When President Joe Biden told world leaders this week that he had ended America’s era of insurgent wars, his statement stood in sharp contrast to the protracted military missions that have left the United States mired in low-intensity conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Biden pledged to launch a new period of “relentless diplomacy” after the war in Afghanistan, and turn his attention to Asia after two decades of counterterrorism campaigns launched in the aftermath. September 11 attacks. “I’m here today without America being at war for the first time in 20 years,” Biden said. “We have turned the page.”
Yet more than 3,000 US military service members are deployed to bases across Iraq and Syria, engaged in a lengthy mission against the Islamic State that exposes them to dangers such as drone and rocket attacks.
In Somalia and Yemen, smaller corps of Special Operations troops act in coordination with local forces as part of darker missions against Al-Qaeda-linked fighters, while periodic drone strikes in those countries demonstrate the might of the US since the air.
In Afghanistan, officials are refining their plans to carry out what they call “over the horizon” counterterrorism bombings if a terrorist threat emerges in the country that sheltered Al-Qaeda and now hosts a affiliate of the Islamic State.
The validity of these conflicts was evidenced this week when a US aircraft attacked a suspected Al-Qaeda target in northwestern Syria.
Stephen Pomper, a former official during the Obama administration and now chief of policy at the International Crisis Group, says that Biden’s desire to get away from wars is understandable because Americans are tired of the financial and human costs.
“The reality is that the United States is nowhere near ending these wars,” he said. Biden’s statement to the contrary is just “good policy,” he said, “but I’m afraid it’s not going to be good governance.”
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on rules set by the administration, said Biden’s mention of “turning the page” refers to the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“Although ending the war in Afghanistan represents a historic culmination of 20 years of American politics, the president made it clear that it fits perfectly” with the need, as Biden explained in his speech, to confront today’s terrorist threats, the official wrote in an email.
Although Biden referred to security alliances, financial tools, and economic development projects as means of dealing with extremist threats emerging abroad, he made no mention of missions in place in places like Iraq and Syria, where the number The combined US troop number exceeds the number of troops that were stationed in Afghanistan when Biden made the decision to withdraw.
“We will confront the terrorist threats that arise today and in the future with a set of tools that we have at our disposal, including working in cooperation with local allies so that we are not so dependent on large-scale military deployments,” Biden said in his speech. .
The president’s first presentation to the UN General Assembly comes at a time when he is trying to refocus government resources on domestic priorities, amid deep political division and the coronavirus pandemic. In foreign policy, Biden has also been willing to submit to shame by taking steps to secure the US strategy in its competition against China, as he did with a new agreement in which he shared highly sensitive technology with Australia, causing rejection. from France.
Biden’s political challenges are mounting as he faces setbacks in Congress over his handling of Afghanistan, where the Kabul government fell to the Taliban after US troops withdrew and a US evacuation effort had to be improvised. which was marked by violence and disorder.
The president has repeatedly defended his policy around Afghanistan, arguing that the withdrawal was necessary even if it was an uncomfortable decision after 20 years of war. Officials have said far less about the ongoing counterterrorism missions in at least five countries that are carried out away from the public eye.
Except for occasions when US troops have been injured or killed, low-intensity campaigns have not been subject to as broad legislative oversight as that accorded to campaigns in Iraq or Afghanistan at their peak.
Critics have questioned the notion that the United States can actually end insurgent wars while continuing bombardments from a distance, underscoring disagreements over how to define whether the United States is at war or engaged in hostilities.
Although Pentagon officials have highlighted that the focus of current military missions is on supporting local allies, US forces have sometimes been caught up in deadly shootouts as happened in Yemen and Niger in 2017.
Andrea Prasow, deputy director for Washington at the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, commented that the congressional response to the deadly US bombing of Kabul that killed 10 civilians, including several children, may indicate a change in that dynamic as the risks of the “behind the horizon” strategy to contain extremist threats in Afghanistan and elsewhere dominate public attention.
The United States has long had to deal with collateral damage to civilians resulting from its bombings. Although the Pentagon took steps during the Trump administration to revise the rules around setting targets for operations, the recent bombing in Kabul, in which officials mistook a U.S. aid agency employee for a state militant Islamic, it highlights the risks of deadly mistakes.
“The Aug. 29 bombing is leading many lawmakers to question the long-term strategy,” Prasow said.
Although White House aides are evaluating counterterrorism policies, including protocols for drone bombing, military officials say there is no indication that Biden will announce significant changes to current operations in the near future.
That includes the operation of the facilities at Guantanamo Bay, where 39 inmates remain. Although the administration has announced its goal of closing the prison, there are still a number of obstacles, and it is unclear how much political capital Biden will spend on it.
Meanwhile, the prison continues to be a global symbol of America’s excesses in the post-9/11 era.
“It is impossible to complete the era of eternal wars without closing #Guantanamo,” Wells Dixon, defense attorney for one of the prisoners, said via Twitter.
In addition to this, the Biden administration, like its predecessors, has used a 2001 legal justification, known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, as the basis for its continued insurgent operations. .
Administration officials have not yet decisively insisted on repealing this 2001 measure, suggesting that they also prefer to maintain the status quo that gives them relative freedom to use military force abroad.
Pomper said that Biden’s claim about ending America’s wars could be even more problematic in that it reduces the chances of meaningful public talks that could actually lead to the completion of those missions that he and many Americans would like to see completed.
“The question of whether the United States is at war or not deserves to be openly debated,” he said. If we give a simple review of what is happening, “we could actually be perpetuating eternal wars,” he emphasized.
Karoun Demirjian of the Washington Post contributed to this report.
Missy Ryan writes on diplomacy, national security, and the State Department for the Washington Post. He joined the Post in 2014 to write about the Pentagon and military affairs. He has reported from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and Chile.
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