Despite the two-decades old “global war on terror” largely fading from the front pages, the United States continues to prosecute a sprawling armed conflict against al-Qaeda and its “associated” and “successor” forces, including ISIS. Just in the last few years, U.S. troops have engaged in counterterrorism-related activities in at least 85 countries, and have had a combat role in at least eight countries. In justifying continued U.S. counterterrorism operations, including detention at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. officials maintain that the armed conflict stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks is ongoing. President Joe Biden’s declaration that the United States was no longer at war following its withdrawal from Afghanistan was, at best, premature. Indeed, while large-scale ground combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have ceased, the Biden administration has made clear it remains poised to increase “over-the-horizon” operations in the form of drone strikes and special operations raids.
Why does the United States remain at war in so many places? What objectives does the Biden administration seek to achieve through the use of force that it could not achieve through other means? Do the legal bases for the use of force continue to hold decades after the attacks that precipitated these wars? Perhaps most fundamentally, how do these wars end? Are there now viable policy alternatives to the use of lethal force in an armed conflict context that could achieve U.S. security goals? And what are the consequences of remaining on a perpetual war footing?
This week, Just Security is launching a new series, “Still at War: Where and Why the United States is Fighting the ‘War on Terror,’” to provide an opportunity for policymakers, experts, and the public to reflect on these fundamental questions. The series will include essays on Yemen, Somalia, West Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
The vast majority of U.S. counterterrorism operations in these places, and others across the globe, have taken place in secret, outside the realm of public debate. Prior to the killing of four U.S. soldiers in ISIS attacks in Tongo Tongo, Niger, most Americans – and even some members of Congress – were unaware that the United States was involved in combat there. A similar lack of public accounting holds true for the U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria that periodically come under attack from Iranian-backed militia groups. In this series, we hope to shed light on what is at stake in each of these conflict zones and why the United States remains engaged in the fighting.
As it completes its long-awaited counterterrorism review, the Biden administration must address these issues. From a strategic perspective, it is undeniable that the United States faces a different security landscape than it did in the years immediately following 9/11. While the threat of transnational terrorism persists, al-Qaeda and other groups capable of mounting large-scale attacks in the United States have been largely defeated militarily. At the same time, the war in Ukraine, great power competition with Russia and China, the rise of illiberalism, domestic violent extremism, climate change, and the spread of infectious diseases represent pressing security challenges. Faced with this multiplicity of threats, the United States cannot afford to devote limited resources to open-ended conflicts with nebulous security or foreign policy goals. Understanding what the United States seeks to achieve through its counterterrorism wars, and how they might be drawn to a close, is more imperative than ever.
As we continue to grapple with the legacy of 9/11 and the path ahead, we invite readers to revisit our related series, “How Perpetual War has Changed Us: Reflections on the Anniversary of 9/11,” “Reflections on Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal,” and the “Fog of Law.” For additional background, readers may want to peruse Luke Hartig’s “Five Principles to End the Forever War,” Rebecca Ingber’s “Legally Sliding Into War,” and Brianna Rosen’s “The Longest War is Over the Horizon.”
The symposium includes the following essays on:
Yemen, by Luke Hartig and Oona Hathaway, published here.
Somalia, by Oona Hathaway and Luke Hartig, published here.
The Sahel, by Brian Finucane, published here.
Afghanistan, by Laura Dickinson, published here.
Syria, by Tess Bridgeman and Brianna Rosen, published here.
Iraq, by Crispin Smith, published here.