It’s Time for a Review of the Forever War

It’s been more than 5,000 days and the global conflict started after September 11 shows no sign of ending. Last week, the Pentagon released its latest National Military Strategy wherein Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggests that the military should effectively expect to be on a constant war footing. Indeed, the document discusses a Pentagon fighting a sustained global campaign against “violent extremist organizations (VEOs)” in order to defend US interests. But after nearly a decade and a half of war, there is debate over whether the US is fighting a well-defined set of enemies, or constantly shifting groups of people who owe allegiance to no state. Instead of going from conflict to conflict, battlefield-to-battlefield, racking up enormous body counts but seemingly few long-term victories, it’s time for the United States to have a national discussion about what it wants to accomplish with this enduring military campaign.

This discussion should be informed by a top-level review of the entire war on terror, consisting of a jointly convened (by the White House and Congress) group of independent experts examining every major aspect of the war. This could be similar to the creation of the 9/11 Commission, albeit with a different focus. These evaluators should have complete access to the programs they are tasked with investigating, including subpoena power and the full ability to investigate even the most highly-classified efforts. Their findings must be made public and published with an exceptional, possibly unprecedented, level of transparency. Finally, the review group’s recommendations must carry significant weight. This effort will take many months, or years, and its end result must not be a report that generates a small media tempest while changing nothing. The executive branch and Congress must take action based on the the panel’s recommendations. While this may be inconvenient, the United States’ shift toward permanent war could forever alter its fabric as a nation. A review such as this offers help steering that change.

This effort should start by identifying the goals as initially laid out in the months after the 9/11 attacks and the progress made toward those goals. As part of that evaluation, it should examine whether these goals will have any meaningful impact on the long-term security of the United States or whether they are unrealistic, counterproductive, or otherwise misguided.

The commission should then delve into all major military and intelligence programs that have become hallmarks of the campaign against terror. It should look at the lawfulness (international and domestic), effectiveness, and the costs associated with each of these efforts. All of this should be done in conjunction with an examination of the opportunity and fiscal costs this war imposes on other programs, initiatives, and challenges — both international and domestic. The review should conclude with a definition of victory and a hard-nosed assessment of what such a victory would cost, as well as what failure to achieve it would cost.

Easy starting points for programmatic examinations could include:

  • The US’s worldwide targeted killing programs, including but not limited to drone strikes.
  • Overt and covert military actions around the globe, in particular, the proliferation of hard security responses and whether these actions add to instability and extremism over the long term.
  • Domestic mass surveillance programs started or expanded after 9/11 and conducted by all members of the US Intelligence Community, including Cyber, signals intelligence, human intelligence, social media intelligence, and other programs.
  • Worldwide security assistance efforts, specifically, the impact of US-supplied weapons, intelligence, and training to various governments and groups around the world.
  • Domestic and international efforts aimed at countering violent extremism.
  • All aspects of the post-9/11 militarization of domestic law enforcement, from the use of sophisticated surveillance technologies to the use of military tactics and equipment by police.
  • Contractors’ roles in all of the above arenas.
  • All post-9/11 security-related legislation.
  • The entire legal structure surrounding counterterrorism activities.
  • All terrorism-related detention, rendition, and interrogation programs.

Each of these areas could be examined by a specialized sub-group, akin to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board or the Church Committee, tasked with a one- to two-year mandate to explore their relevant programs. Within six months of concluding their investigations, their findings would be reported to a parent group of experts tasked with producing the overall review one year after receiving reports from the smaller groups.

This entire process should also be informed by input from civil society groups and be open to thorough public scrutiny. As Sarah Knuckey said when calling for a transparent review of the US’s targeted killing program, “there should be nothing particularly contentious about a review like this.” The war on terror has and continues to alter both American society and the larger world in ways we may not fully understand. The United States, and the world it helps to shape, deserve a more well thought out approach to this most costly of endeavors. 

About the Author(s)

John Reed

Managing Editor of Just Security (2014-18). Follow him on Twitter (@ReedJustSec).