WASHINGTON — President Biden told the United Nations on Tuesday that “for the first time in 20 years, the United States is not at war. We’ve turned the page.”
A day earlier, a missile was fired by an American drone burned a car driving along a remote road in northwestern Syria, an attack aimed at a suspected Qaeda operative. Three weeks before that, the military launched a air raid in Somalia targeting members of the militant group Shabab, part of a US air campaign in that country that has intensified in recent months.
There are no more American troops in Afghanistan, but the American wars continue.
Mr Biden’s claim at the United Nations was intended to show that he had kept his promise to end America’s longest war, and his speech came on the same day the last soldier to die before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
But it was only the latest attempt by a US president in the two decades since the September 11 attacks to massage the language of warfare to mask an sometimes inconvenient reality: that America is still embroiled in armed conflict across the globe. world.
In a letter to congress in June, Mr. Biden listed all the countries where US forces operate against various militant groups — from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and the Philippines to Niger.
More than 40,000 US troops are stationed in the Middle East, including 2,500 troops in Iraq, more than 18 years after President George W. Bush ordered an invasion of that country. About 900 troops are in Syria on a mission started in 2015 by President Barack Obama. .
“Our troops are not coming home. We need to be honest about that,” New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski said in a congressional statement this month from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. “They just move to other bases in the same region to carry out the same counter-terrorism missions, including in Afghanistan.”
The breakup of the Islamic State — and the rise of the group’s affiliates in North Africa, Asia and elsewhere — has given military planners a justification for continuing some of the operations Biden described in his letter to Congress.
The majority of this deployment does not include “routine combat deployment,” the letter said, but in many places, U.S. troops may be “required to defend themselves against threats or attacks.”
Pentagon data released in recent months shows a consistent drumroll of attacks against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even if it’s less than a handful of strikes a month.
The shadow wars fought with drones and special operations forces were just as much a part of post-September history. 11 era as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But US presidents have variously promoted their benefits to the American public, portraying them as somehow cleaner, more antiseptic — what national security expert Micah Zenko calls “defining war.”
Mr. Obama has repeatedly said he opposed US “boots on the ground” in distant parts of the world, but his administration made exceptions for special operations forces that sometimes led US officials to make linguistic distortions to understand the combat role the troops would play. play to downplay Play.
Then at the end of 2015 pressured by a reporter When asked whether the decision to deploy troops to Iraq and Syria was a reversal of his “no boots on the ground” promise, he replied that the American people knew what he meant by that promise – “that we will not destroy Iraq.” style invasion of Iraq or Syria with battalions crossing the desert.” The Pentagon called on the first group of 200 troops to “deploy a specialized expeditionary force.”
When Mr. Bush issued a secret order in 2008 to launch a punitive drone campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, he never had to speak publicly about the operations because they were conducted under the CIA’s covert action authority. .
As a presidential candidate in 2016, Donald J. Trump spoke skeptically about the great, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but used rambunctious language about how he would “bomb hell” on the Islamic State. Finally said Mr. Zenko that he has “bombed every country that Obama had”.
Mr Biden came to power pledging to end “eternal wars” – and has vigorously defended his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan despite scathing criticism from lawmakers on both sides. But government officials have made it clear that combat missions in other countries will continue, namely missions that do not require a large deployment of US troops or that do not receive intensive attention from the news media.
Some veterans don’t see such neat awards. “Everyone has a very different perspective on war,” said Deputy Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and a veteran of the Iraq War. But, he added, “from my perspective there are people shooting at you, that’s considered war.”
The government has spent months trying to forge new rules governing how and when deadly strikes should be carried out outside declared war zones — an effort born of Mr Biden’s team’s belief that the rules had been relaxed too much during the four years of the lockdown. Mr Trump in office .
But the rapid collapse of the Afghan government — and the belief among government officials that Al Qaeda and other groups could gain momentum in the country faster than originally anticipated — have complicated this process. While White House officials originally envisioned strict control over the approval of military strikes, in recent weeks they have debated giving military commanders more leeway to carry out strikes in Afghanistan and certain other countries where operations could be more frequent.
Four US presidents have embraced the new US way of waging war in part because Congress has placed so few limits on where they can wage it. Most of the US counter-terrorism operations around the world are conducted using a 20-year-old authorization that Congress gave to Bush to avenge the September 11 attacks.
For years, top lawmakers have denounced the fact that subsequent presidents have continued to use the 2001 Resolution Authorizing the Use of Military Force to justify operations against groups that didn’t even exist when the September 11 attacks happened. But there has never been enough political consensus on Capitol Hill to revoke or replace the decades-old authorization.
Several governments have also concluded that – unlike the unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the American public generally favors operations that appear to pose little risk to US forces. Until they produce disastrous headlines.
A failed drone strike last month in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, was the latest example. What the military meant as an attack on what officials said was a militant who planned a suicide bombing — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called the operation “just” — became a debacle that killed what the Pentagon later acknowledged was an innocent man. and his family.
The troops have now left Afghanistan, but the technology spawned by America’s longest war will hold up.
“That drone strike in Kabul was not the last act of our war,” Malinowski said during congressional testimony. “It was unfortunately the first act of the next phase of our war.”
Catie Edmondson contributed to the report.