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Tag: forever wars

Are We Forever Captives of America’s Forever Wars?

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

As August ended, American troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, almost 20 years after they first arrived. On the formal date of withdrawal, however, President Biden insisted that “over-the-horizon capabilities” (airpower and Special Operations forces, for example) would remain available for use anytime. “[W]e can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground, very few if needed,” he explained, dispensing immediately with any notion of a true peace.

But beyond expectations of continued violence in Afghanistan, there was an even greater obstacle to officially ending the war there: the fact that it was part of a never-ending, far larger conflict originally called the Global War on Terror (in caps), then the plain-old lower-cased war on terror, and finally — as public opinion here soured on it — America’s “forever wars.”

As we face the future, it’s time to finally focus on ending, formally and in every other way, that disastrous larger war. It’s time to acknowledge in the most concrete ways imaginable that the post-9/11 war on terror, of which the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan was the opening salvo, warrants a final sunset.

True, security experts like to point out that the threat of global Islamist terrorism is still of pressing — and in many areas, increasing — concern. ISIS and al-Qaeda are reportedly again on the rise in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

Nonetheless, the place where the war on terror truly needs to end is right here in this country. From the beginning, its scope, as defined in Washington, was arguably limitless and the extralegal institutions it helped create, as well as its numerous departures from the rule of law, would prove disastrous for this country. In other words, it’s time for America to withdraw not just from Afghanistan (or Iraq or Syria or Somalia) but, metaphorically speaking at least, from this country, too. It’s time for the war on terror to truly come to an end.

With that goal in mind, three developments could signal that its time has possibly come, even if no formal declaration of such an end is ever made. In all three areas, there have recently been signs of progress (though, sadly, regress as well).

Repeal Of The 2001 AUMF

First and foremost, Congress needs to repeal its disastrous 2001 Authorization for the Use of Force (AUMF) passed — with Representative Barbara Lee’s single “no” vote — after the attacks of 9/11. Over the last 20 years, it would prove foundational in allowing the U.S. military to be used globally in essentially any way a president wanted.

That AUMF was written without mention of a specific enemy or geographical specificity of any kind when it came to possible theaters of operation and without the slightest reference to what the end of such hostilities might look like. As a result, it bestowed on the president the power to use force when, where, and however he wanted in fighting the war on terror without the need to further consult Congress. Employed initially to root out al-Qaeda and defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, it has been used over the last two decades to fight in at least 19 countries in the Greater Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Its repeal is almost unimaginably overdue.

In fact, in the early months of the Biden presidency, Congress began to make some efforts to do just that. The goal, in the words of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, was to “to ensure that the authorizations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars.”

The momentum for repealing and replacing that AUMF was soon stalled, however, by the messy, chaotic and dangerous exit from Afghanistan. Those in Congress and elsewhere in Washington opposed to its repeal began to argue vociferously that the very way America’s Afghan campaign had collapsed and the Biden policy of over-the-horizon strikes mandated its continuance.

At the moment, some efforts towards repeal again seem to be gaining momentum, with the focus now on the more modest goal of simply reducing the blanket authority the authorization still allows a president to make war as he pleases, while ensuring that Congress has a say in any future decisions on using force abroad. As Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), an advocate for rethinking presidential war powers generally, has put the matter, “If you’re taking strikes in Somalia, come to Congress and get an authorization for it. If you want to be involved in hostilities in Somalia for the next five years, come and explain why that’s necessary and come and get an explicit authorization.”

One thing is guaranteed, even two decades after the disastrous war on terror began, it will be an uphill battle in Congress to alter or repeal that initial forever AUMF that has endlessly validated our forever wars. But if the end of the war on terror as we’ve known it is ever to occur, it’s an imperative act.

Closing Gitmo

A second essential act to signal the end of the war on terror would, of course, be the closing of that offshore essence of injustice, the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (aka Gitmo) that the Bush administration set up so long ago. That war on terror detention facility on the island of Cuba was opened in January 2002. As it approaches its 20th anniversary, the approximately 780 detainees it once held, under the grimmest of circumstances, have been whittled down to 39.

Closing Guantánamo would remove a central symbol of America’s war-on-terror policies when it came to detention, interrogation, and torture. Today, that facility holds two main groups of detainees — 12 whose cases belong to the military commissions (2 have been convicted and sentenced, 10 await trial) and 27 who, after all these years, are still being held without charge — the truest “forever prisoners” of the war on terror, so labelled by Miami Herald (now New York Times) reporter Carol Rosenberg nearly a decade ago.

