Biden Team Engaged in ‘Rigorous’ Debate Over Ending Forever War

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, the president wants to declare success. But military and CIA careerists are said to be resisting.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

U.S. Army soldiers look for enemy rocket positions in Afghanistan.
U.S. Army soldiers patrol barren foothills outside of Forward Operating Base Shank looking for positions the enemy has used to send rockets onto the base near Pol-e Alam, Afghanistan, on March 30, 2014. Scott Olson/Getty Images

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, U.S. President Joe Biden is working to wind up the United States’ longest war—now often known as the “forever war.” But he and his top political appointees are facing stiff opposition from career military and intelligence officials who are wary of doing so prematurely, according to administration and human rights sources.

It’s not just Biden’s desire to get out of Afghanistan or his curtailment of drone strikes or his desire to once and for all close Guantánamo Bay. The big question is whether al Qaeda and its offshoots, which justified the “war on terror” in the first place, still pose a strategic threat to the United States. Some senior administration officials want to turn a page; some senior officials in the U.S. Defense Department and the intelligence community beg to differ.

Biden, like his top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, are intent on closing as much of this two-decade-long chapter as they can and fulfilling the president’s campaign pledges. “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars,” Biden said in his recently released interim national security guidance, while stressing his desire to finally focus on Europe and the Indo-Pacific rather than the Middle East.

In recent weeks, the Biden team has sought to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan, narrow the use of drone strikes, repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that started the war on terror and the AUMF that came a year later to justify the invasion of Iraq, end the war in Yemen, and begin the process of closing Guantánamo. But “career forces in the military and the intelligence community are resisting” some of these moves, said one administration official privy to the discussions. A premature declaration of success, some argue, and a too-rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Middle East would leave Biden vulnerable to the same criticism that former U.S. President Barack Obama endured when he pulled out of Iraq in 2011, only to find he was opening the door to the rise of the Islamic State. 

In an interview on Thursday, a senior administration official acknowledged there was a “rigorous” debate inside the administration over how to end the forever wars, but he added: “We have not declared that we’ve reached any sort of tipping point in that objective. There are still significant terrorist threats to the homeland and our interests abroad.” He also denied that the debate was occurring along stark lines between political appointees and career military and intelligence officials. Spokespeople for the director of national intelligence and the Pentagon declined to comment.

Nonetheless, last week the administration said Biden “intends to work with Congress to repeal the war authorizations that have underpinned U.S. military operations across the globe for the past two decades and negotiate a new one that reins in the open-ended nature of America’s foreign wars,” Politico reported. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said the president wants a new “narrow and specific framework” that protects U.S. citizens “while ending the forever wars.”

Afghanistan is an early test: Some seasoned officials fear that a premature withdrawal could potentially leave the United States back where it started, threatened by a Taliban-dominated host nation for al Qaeda. Under the peace deal former U.S. President Donald Trump made with the Taliban, the militant group was to cut its ties with al Qaeda—but it hasn’t. Biden has long been a passionate advocate of withdrawal, having said for years that Afghanistan’s government is corrupt and untrustworthy. And in a significant shift, his administration is now suggesting that Afghan president Ashraf Ghani share power with the resurgent Taliban in a “new, inclusive” government. Blinken said recently in a letter to Ghani that the United States was considering a full withdrawal of forces by May 1 if he didn’t comply. 

But some current and former senior officials believe that al Qaeda and its splinter groups have been effectively neutralized, at least in terms of posing a direct threat to the United States. Rather than continue the war on terror begun by former U.S. President George W. Bush, they’d rather treat al Qaeda like other countries do—as a criminal issue best dealt with through cops and courts.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, former Pentagon general counsel and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he considers the “war on terror” to be at an end. “I believe that legally and practically the armed conflict that Congress authorized in 2001, insofar as al Qaeda is concerned, is over. Core al Qaeda has been effectively demolished, and its ability to launch a strategic attack against the U.S. like the one in 2001 has been significantly degraded,” he said.

Johnson added that the threat from terrorism hasn’t ended, but al Qaeda itself has “splintered and metastasized, and other terrorist organizations may not pose a threat to the homeland” any longer. That in turn means that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force put in place nearly two decades ago, essentially declaring war on all parties involved in 9/11, is no longer valid, he suggested.

