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How America Can End Its Endless War

Put simply, the endless war can't end until the U.S. stops waging it across two continents.

David Sterman sharpens the definition of endless war and defends using the phrase to describe ongoing U.S. military actions overseas:

Recognizing the meaning of endless war is essential to challenging the bipartisan rhetoric that portrays the term as simply referring to the presence of U.S. troops in different countries rather than the broader state of war – whether or not airstrikes are occurring or troops are carrying out operations in any particular moment. Embracing the concept also holds an important policy lesson for the incoming Biden administration: that the United States should abandon its stated objective of defeating and destroying al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist terrorist groups. This goal exists somewhere between an unachievable objective and an incoherent one.

U.S. forces have been engaged in hostilities in many other countries almost without interruption since the fall of 2001. Even when there is a brief lull in hostilities in one theater or another, the U.S. remains on a war footing as long as the 2001 AUMF is on the books to be stretched and misinterpreted as broadly as the president wants. As we have seen recently with the (temporary?) Somalia withdrawal, the troops may be relocated to a different country in the same region but the war continues. Put simply, the endless war can’t end until the U.S. stops waging it across two continents.

Sterman defines endless war this way:

Wars take on an endless character when two conditions are met: First, when a belligerent adopts objectives while lacking the capability to achieve said objectives. Second, when, despite the inability to achieve its objectives, the belligerent is also not at risk of being defeated itself. Where these two conditions hold over a prolonged period of time with no clear possibility of change in sight, endless war emerges.

The U.S. cannot be defeated by any of the groups that it targets overseas, but neither can it achieve what it defines as their “enduring defeat.” Setting the goal of “enduring defeat” as the goal in the war on ISIS becomes an excuse to keep fighting in Iraq and Syria indefinitely. Just as ISIS grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, some other group will probably grow out of the remnants of ISIS. It is possible that groups like these will never vanish, but it is clear that endless warfare cannot eliminate them. We need to learn to accept that terrorism is a minor threat that has to be managed rather than a major threat to be defeated by force. By exaggerating the importance and power of terrorist groups, the U.S. has helped to wreck many countries when these fights had nothing to do with our security.

The fundamental mistake that the U.S. made after the 9/11 attacks was to define counter-terrorism as a war. Thinking of it in terms of waging war further biased policymakers towards military action as the “answer,” and it also gave the president extraordinary latitude to order attacks all over the world as part of an open-ended campaign against an ever-growing list of enemies. The only way that Congress can hope to claw back its proper role in matters of war is if they repeal the 2001 AUMF and refuse to grant the president such sweeping authority in the future.

As long as the same authorization is in place and the main U.S. goals remain the same, reducing the number of troops here or there is insufficient in bringing the war to an end. Sterman continues:

It is important that those who talk about endless war not fall into the trap of assuming that troop withdrawals are permanent or that the return of troops constitutes a new war when it pursues the same objectives under the same authorizations that justified previous uses of force.

If we are going to put a stop to endless war, we have to reckon with the failure and futility of the “war on terror” over the last twenty years. It is a war with an unreachable goal, and there are more jihadist terrorist groups in more places as a result of this war than there were when it began. Like other government “wars” on things, the “war on terror” has produced more of what it was supposed to combat. The U.S. has spent two decades making more enemies in many countries, and it is no closer to achieving its unrealistic goals than it was in the first few months of fighting. It is time to recognize that a militarized response to terrorism doesn’t work and imposes enormous costs on both the U.S. and the countries where the war is waged.



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