The Forever War is Dead. Long Live the Forever War
The fight against terrorism will continue, yet our body politic is weakened by double-speak.
So you thought President Joe Biden would end “forever wars.” Think again.
Deep into the commander in chief’s Tuesday speech to declare the end of the Afghanistan war—yet again—Biden also slipped in yet another recommittal of American forces to fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and anywhere else on Earth that leaders desire as part of the one forever war that matters most: the global war on terrorism.
Far from ending “forever wars;” the president vowed to perpetuate them. The global war on terrorism now belongs to Joe Biden.
“Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan—the longest war in American history,” Biden said on Tuesday. A few minutes later, he said, “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries.”
This doubletalk is maddening. American political leaders are stuck in a loop of dishonesty about the U.S. military’s interventions and missions around the globe. The lines they are feeding voters from the campaign trail to the White House too often are lies of political opportunity. Pledges to end wars flow from their lips like promises of water just over the desert horizon. Yet in the next breath they pledge to be tough on terror, to send U.S. troops to serve, fight, and die fighting terrorists and extremist movements in foreign countries—even ones, like Afghanistan, where we lack the government’s permission.
This rhetorical dance was maddening when Donald Trump campaigned and governed with it, and it’s equally maddening when it comes from a foreign-policy veteran and lifelong leader like Biden. The fact is, the current president is as guilty as his predecessor in promising to end the forever war era, when in fact, nearly all of its conflicts have continued, will continue, and should continue in some form in perpetuity, as long as others threaten the security of the United States and its allies.
The unwillingness of politicians to tell the truth about the purpose, necessity, and reality of sending Americans overseas to fight has backfired. Instead of an electorate honestly educated about national-security policy directions, our body politic is too often misled than led. And it feeds what many bipartisan national security leaders identify as our greatest national security threat of all: America’s partisan divide.
In May, Biden declared that ending the U.S. ground presence in Afghanistan was fulfilling a promise to himself (and his campaign) about which few Americans cared. In March, researchers at Brookings Institution noted, “In a recent poll conducted in the fall of 2020 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) for researchers Peter Feaver and Jim Golby, only 59% of survey respondents answered the question about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.” That means that more than one-third of Americans didn’t even have an opinion on Afghanistan to give, just last year. Even among those that answered, only 34 percent supported troop withdrawals, which was up from 29 percent the previous year, before the presidential campaign.
But when Pew surveyed Americans last week—over the days before and after 13 U.S. troops and more than 100 Afghan civilians were killed by massive bombs at Kabul’s airport—suddenly “69% of the public says the United States mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.” And yet still, only “54% of U.S. adults say the decision to withdraw troops from the country was the right one.” A full 42 percent said it was the wrong call to leave. Those results feel more like reactions of the televised chaos from Kabul than representative of any consistent policy desires.
The poll also shows that the public will follow and defend their preferred leaders on national security issues. While in last week’s poll Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly and nearly equally say the war failed to achieve its goals—a debatable fact—there is a large partisan split about Biden ending it, after the fact. Unsurprisingly, more Democrats than Republicans continued to align with Biden, saying he was right to withdraw. More than 40 percent of Democrats said Biden has done a good or excellent job with Afghanistan, compared to just 7 percent of Republicans. And more Democrats appeared to buy into the president’s reasoning: “Republicans (61%) are far more likely than Democrats (33%) to view a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a major security threat.”
It’s no wonder there’s so much angst and frustration about what the United States is doing overseas at all, including Biden’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the resulting human tragedy of the past several months culminating with the Taliban’s walk-in victory in Kabul.
Politics is an artform, and so is speechmaking, even at the Pentagon.
“America's longest war has come to a close,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, on Thursday. But a few minutes later, he also said, “It's our duty to defend this nation and we're not going to take our eye off the ball. And that means relentless counterterrorism efforts against any threat to the American people from any place.”
Perhaps the most honest speech of this administration has come from the president’s highest-ranking non-politician, his senior military advisor, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who reminded Americans and the military community on Thursday of what they had accomplished in Afghanistan.
“Our counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and the region over 20 years has protected the American people from terrorist attack, and the men and women and children who were just evacuated will ultimately be the legacy to prove the value of our sacrifice. For the past 20 years, there's not been a major attack on our homeland,” he said at the Pentagon. “It is now our mission to ensure that we continue our intelligence efforts, continue our counterterrorism efforts, continue our military efforts to protect the American people for the next 20 years, and we in the American military are committed to do just that.”
Another 20 years, in Afghanistan and beyond. No matter how Republican or Democratic presidents spin it, the forever war of counterterrorism operations against violent extremism will and must continue, likely throughout our lifetimes. Pentagon leaders always seem to know it. It may not be good politics to say so, but it certainly is more presidential.
NEXT STORY: What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?