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 have turned the page.
A day earlier, a missile fired from an American drone incinerated a car traveling on a remote road in northwestern Syria, a strike targeting a suspected member of Qaeda. Three weeks earlier, the military launched an airstrike in Somalia targeting members of the militant group Shabab, as 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 to the United Nations was meant to show that he had kept his promise to end America’s longest war, and his speech took place on the same day the last soldier to die before the American withdrawal from Afghanistan was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
But that was only the latest attempt by a US president in the two decades following the 9/11 attacks to massage the language of war to mask a sometimes embarrassing reality: that America is still engaged in armed conflicts around the world.
In a letter to Congress in June, Biden listed all the countries where US troops are operating against various militant groups – from Iraq and Syria to Yemen to the Philippines to Niger.
There are over 40,000 US troops stationed in the Middle East, including 2,500 in Iraq more than 18 years after President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of that country. About 900 troops are in Syria on a mission started by President Barack Obama in 2015, and Biden has said he will call on the military to conduct future operations in Afghanistan against emerging terrorist threats, even if they are launched from bases outside the country. .
“Our troops are not coming home. We have to be honest about it, ”said Rep. Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, during Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s testimony to Congress this month. “They are simply moving to other bases in the same region to carry out the same counterterrorism missions, including in Afghanistan.”
The Islamic State divide – and the emergence of the group’s affiliates in North Africa, Asia and elsewhere – has provided justification for military planners 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,” the letter said, but in many places US troops “may be required to defend themselves against threats or attacks.”
Pentagon data released in recent months shows a steady pace of strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, even though it is less than a handful of strikes each month.
Shadow wars fought with drones and special ops troops have been equally a part of post-September history. 11 like the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But US Presidents in various ways have been promoting their advantages to the American public, describing them as somehow cleaner and more antiseptic – what national security expert Micah Zenko calls “defining war down.” .
Mr. Obama has repeatedly said he opposes America’s “field boots” in remote parts of the world, but his administration has made exceptions for special operations forces, which has at times led to them. American officials to make linguistic contortions to minimize the combat role the troops would play. to play.
At the end of 2015, when asked by a reporter if the decision to deploy troops to Iraq and Syria was a reversal of his “no boots on the ground” commitment, he replied that the American people knew what they meant. by this pledge – “that we are not going to invade Iraq or Syria the way Iraq does with battalions moving across the desert.” The Pentagon has called on the first group of 200 troops to deploy a “specialized expeditionary targeting 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 as they were carried out under the authority of covert action by the CIA.
As the 2016 presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump spoke with skepticism about the great and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but used violent language about how he would “bomb hell” out of the country. Islamic state. Ultimately, Zenko said, he “bombed every country that Obama had.”
Mr Biden came to power on a vow to end “eternal wars” – and staunchly defended his decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan in the face of fierce criticism from lawmakers on both sides. But administration officials have made it clear that combat missions in other countries will continue, namely those that do not involve large deployments of US troops or do not attract close media scrutiny.
Some veterans do not see such sharp distinctions. “Everyone’s perspective on the war is very different,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and Iraq War veteran. But, he added, “from my point of view there are people shooting at you, it is considered a war”.
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The administration spent months trying to forge new rules governing how and when to carry out deadly strikes outside declared war zones – an effort born out of a belief among Mr Biden’s team that the rules were become too relaxed during Mr. Trump’s four-year tenure. .
But the rapid collapse of the Afghan government – and the view among administration officials that al Qaeda and other groups may strengthen in the country sooner than originally anticipated – has complicated that process. While White House officials originally considered keeping tight 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 some other countries where operations may be more frequent.
Four US presidents have embraced America’s new mode of warfare in part because Congress has placed so few limits on where they can lead it. The bulk of US counterterrorism operations around the world are conducted using a 20-year-old authorization that Congress gave to Mr. Bush to avenge the 9/11 attacks.
For years, leading lawmakers have denounced that subsequent presidents continued to use the 2001 resolution, the authorization to use military force, to justify operations against groups that did not even exist when the September 11 attacks took place. But there was never enough political consensus 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 broadly supports operations which appear to pose little risk to American troops. Until they produced disastrous headlines.
A botched drone strike last month in the Afghan capital Kabul was the latest example. What the military understood as a strike against what officials believed to be an activist plotting a suicide bombing – the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called the operation “fair” – turned into a debacle that killed this whom the Pentagon later admitted to be an innocent man and his family.
The troops have now left Afghanistan, but the technology generated by America’s longest war will endure.
“This drone strike in Kabul was not the last act in our war,” Malinowski said during testimony before Congress. “It was unfortunately the first act of the next stage of our war.”
Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.