Assailed for the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, Joe Biden was unrepentant: “I was not going to extend this forever war.” And he promised, “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
The American people agreed; despite the unending barrage of elite criticism, a majority continues to support troop withdrawal. As the 20-year misadventure ended, Americans reeled from a growing new threat, as fires spread across California, storms battered New Orleans, and floods took lives in New Jersey and New York and elsewhere. Could Biden’s remarks suggest that the United States will finally turn its attention and resources to what he correctly called the “existential threat” of climate change?
Would that it were true. In fact, as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the War on Terror—of which Afghanistan was only one theater—is alive and ongoing.
Even as Biden rightly defended the withdrawal, he doubled down on the commitment to the Global War on Terror, promising a “tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy that goes after Terror where it is today.” Today, he explained, “the terror threat has metastasized across the world,” naming threats in Somalia, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS’s “establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia.” For those who “wish harm” to America or its allies, Biden vowed, the US will “hunt you down to the ends of the Earth.” As an exclamation point, Biden authorized two strikes targeting ISIS in Afghanistan, one of which reportedly killed Afghani civilians and children.
The administration is continuing the strategy that emerged under Obama, as, in the words of Hal Brands and Michael O’Hanlon, armchair strategists based at Johns Hopkins and Brookings, the United States “failed its way to counterterrorism success.” In what they dub the ”medium footprint strategy,” large-scale deployments of American troops and nation building are out. Drone bombings and agile US Special Forces are in. Obama expanded the war on terror dramatically but quietly. He lawyered up, inventing legal rationale and procedures that provided a fig leaf for preemptive strikes. His intelligence chiefs like John Brennan peddled the lie that drone strikes were remarkably precise. The president even reviewed assassination targets each week. Obama ended dropping 10 times the drone bombs that Bush did. “Turns out I’m really good at killing people,” he quipped, “Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”
Over the last three years, US military forces were active in some 170 countries, engaged in counterterrorism in 79 countries, and conducted drone strikes in seven. One problem, Brands and O’Hanlon admit, is that the strategy doesn’t produce victory or build legitimate governments. It is, they suggest, “akin to what Israeli leaders call “mowing the grass.” By lowering the visibility, minimizing US casualties and costs, the wars can be and still are being waged routinely—and forever.
This strategy, ironically, is essentially the same as the fallback position embraced by retired spooks and generals, neoconservatives and hawkish Democrats in opposition to the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Biden’s powerful rejoinder to their call for continuing a “low-risk war” indicts the entire strategy: “There’s nothing low-grade or low=risk or low-cost about any war.… We can see that in the statistic that should give pause to anyone who thinks war can ever be low-grade…18 veterans, on average, who die by suicide every single day in America.”
Waging forever wars across the world has had poisonous effects on America, even beyond the cost in lives and money. The executive now asserts the right to dispatch troops and drones across the world, to target assassinations—even against an American citizen—preemptively. Or when, in the words of Obama’s lawyers, “elongated imminence” of a threat can justify the use of force.
Maintaining the forces, weapons, and material of a global “war on terror” as well as contending with what both Trump and Biden now denote as the central threat posed by great-power competition with China and Russia requires an enormous, permanent military-industrial-academic complex. The US military budget now constitutes nearly 40 percent of global military spending, yet Republicans and hawkish Democrats have just announced that that is not enough, pushing to add another $25 billion to the budget this year.
That vote came after defense contractors spent $57 million lobbying members of Congress in the first half of 2021 alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. OpenSecrets reports that the top five weapons firms spent over $1.1 billion on lobbying between 2001 and 2021, as well as $120 million in federal campaign contributions, and bankrolling hawkish think tanks. During the same period, they pocketed $2.2 trillion in military contracts, an obscene return on their investment.
The revolving door between lobbies, think tanks, contractors, and the Pentagon not only enriches the national security establishment but distorts our debate, as we witnessed in the offensive the “Blob” launched on Biden for his temerity to take the troops out of Afghanistan.
Combine presidential prerogative, national security secrecy, incestuous military-industrial assignations, wars without end or victory, and the result necessarily is pervasive fraud, corruption, and lies. Sole=source contracts ensure lavish profits. The Pentagon books are too complicated to audit. Trillions are squandered on weapons too baroque to work. And from the Pentagon Papers in Vietnam and the Afghanistan Papers today, we learn that lies are pervasive and deception is routine. The insiders knew we were failing in Afghanistan and lied routinely. And if the lying is pervasive in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan where there are reporters, imagine what levels it reaches in the corners of the earth where there are none.
President Obama summarized the reality, even as he expanded the war: “In the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war—through drones, Special Forces or troop deployments—will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways.”
Now, climate change poses a real, clear and present danger. Yet there is no effort to mobilize and rally the country, no reorganization of the government, no call to service. In his Afghanistan defense, Biden summarized the “new world” we face, naming China, Russia, cyberattacks, and nuclear proliferation. He argued that “we can do both: fight terrorism and take on new threats.” Climate change went unmentioned.
Joe Biden deserves praise for pulling the troops out of Afghanistan, and for calling out the warmongers who flood our TV screens and opinion columns. But 20 years after 9/11, the War on Terror continues in more countries and continents, with more bombs, with continued casualties at home and abroad. There are no victories; our democracy is the loser.