Through diplomacy — by promising safety to the detainees and security to the United States should signs of recidivist behavior appear — the Biden administration could arrange the release of the prisoners in that second group to other countries and radically reduce the forever-prison population. They could be transferred abroad, including even Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner tortured under the CIA’s auspices, a detainee whom the Agency insisted, “should remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

The military commissions responsible for the other group of detainees, including the five charged with the 9/11 attacks, pose a different kind of problem. In the 15 years since the start of those congressionally created commissions, there have been a total of eight convictions, six through guilty pleas, four of them later overturned. Trying such cases, even offshore of the American justice system, has proven remarkably problematic. The prosecutions have been plagued by the fact those defendants were tortured at CIA black sites and that confessions or witness testimony produced under torture is forbidden in the military commissions process.

The inadmissibility of such material, along with numerous examples of the government’s mishandling of evidence, its violations of correct court procedure, and even its spying on the meetings of defense attorneys with their clients, has turned those commissions into a virtual Mobius strip of litigation and so a judicial nightmare. As Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) put it in a recent impassioned plea for Gitmo’s closure, “Military commissions are not the answer… We need to trust our system of justice,” he said. “America’s failures in Guantanamo must not be passed on to another administration or to another Congress.”

As Durbin’s comments and the scheduling of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on closure set for December 7th indicate, some headway has perhaps been made toward that end. Early in his presidency, Joe Biden (mindful certainly of Barack Obama’s unrealized executive order on Day One of his presidency calling for the closure of Gitmo within a year) expressed his intention to shut down that prison by the end of his first term in office. He then commissioned the National Security Council to study just how to do it.

In addition, the Biden administration has more than doubled the number of detainees cleared to be released and transferred to other countries, while the military tribunals for all four pending cases have restarted after a hiatus imposed by Covid-19 restrictions. So, too, the long-delayed sentencing hearing of Pakistani detainee Majid Kahn, who pleaded guilty more than nine years ago, finally took place in October.

So, once again, some progress is being made, but as long as Gitmo remains open, our own homemade version of the war on terror will live on.

Redefining the Threat

Another admittedly grim sign that the post-9/11 war on terror could finally fade away is the pivot of attention in this country to other, far more pressing threats on a planet in danger and in the midst of a desperate and devastating pandemic. Notably, on the 20th anniversary of those attacks, even former President George W. Bush, whose administration launched the war on terror and its ills, acknowledged a shift in the country’s threat matrix: “[W]e have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within.”

He then made it clear that he wasn’t referring to homegrown jihadists, but to those who, on January 6 so notoriously busted into the Capitol building, threatening the vice president and other politicians of both parties -- as well as other American extremists. “There is,” he asserted, “little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home.”

As the former president’s remarks suggested, even as the war on terror straggles on, in this country the application of the word “terrorism” has decidedly turned elsewhere — namely, to violent domestic extremists who espouse a white nationalist ideology. By the end of January 6, the news media were already beginning to refer to the assault on lawmakers in the Capitol as “terrorism” and the attackers as “terrorists.” In the months since, law enforcement has ramped up its efforts against such white-supremacist terrorists.

As FBI Director Chris Wray testified to Congress in September, “There is no doubt about it, today’s threat is different from what it was 20 years ago… That’s why, over the last year and a half, the FBI has pushed even more resources to our domestic terrorism investigations.” He then added, “Now, 9/11 was 20 years ago. But for us at the FBI, as I know it does for my colleagues here with me, it represents a danger we focus on every day. And make no mistake, the danger is real.” Nonetheless, his remarks suggested that a page was indeed being turned, with global terrorism no longer being the ultimate threat to American national security.

The Director of National Intelligence’s 2021 Annual Threat Analysis noted no less bluntly that other dangers warrant more attention than global terrorism. Her report emphasized the far larger threats posed by climate change, the pandemic, and potential great-power rivalries.

Each of these potential pivots suggest the possible end of a war on terror whose casualties include essential aspects of democracy and on which this country squandered almost inconceivable sums of money while constantly widening the theater for the use of force. It’s time to withdraw the ever-expansive war powers Congress gave the president, end indefinite detention at Gitmo, and acknowledge that a shift in priorities is already occurring right under our noses on an ever more imperiled planet. Perhaps then Americans could turn to short-term and long-term priorities that might truly improve the health and sustainability of this nation.

Copyright 2021 Karen J. Greenberg

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author of the newly published Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press). Julia Tedesco helped with research for this piece.

Will The Forever Wars Become Forever Policy?

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

It ended in chaos and disaster. Kabul has fallen and Joe Biden is being blamed (by congressional Republicans in particular) for America's now almost-20-year disaster in Afghanistan. But is the war on terror itself over? Apparently not.

