agreements with Russia for S-400 and successor systems.

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  17. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Scott: You know better Scott. So we cant do business internationally because a group of shitheads think we defile their lands? Their definition of us being in their land is broader than our military presence. Westerners being there in a capacity and not being subjugated by Muslims is the fullness of what they mean.

    Fuck that. Pulling our military and they wont attack us is a myth. The attack on the WORLD TRADE CENTER was deliberate messaging. Why would they target that if the military was their only beef? They could have selected ONLY military targets. The WTC was the prime and most dramatic target as well. Not Pentagon or White House

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  18. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Andy: We should have made a deal with the Taliban years ago. One that allowed both of us a narrative of having prevailed. They are not Terrorists in the Jihadist sense. Ive got nothing against them other that a few cultural practices I as a westerner consider disgusting. Beyond that, if they are willing to keep the grass mowed, we could easily provide them the support of the 5Ws to keep the Jihadis out.

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  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Jim Brown 32: We were attacked by Al Qaeda and somehow we ended up at war against the Taliban and Iraq.

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  20. JohnSF says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    Taliban cover quite a range; some are not averse to terrorism and are jihadi (Haqqanis) others are Islamist but rather conservative/isolationist, some are just Pushtun clan leaders, some are ISI proxies etc.
    Some Taliban are, or at least were, close to Al Qaeda. Others, not so much.
    They appear to be still using the Chechen fighters who certainly used to be AQ associated.
    The really funny thing is Al Qaeda and IS have merrily killed each other, at times.
    Doesn’t mean either are our friends.

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