Islamist terror groups, he noted, are focused on regional attacks or are against other governments; the threat in the United States has taken a different form. There have been “lone wolves,” such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers and the Orlando, Florida shooter—known as Omar Mateen—who killed 49 people at a nightclub in 2016 in the name of the Islamic State. But the big three—the Islamic State, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Shabab—have all been decimated by U.S. attacks and have shifted their crosshairs. A forthcoming study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) will show “the number of plots for attacks inside the U.S. is at the lowest level we’ve seen in two decades,” said Seth Jones, a CSIS counterterrorism expert.

Meanwhile, Biden is focused on a bigger threat. The president has directed the FBI to refocus on homegrown, right-wing threats of the kind that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. For two decades after 9/11, the FBI’s resources have been largely committed to taking down al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists while the homegrown threat has festered.

Some Biden administration officials agree with Johnson’s assessment, one reason why the administration is pushing Congress to authorize a new AUMF. Sullivan, the national security advisor, has ordered a broad review of counterterrorism policies, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is engaged in a global defense posture review. But officials say this is still early days in an administration badly understaffed with diplomats, and pushback from the Pentagon and intelligence community has stiffened. 

In the meantime, Biden is determined to avoid mistakes made by his predecessors. Obama dramatically stepped up drone strikes in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Trump gave the military and CIA unlimited leeway to conduct operations and select targets on their own. In recent weeks, Biden has put a stop to that. As the New York Times reported last week, the Biden administration “has quietly imposed temporary limits on counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefield zones like Afghanistan and Syria, and it has begun a broad review of whether to tighten Trump-era rules for such operations.”

U.S. drone strikes appear to be at their lowest levels since the war on terror began, a trend that started in the last year of the Trump administration. Since Biden took office, there have been no declared, or locally claimed, drone strikes other than three disputed attacks in Somalia, said Chris Woods of Airwars, one of the foremost authorities on the subject. Obama, in his last year in office, launched about 13,000 airstrikes. That fell to about 1,100 last year—and has kept falling—Woods said. 

“So if Biden is serious about ending the forever wars, there’s probably not been a better time to tackle that in recent years,” Woods said. “What’s still missing from the public picture is an understanding of what a possible U.S. containment policy of terror groups like al Qaeda, ISIS, and al-Shabab might look like in a post-drone strike world.” 

But Biden’s political appointees are outnumbered by the career bureaucracy in the Pentagon and CIA, especially given the administration’s slow start to filling key positions. That gives outsized weight to the same voices that have been leading the chorus for so long.

“The story of the last 20 years is, in many ways, the story of privileging military and intelligence community views without a strategy,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “What we hope to see from President Biden on the solemn anniversary of 9/11 is a president able to tell the American people and the international community that there’s been a modicum of justice for the attacks, and the war-based architecture of the last two decades, which has caused so much harm to so many people at home and abroad, is at an end.”

According to some human rights activists who have been in contact with the administration, Biden is making a much stronger push than Obama did to end the United States’ longest war. “My sense is there is a far greater openness to that view than ever existed under Obama,” said one activist who would speak only on condition of anonymity.

But Biden’s efforts to wrap up the legacy of the war on terror have collided with other priorities, like battling COVID-19, which has killed vastly more U.S. citizens than al Qaeda ever did. Biden signed dozens of executive orders in his first weeks, but “it was a huge disappointment that they didn’t come out with executive orders on drones or Guantánamo,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch.

As Obama’s vice president, Biden was a first-hand witness to the frustration his predecessor felt. “Obama really wanted to end the forever wars,” Johnson said. “But sometimes events get in the way of that. We wanted to get out of Iraq completely, but [the civil war] in Syria complicated that. Then along came the Islamic State in about 2014.”

Even so, there can be an endpoint. In a series of speeches, Johnson and other officials in the Obama administration sought to distinguish between al Qaeda and more regional actors, like what would become the Islamic State. As the Pentagon’s general counsel in 2012, Johnson mapped out just how the never-ending war might end. “[T]here will come a tipping point … at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.”

That tipping point, Johnson said this week, has been reached. “When the conflict that Congress authorized in 2001 comes to an end, then we should have the political courage to say it,” he said.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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