It seems like centuries ago, but do you remember when, in May 2003, President George W. Bush declared "Mission accomplished" as he spoke proudly of his invasion of Iraq? Three months later, Attorney General John Ashcroft proclaimed, "We are winning the war on terror." Despite such declarations and the "corners" endlessly turned as America's military commanders announced impending successes year after year in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, the war on terror, abroad and on the home front, has been never-ending, as the now-codified term "forever wars" suggests.

By 2011, following the death of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama admitted that the killing of the head of al-Qaeda would not bring that war to a close. In May 2011, he informed the nation that bin Laden's "death does not mark the end of our effort" as "the cause of securing our country is not complete." As President Biden signals his intention to bring the war on terror as we know it to an end, the question is: What will remain of it both abroad and at home, no matter what he tries to do?

The Pivot Abroad

As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looms, the Biden administration is making it crystal clear that it intends to finally bring the most obvious aspects of that war to a close, no matter the consequences. "It is time," Biden, the fourth war-on-terror president, said in April, "to end the Forever War." Although mired in controversy, turmoil, and bloodshed, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan did indeed take place, even if several thousand were then sent back to Kabul Airport to guard the panicky removal of the vast American embassy staff and others from that city. That was, as the administration announced, only a temporary measure as Taliban troops entered the Afghan capital and took over the government there.

Eighteen years after the invasion of Iraq, a shifting definition of the role of the 2,500 or so U.S. troops still stationed there is also underway and should be complete by the end of the year. Instead of more combat missions, the American role will now be logistics and advisory support.

Putting a fine point on both the Afghan withdrawal and the Iraqi change of direction, many in Congress have acknowledged the need to remove the authorizations passed so long ago for those forever wars. In June, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Force (AUMF) in Iraq that paved the way for the invasion of that country. And this month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee followed suit — 18 years after George W. Bush deposed Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and disaster followed.

The removal of that 2002 AUMF remains, of course, painfully overdue. After all, it has been used through these many years to cover this country's disastrous occupation of and attempts at "nation-building" in Iraq. Eventually, during Donald Trump's last year in office, it was even cited to authorize the drone assassination of a top Iranian general at Baghdad International Airport. Like so many war-on-terror policies, once put in place, successive administrations showed no urge to let that AUMF go. In that way, what had once been a regime-change directive (based on a set of lies about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq) morphed into a long-term nation-building scheme, without any new congressional authorizations at all.

Plans are also now on the table for the repeal of the even more impactful 2001AUMF, passed by Congress one week after 9/11. Like the Iraq War authorization, its use has been expanded in ways well beyond its original intent — namely, the rooting out of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Under the 2001 AUMF's auspices, in the last nearly two decades, the United States has conducted military operations in ever more countries across the Greater Middle East and Africa. But in Congress, what's now being discussed is not just repealing that act, but replacing it altogether.

Traditionally, when a war ends, there's a resolution, perhaps codified in a treaty or an agreement of some sort acknowledging victory or defeat, and a nod to the peace that will follow. Not so with this war.

However unsuccessful, the war on terror, experts tell us, will instead continue. The only difference: it won't be called a war anymore. Instead, there will be a variety of militarized counterterrorism efforts around the globe. With or without the moniker of "war," the U.S. remains at war in numerous places, only recently, for instance, launching airstrikes on Somalia to counter the terrorist group al-Shabaab.

In Africa, Syria, and Indonesia, experts warn, the continued spread of ISIS, the reinvigoration of al-Qaeda, and the persistence of groups like Jemaah Islamiyah demand a continued American military counterterrorism effort. All of this was, in a strange way, foreseeable in the drafting of the 2001 AUMF in which no enemy was actually named, nor were temporal or geographical limits or conditions laid down for the resolution of the conflict to come. As the war on terror's spread to country after country has demonstrated, once unleashed, such a war paradigm takes on a life of its own.

After 20 years of various kinds of failure in which the goals of the war on terror were never truly attained, the U.S. military, the intelligence community, and the Biden administration are now focused elsewhere. According to the latest government threat assessment issued in April by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), terrorism is far from the most serious threat the nation faces today. As Emily Harding of the Center for Strategic and International Studies sums it up, reflecting on the DNI's report, the intelligence community's priorities "are shifting… from a focus on counterterrorism to addressing near-peer competitors."

"The United States is transitioning," Harding explains, "from mostly low-tech, low-resourced adversaries (e.g., the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and their subsidiaries) to a focus on great power competition, in particular with China and Russia, both of whom have invested in sophisticated technical tools and are armed with robust conventional and nuclear forces."

