2021-09-23 05:26:39 Biden Declared the War Over. But Wars Go On.

Biden Declared the War Over. But Wars Go On.

WASHINGTON (AP) — On Tuesday, President Biden told the United Nations that “for the first time in 20 years, the United States is not at war.” We’ve completed the chapter.”

A missile fired from an American drone the day before incinerated a car driving along a remote road in northwestern Syria, a strike aimed at a suspected Qaeda operative. Three weeks earlier, the military launched an airstrike in Somalia targeting members of the Shabab militant group, as part of an ongoing American air campaign in the country.

Although American troops are no longer stationed in Afghanistan, America’s wars continue.

Mr. Biden’s statement at the United Nations was meant to demonstrate that he had kept his promise to end America’s longest war, and it came on the same day that the last soldier to die before the American withdrawal from Afghanistan was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

But it was just the latest attempt by an American president in the two decades since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to muddle the language of warfare in order to conceal a sometimes inconvenient reality: America is still engaged in armed conflict around the world.

Mr. Biden listed all of the countries where American troops are fighting militant groups in a letter to Congress in June, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen, the Philippines, and Niger.

More than 40,000 American troops are stationed throughout the Middle East, including 2,500 in Iraq, more than 18 years after President George W. Bush ordered an invasion of that country. About 900 troops are in Syria as part of a mission launched by President Barack Obama in 2015, and Vice President Joe Biden has stated that he would direct the military to carry out future operations in Afghanistan against emerging terrorist threats, even if they are launched from bases outside the country.

“Our troops will not be returning home. We have to be honest about that,” Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, said during Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s congressional testimony this month. “They are simply relocating to other bases in the same region to carry out the same counterterrorism missions, including those in Afghanistan.”

The disintegration of the Islamic State, as well as the emergence of affiliates of the group in North Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, has provided military planners with justification to continue some of the operations described by Mr. Biden in his letter to Congress.

The majority of these deployments do not involve “routine engagement in combat,” according to the letter, but American troops “may be required to defend themselves against threats or attacks” in many places.

Pentagon data released in recent months show a consistent drumbeat of strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, despite the fact that each month only a handful of strikes are carried out.

Shadow wars fought with drones and special operations troops have become as much a part of post-9/11 history as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, American presidents have promoted their benefits to the American public in various ways, portraying them as cleaner, more antiseptic — what national security expert Micah Zenko refers to as “defining war down.”

Mr. Obama repeatedly stated his opposition to American “boots on the ground” in far-flung parts of the world, but his administration made exceptions for special operations forces, which sometimes resulted in American officials making linguistic contortions to minimize the combat role the troops would play.

When asked in late 2015 whether the decision to deploy troops to Iraq and Syria was a reversal of his “no boots on the ground” pledge, he responded that the American people understood what he meant by that pledge — “that we’re not going to do an Iraq-style invasion of Iraq or Syria with battalions moving across the desert.” The first group of 200 troops to deploy was dubbed a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” by the Pentagon.

Mr. Bush never had to speak publicly about the operations because they were carried out under the C.I.A.’s covert action authority when he gave a secret order in 2008 to launch a punishing drone campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

As a presidential candidate in 2016, Donald J. Trump expressed skepticism about the large, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but boasted about “bombing the hell” out of the Islamic State. Mr. Zenko claimed that he eventually “bombed every country that Obama had.”

Mr. Biden took office promising an end to “forever wars,” and he has steadfastly defended his decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan in the face of vehement criticism from lawmakers of both parties. However, administration officials have stated unequivocally that combat missions in other countries will continue, specifically those that do not involve large deployments of American troops or are subject to intense media scrutiny.

Some veterans disagree with such neat distinctions. “Everyone’s perspective on war is very different,” said Arizona Democrat and Iraq war veteran Representative Ruben Gallego. However, “from my perspective, there are people shooting at you, and that is considered war,” he added.

The administration has spent months attempting to create new rules governing how and when to conduct lethal strikes outside of declared war zones, an effort motivated by Mr. Biden’s team’s belief that the rules had become too lax during Mr. Trump’s four years in office.

However, the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government, as well as administration officials’ belief that Al Qaeda and other groups could gain strength in the country sooner than anticipated, has complicated this process. While White House officials initially intended to maintain tight control over military strike approval, in recent weeks they have debated giving military commanders more leeway to carry out strikes in Afghanistan and other countries where operations may be more frequent.

Four American presidents have embraced the new American way of war, in part because Congress has placed few restrictions on where it can be waged. The vast majority of American counterterrorism operations around the world are being carried out in accordance with a 20-year-old authorization Congress granted Mr. Bush to avenge the Sept. 11 attacks.

For years, top lawmakers have decried the fact that subsequent presidents have continued to use the 2001 resolution, known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, to justify operations against groups that did not exist at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. However, there has never been enough political agreement on Capitol Hill to repeal or replace the decades-old authorization.

Several administrations have also concluded that, unlike the unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public supports operations that appear to pose little risk to American troops. Until, of course, they generate disastrous headlines.

The most recent example was a botched drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, last month. What the military intended to be a strike against a militant planning a suicide attack — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called the operation “righteous” — turned out to be a disaster that killed what the Pentagon later admitted was an innocent man and his family.

The troops have now left Afghanistan, but the technology developed as a result of America’s longest war will live on.

“That drone strike in Kabul was not the final act of our war,” Mr. Malinowski testified before Congress. “Unfortunately, it was the first act of the next stage of our war.”

Catie Edmondson helped with reporting.

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Biden Declared the War Over. But Wars Go On.