It ended in chaos, America’s almost-20-year disaster in Afghanistan. But is the war on terror itself over? Apparently not. Remember when, in May 2003, President George W. Bush declared “Mission accomplished” as he spoke proudly of his invasion of Iraq? Three months later, Attorney General John Ashcroft proclaimed, “We are winning the war on terror.”
Now, nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, Joe Biden – the fourth war-on-terror president – is bringing the most obvious aspects of that war to a close, no matter the consequences. “It is time to end the Forever War,” he said.
Eighteen years after the invasion of Iraq, a shifting definition of the role of the 2,500 or so U.S. troops still stationed there is also underway. Instead of more combat missions, the American role will now be logistics and advisory support.
Putting a fine point on both the Afghan withdrawal and the Iraqi change of direction, many in Congress have acknowledged the need to remove the authorizations passed long ago for those forever wars. In June, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Force (AUMF) in Iraq that paved the way for that invasion.
The removal of that 2002 law remains painfully overdue. Plans are also now on the table for the repeal of the even more impactful 2001 AUMF, in which no enemy was actually named, passed by Congress one week after 9/11. Like the Iraq War authorization, its use has been expanded in ways well beyond its original intent – namely, the rooting out of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Under the 2001 AUMF’s auspices, in the last nearly two decades, the U.S. has conducted military operations in ever more countries across the Middle East and Africa.
Traditionally, when a war ends, there’s a resolution, perhaps codified in a treaty or an agreement of some sort acknowledging victory or defeat, and a nod to the peace that will follow. Not so with this war.
However unsuccessful, the war on terror is likely to continue. The only difference: It won’t be called a war anymore. Instead, there will be a variety of militarized counterterrorism efforts around the globe. With or without the moniker of “war,” the U.S. remains at war in numerous places, for instance recently launching airstrikes on Somalia to counter the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
Domestically, there’s a similarly disturbing persistence when it comes to the war on terror – look at the Patriot Act of 2001 that downgraded Fourth Amendment protections, enabling law enforcement to conduct mass warrantless surveillance on Americans. While some of its authorities were eliminated, some were maintained with the Freedom Act of 2015.
The future of such powers and policies at home and abroad is now in a strange kind of limbo. At present, it looks as if those forever wars have created a new form of forever law, forever policy, forever power and a forever-changed America.