Still, however much the Biden administration may be pivoting to a new cold war with China in particular, just how long such a pivot lasts remains an open question, especially given the recent Afghan disaster. And despite the coming 20th anniversary of 9/11, no matter what Congress does or doesn't rescind when it comes to those AUMFs, the U.S. forever war with terrorism will persist, even if, for a while, the threat of Islamic terrorism takes a back seat to other potential dangers in official Washington.

The Pivot At Home

On the home front, there's a similarly disturbing persistence when it comes to the war on terror. Like that set of conflicts abroad, counterterrorism efforts against Islamist terrorists at home have given way to other issues. Mirroring the reduced importance of international terrorism in the report of the director of national intelligence, for instance, Attorney General Merrick Garland recently highlighted a domestic shift away from Islamic terrorism in a memorandum to Department of Justice (DOJ) personnel.

Outlining the "broad scope" of the department's responsibilities, his priorities couldn't have been clearer. His first commitment, he insisted, was to restoring the integrity of the department, a clear reference to the DOJ's rejection of independence from the White House during the Trump years. Meanwhile, he explained, the Justice Department will focus on its primary mission — protecting Americans "from environmental degradation and the abuse of market power, from fraud and corruption, from violent crime and cyber-crime, and from drug trafficking and child exploitation." Only as a seeming afterthought did he add, "And it must do all of this without ever taking its eye off of the risk of another devastating attack by foreign terrorists."

But his words hid a more subtle reality. Much of the domestic architecture created in the name of the war on terror persists at home as well as abroad. At its height, the counterterrorism movement at home involved an expansive and aggressive use of law enforcement and intelligence tools that readily — often with the assent of Congress and the courts — tossed aside constitutional protections and reinterpreted laws in ways that privileged American security over rights.

Passed in October 2001, the Patriot Act, for example, downgraded Fourth Amendment protections, enabling law enforcement to conduct mass warrantless surveillance on Americans. Muslims as a group — rather than based on individual suspicion — were detained without charge, targeted in stings and terror investigations, and threatened with imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay.

During President Obama's term in office, some of these measures were revised for the better in the Freedom Act. Meant to replace the Patriot Act, while leaving many broad authorities in place, it banned the bulk intelligence collection of American telephone records and Internet metadata. For the most part, however, law enforcement's counterterrorism powers, created to defeat al-Qaeda, have remained robust and are there for use against others.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in the wake of 9/11, has also turned its attention elsewhere. Almost from its inception, the agency used the powers granted to it in the name of counterterrorism in other ways entirely. It soon turned its attention to dealing with drug crimes, the control of the border, and immigration matters, all outside the realm of post-9/11 terrorist threats.

Under President Trump, in particular, DHS (by then, remarkably enough, the country's largest law enforcement agency) refocused its resources on matters that had little or nothing to do with counterterrorism. During the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, for instance, its officials deployed helicopters, drones, and other forms of group surveillance to monitor protests and, in Portland, Oregon, even to quell them with force. In other words, the agency built for counterterrorism had, by then, become whatever a president wanted it to be.

A Call For Review

The future of such powers and policies at home and abroad is now in a strange kind of limbo. Addressing the Trump administration's misuse of the Department of Justice, for instance, Attorney General Garland did indeed signal his intent to limit any use of it for political purposes. In the process, he issued a clear directive against any possible White House politicization of the department. But not a mention has yet been made of authorizing a much-needed thorough review of the powers the DOJ gained in the forever-war years in the name of counterterrorism.

When it comes to the Department of Homeland Security, the path to reform is even less clear as, in its repurposed mission, counterterrorism aimed at foreign groups may be among the least of its tasks. As a recent report from the Center for American Progress points out, "What America needs from DHS today… is different from when it was founded… [W]e need a DHS that prioritizes the rule of law, and one that protects all Americans as well as everyone who comes to live, study, work, travel, and seek safety here."

In fact, in these years, both at home and abroad, counterterrorism agencies and the military were granted vast new powers. While they may now all be pivoting elsewhere in the name of new threats, they are certainly not focused on limiting those powers in any significant way.

And yet such limits couldn't be more important. It would, in fact, be wise for this country to pause, review the uses of the post-9/11 powers granted to such domestic institutions, and revise the policies that allowed for their seemingly endless expansion at home and abroad in the name of the war on terror. It would be no less wise to place more confidence in the country's ability to keep itself safe by embracing its foundational principles. At home, that would mean honoring fairness and restraint in the application of the law, while insisting on limits to the use of force abroad.

If only.

At present, it looks as if those forever wars have created a new form of forever law, forever policy, forever power, and a forever-changed America. And count on one thing: if changes aren't made, we in this country will find ourselves living forever in the shadow of those forever wars.

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author of the newly published Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press). Julia Tedesco helped with research for this piece.

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