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Is the new national security strategy ending or merely pausing 'forever wars'?

The president has made some tentatively positive moves on drone strikes and AUMF. But let's take a deeper look.

Analysis | Washington Politics

The Biden administration has recently taken a number of steps as part of an effort to end America’s so-called “forever wars.” In that vein, the Daily Beast and the New York Times report that on January 20, the administration initiated a review of America’s counterterrorism drone operations outside areas of active hostilities like Afghanistan and Iraq that requires White House permission to conduct strikes. 

Then on March 3, the White House released its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which read in part, “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars.’” Finally, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told Politico that the administration wants to replace the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Do these steps point the way towards an end to America’s endless counterterrorism wars? In a recent report for New America, I present a framework for analyzing endlessness in America’s wars, which can help answer the question. The main finding: endlessness is at its core about objectives and their achievability. Wars become endless when a belligerent pursues objectives it cannot achieve but is also not at risk of being defeated or denied access to the battlefield.

Let’s apply that framework to the steps the Biden administration has taken.

The Drone Review

The drone review and resultant pause in strikes are a welcome step. But by focusing on the question of objectives, it becomes clear that the review also holds the potential to entrench the wars. 

According to our data at New America, the Biden administration has conducted at most one strike in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia since it took office. The strike  in Somalia, however, was likely misattributed as a U.S. strike by local reporting. AFRICOM explicitly denied carrying it out. Airwars, which also tracks strikes, has identified a few other reports of U.S. strikes in the African nation, but, given the reported requirement for high- level approval, the lack of clear high-profile targets, and AFRICOM’s denial that it conducted the strikes, they are also likely misattributed. Even if these were U.S. strikes in Somalia, the pace of strikes seems to have declined.

The review is looking at potentially reinstituting at least some of the transparency measures that the Obama administration put in place and that its successor subsequently reversed.

However, these steps, though promising, do not constitute ending endless war. They have not come with a stated change in objectives. According to the New York Times, “Officials characterized the tighter controls as a stopgap while the Biden administration reviewed how targeting worked.” As I wrote in my report, “without a clear statement of American objectives, a reduction or pause in the use of military force that signifies the end of a war cannot be meaningfully distinguished from a pause that merely denotes a tactical adjustment.” Indeed, the U.S. has paused and restarted strikes before, including in Yemen and Pakistan.

While the suggestion of greater transparency is promising even in the absence of an end to the war, it is concerning that the administration is considering maintaining some of Trump’s looser rules. 

The Obama era presidential policy guidance was already starting to fray before Trump took office, and advocates should not assume that simply returning to that guidance is the best route to ending the wars. That risks confusing the number of air strikes with what really determines whether a war is endless: the achievability of objectives. The war in Yemen initially involved relatively few strikes, but nonetheless set the stage for later escalation. As I wrote in 2019, “Returning to the transparency measures implemented at the end of the Obama administration and expanding them provides a basic foundation. But the question of if and how the candidates assess the wars ... differently from the Trump administration ... is where the rubber really hits the road.”

Advocates should welcome the review and hope any adjustments to the Obama era rules maintain a guiding principle of “a high threshold for action,” as Luke Hartig, who helped craft Obama's guidance, puts it. One sign of an effective review would be the publication of a full accounting of strikes conducted under the Trump administration. But as Hartig also urges, the administration must also ask whether the wars make sense and how to wage them so they don’t go on forever. That requires a discussion of objectives.

The Interim Guidance

The administration’s Interim strategic guidance helps provide a sense of its objectives. It commits to ending the “forever” wars. That commitment is a sign of the influence of movements calling for this for some time. However, Biden in the past has defined forever wars in ways that militate against bringing Washington objectives in line with the achievable. As a candidate, he wrote in Foreign Affairs, “It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure. As I have long argued, we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission.” But then he continued to define that narrower mission as "defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS).” In doing so, he proclaimed an unlimited and likely unachievable objective almost certain to result in endless war.

Commendably, the interim guidance seems to have eschewed the rhetoric of defeat. It uses the word only once. Instead it defines more limited aims that do not require destroying al Qaeda or ISIS. To wit: “We will work with our regional partners to ... disrupt al-Qaeda and related terrorist networks and prevent an ISIS resurgence, address humanitarian crises, and redouble our efforts to resolve the complex armed conflicts that threaten regional stability.” These objectives still tend towards the expansive and transformative, but are more achievable than destroying the two groups altogether.      

Advocates should welcome the more circumspect rhetoric and urge the administration to explicitly abandon the language of defeat and define the    measurable contours of its limited objectives more precisely.

AUMF Revision

It is promising that the White House is seeking to revise and narrow the        2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. However, as my New America colleague Dr. Alexandra Stark writes, “replacement bills must be carefully written so that they are not in practice as expansive as the existing AUMFs.” As Stark notes, key indicators of an effective narrowing include the presence of sunset provisions and the requirement of an affirmative vote to add associated forces that can be targeted. 

Any new authorization will also have to come with a meaningful review of the aims of the war and whether they are achievable. After all, the call for a new authorization is not new. As he prepared to leave the presidency in December 2016, President Obama warned “Democracies should not operate in a state of permanently authorized war. That’s not good for our military, it’s not good for our democracy.” Yet that awareness did not stop the Obama-Biden administration from continuing America’s counterterrorism wars.

Overall Assessment

There is much to be thankful for in the recent steps. Even interim improvements in transparency and the conduct of wars can be stepping stones towards ending endless war. But only if people continue to demand an answer to the core question:  what are the objectives this administration will pursue via war and how can they be achieved in a way that does not require constant application of violence. The steps so far give room for hope but they do not yet supply an answer.

U.S. Air Force ground crew secure weapons and other components of an MQ-9 Reaper drone after it returned from a mission, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. (REUTERS/Josh Smith/File photo)
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