The ugly scenes of the Taliban takeover and the US retreat from Kabul underscored an uncomfortable truth about foreign military adventures: If you bet big, you can lose big—and it had better be worth it. The war in Afghanistan wasn’t. Still, the barrage of indignation from establishment politicians and the mainstream media exposed their continued refusal to confront the real issue: that invasions and occupations invariably provoke resistance, rarely work, and are hardly ever worth the cost.
It remains an open question—though historically unlikely—whether Americans will learn from our Afghanistan debacle. The first test has already begun: Will Washington now dismantle the forever wars’ twisted legal architecture and march its remaining boots off Iraqi and Syrian ground? In July, President Biden made the announcement that the United States will soon end its combat mission in Iraq—but not really. The catch is that most of the 2,500 American troops in that country are staying put, simply reclassified as advisers and trainers. More bureaucratic trickery, more linguistic gymnastics, more endless war—20 years into America’s post-9/11 global crusade.
A month earlier, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the 2002 War Powers Resolution authorizing America’s Iraq invasion. Though a symbolically crucial step, the bill remains held up in the Senate. Should it pass, it could finally bring closure to a speculation that Secretary of State Colin Powell made in November 2002 to one of the authors of this piece, when he walked into Colonel Wilkerson’s office and said, “I wonder what will happen if we put half a million troops into Iraq and scour the country from one end to the other—and find nothing.” As it turned out, US troops found no weapons of mass destruction, the supposed justification for an ongoing war that has killed thousands of American soldiers and exponentially more Iraqis.
While one of us watched the march to war from inside the George W. Bush administration, the other was a cadet at West Point. After graduation, almost all of Danny Sjursen’s class were sent to Iraq. During the 2006-8 troop “surge,” his platoon was often rocked by roadside bombs while responding to sectarian killings or suicide bombings. The sights, smells, and visceral terror of such scenes vividly demonstrated the madness of the hybrid communal bloodletting and insurgency sanctioned by that 2002 resolution.
Historically, such authorizations have proved open-ended and expansive. This is particularly true of the Iraq authorization, which was later twisted to justify the Syria intervention—and still later the assassination of a top Iranian general under dubious legal circumstances.
As tragic as the Iraq invasion turned out—no WMD, the Levant aflame, and Iran empowered—Congress still wouldn’t cut its losses. Instead, it allowed four presidents to utilize an earlier and even more ambiguous post-9/11 authorization to wage a “global war on terror” with no limits in time and space. Incredibly, that authorization remains in force and was used to justify US support for the Saudi terror war on Yemen. Even so, Riyadh has essentially lost that now-stalemated conflict, while thousands of civilians in Yemen have died of cholera and starvation, the result of a cruel naval blockade choking off medicine and food.
In April 2019, Congress did vote to invoke the War Powers Act to halt US support for such horrors, but President Trump vetoed the legislation and a cowardly Congress failed to override him. In his first foreign policy address, President Biden admirably announced an end to American support for Saudi “offensive operations” in Yemen, but the caveat—continued support of Saudi “territorial integrity”—raised serious questions about just how dramatic this dramatic policy shift really is.
Furthermore, Biden’s unilateral—and congressionally unsanctioned—bombing of the allegedly Iranian-backed Iraqi militias inside Syria last February, and of Iraq and Syria in June, illustrate how alarmingly useful an AUMF is to satisfying the whims of presidents. (Although the United States launched missiles across international borders, White House press secretary John Kirby framed the strikes as “defensive” responses to rocket attacks on US bases.)
Both post-9/11 war authorizations illustrate Chekhov’s aphorism “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.” If presidents possess indefinite blank checks, they’re almost certain to use them, and American men and women will inevitably start dying.
Chekhov’s dictum also applies to the troops currently in Iraq and Syria. In a classic all-risk, no-reward scenario, the 2,500 service members in Iraq and 500 to 900 in Syria serve as little more than human trip wires or “rocket magnets” for local militias posing no threat to US security. When American casualties result, presidents feel pressure to retaliate and risk igniting a regional war.
It’s long past time to cut our losses; we cannot lose if we do not play. Still, resistance to repealing the war authorizations remains strong. Just before Biden’s June air strikes, Republican intransigents delayed a planned committee vote, demanding further consultation with diplomatic and national security “experts” before taking the 20-year-old authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) off the books. Predictably, these forever warriors trotted out their go-to threats—ISIS and Iranian bogeymen—that the original AUMF wasn’t even designed to include.
After two decades of not just mission creep but mission manufacture in Iraq (and Syria), calling for more delays stretches the English language beyond recognition—consulting “further” might as well mean consulting forever. We hope Congress passes, and Biden signs, an AUMF repeal soon, and then brings all the troops home before yet another American dies.