The Russian soldier, it was said, had suffered a concussion, then a total loss of memory. When he woke up in Kabul, in the last days of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, he was having a hard time understanding what was going on. As reporter Artyom Borovik told the story, when his fellow soldiers tried to reorient him, he kept asking the same question: “What are we doing in Afghanistan?” Nobody could give a definitive answer.
Even with America in charge, the answers to this question haven’t improved much since the 1980s. In 2001, we were conducting “global and relentless operations” to drive terrorists out of Afghanistan and bring them to justice. In 2009, we were bringing 30,000 troops to “sixteen years of the initiative, building the Afghan capacity that can enable a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan”. In 2017, we were “wiping out ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country, and stopping mass terrorist attacks against Americans before they emerged.” But since none of this actually happened, other reasons have emerged. There was the humanitarian argument, exemplified by a 2010 TIME cover photo of a mutilated Afghan girl with a severed nose, alongside the words “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.” Then there was the issue of credibility, that if we don’t stay in other countries we will ask ourselves, as reporter Eli Lake said, if “The United States will have its back to face bullies like China.” Finally, the war was reformulated not as a war but as a necessary commitment to maintain global order, in line with long-term troop presences in South Korea, Japan and Germany.
And so now President Biden has announced a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan exactly two decades after 9/11. It is appropriate. Politically set deadlines, invested of great importance by presidents, have long been a cornerstone of the war. The question for Americans concerned about “forever wars”, however, is how significant this withdrawal will actually be.
After all, over the decades the war in Afghanistan has not only generated endless reasons for its existence, it has also generated reasons for other wars. Immediately after 9/11, Congress passed an authorization for the use of military force that allowed the president to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against those who “planned, authorized, committed or helped” him. 9/11 attacks. Though intended for the Taliban and al Qaeda, this language later expanded to justify attacks on al-Shabaab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, the Khorosan group in Syria, and others. The precedent has been firmly established by the Trump administration. If you wish to occupy Kurdish-controlled Syrian oil fields or kill an Iranian general, the AUMF was your justification. “Democrats Should Raise Minimum Wage Using 2001 AUMF” Yale law professor Scott Shapiro joked recently on Twitter. Why not? Using a permit intended to fight the Taliban as an excuse to operate in 17 other countries (Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Niger, and so on) while leaving Afghanistan itself is only slightly less ridiculous.
If President Biden truly wants to “end the war forever,” as he declared on April 14, dealing with excessive AUMF is a critical piece for which he is responsible. As conservative legal scholars Curtis A. Bradley and Jack L. Goldsmith point out, “almost every question about the significance and scope of the AUMF remained unresolved at the end of the Bush presidency,” and it was during the Obama administration that it changed. in “a protean basis for indefinite warfare against an assortment of terrorist organizations in numerous countries”. A key moment came in September 2014, when the Obama White House announced, three years after the alleged end of the Iraq war, that it could launch an air war in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS without the Congressional approval because the fight was under the old 2001 Authorization – despite the fact that ISIS did not exist in 2001 and was competing with al Qaeda, which had excommunicated it.
Scholars debate how much this was a stretch, but the legal dispute obscures its political usefulness. Obama had entered the White House as a critic of the Iraq war, and allegedly advocated a “don’t do stupid” foreign policy. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq with great fanfare just to watch the country implode and then put the troops back inside did not satisfy that particular strategic vision. Relying on the 2001 AUMF allowed Obama to circumvent arguments in favor of a renewed war on Congress and the American public, and gave Congress permission to take a tough vote (who wanted to be the next Hillary Clinton, years after for a vote that was popular at the time). Instead, Obama suggested revisions to the 2001 AUMF (which President Biden did as well), simultaneously broadening its scope.
In 2015, as we increased military involvement, Obama and senior officials were still bragging about “ending two wars.” When a Navy SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charles Keating IV, died in a firefight with ISIS in northern Iraq in 2016, the White House press secretary made it clear he was “not on a combat mission.” , but he simply found himself “in a combat situation.” The ambivalent American public did not like wars but also feared the rise of ISIS, and so the administration let them know that we were facing ISIS and al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Yemen. and so on while somehow not even fighting a war. Good politics, perhaps, but hardly leadership. Donald Trump’s subsequent chaotic approach to military politics, in which the allies learned things like a withdrawal of forces from Syria via tweets, was deeply irresponsible but ultimately a further extension of the precedent that he was the executive at war, not the American people. And fickle changes to a policy that has never been seriously discussed or discussed carry no real political cost.
No wonder many veterans don’t trust Biden’s recent statement. “There is no complete retreat under any president,” journalist and army veteran Jacob Siegel tweeted. “There will absolutely still be secret CT and SOF assets in the country after ‘the war is over’.” It has already happened, and indeed the Pentagon is already debating where to reposition forces, possibly in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to allow for strikes within the country. As a friend wrote a message last week, “I find it funny that people think the AFG is ending, and the” troops down “game is suddenly over.” As long as the indefinite authorization for war continues, with no time limits, or geographical limits, or specific objectives, so does war.
The abrogation of the AUMF is not necessarily a pro or anti war position. Congressman Peter Meijer, a Republican from Michigan who recently joined bipartisan legislation to regain the role of Congress in the war process, sees it as a precondition for a responsible state of government. “I strongly believe that repeal would create responsible policy and force Congress to make tough decisions,” he told me over the phone. “What we can’t have is another situation like the one we had in Niger, where troops are dying and Congress says,” We didn’t even know there were troops. “
Critics of the withdrawal suggest that we will have to return, which will cause a collapse of the government, a humanitarian disaster and a spread of terrorism that will require more intervention, like in Iraq. Maybe. But if we come back, we should do it after the president has presented a case to the American public explaining why and how much it will cost, and then our representatives should discuss and vote. Without the approval and commitment of the American people, there is unlikely to be a successful war or lasting peace. And our soldiers will not have the bare minimum that is due to them from a democratic citizenship – the answer to the question, “Why are we here?”