End the ‘Forever War’ Cliché
The war in Afghanistan needed to wind down. But Washington is learning the wrong lesson.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after two long and frustrating decades. Amid the praise and recriminations that followed, the phrase “ending endless wars”—and its variant, “ending forever wars”—was on repeat among pundits.
The planned withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 poses a question for the foreign-policy community, however: Now what? “Ending endless wars” has become a neat and effective political slogan for analysts on the left and the right, but what does it actually mean for U.S. foreign policy after Afghanistan?
This is not to quibble with the president’s decision to withdraw. Once regarded as the “good war”—in contrast to the invasion of Iraq—the U.S. encounter in Afghanistan suffered from mission creep, interest creep, spectacular corruption, double-dealing partners, ineffectual partners, and an American public that remained mostly unaware of the conflict for the last two decades. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is hardly risk-free. Any objective observer must (or should) worry about the resurgence of the Taliban and what that means for the Afghan people and counterextremism efforts. Still, Americans have proved over and again that they cannot fix Afghanistan. Knowing this, Biden decided to end what truly seemed to be an endless war.
But in recent years, the term “endless wars” has extended far beyond Afghanistan and is used by a group of analysts and policymakers—commonly known as “restrainers”—to describe an array of U.S. efforts across the Middle East. Take Syria as an example. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama sent forces back into Iraq to fight the Islamic State after it had captured Mosul. The counter-Islamic State campaign included a deployment of U.S. forces to Syria, where the self-declared caliphate had established its capital in Raqqa. Some of those soldiers remain to maintain pressure on the remnants of the Islamic State, keep an eye on Iran, and maintain some leverage with Russia. The United States supports the fall of the Assad regime but not directly through military action. One can argue with these goals, but is it fair to describe Syria as a forever war?
Similarly, is Yemen an endless war? It may be for Saudi Arabia, which stupidly waltzed into Yemen thinking it would accomplish its mission, whatever it was, in a matter of months. It doesn’t seem to be a forever war for the United States, however. The United States seems to be in the process of disentangling itself from Riyadh’s folly with a Biden administration pause in arms sales that could be used in the conflict that may very well become permanent. And what about World War II? After all, the United States still has forces stationed in Europe and Asia that are a legacy of that conflict, as well as of the Cold War. I don’t mean to be needlessly snarky, but definitions are important, and without a rigorous one that tells us something unique and useful about what constitutes “endless wars,” the slogan can be applied to just about any ongoing military mission at all.
The invocation of “endless” and “forever” suggests that there is a temporal aspect to these conflicts. So, when does a war become a forever war? After five years? A decade? Or does the term instead refer to a military intervention that failed to achieve its goals regardless of the war’s length? That could happen before a war became “endless,” if we only knew what that was. If any place fits the bill for a forever war, it is Afghanistan, where the United States has been fighting since October 2001 with little to show for it. At the same time, the American experience in that country differs greatly from the U.S. military presence in other places around the world, which diminishes Afghanistan’s usefulness as a comparison. In other words, maybe Afghanistan is unique in being the only forever war.
Since there is no good definition of a “forever” or “endless” war, ending them has become a calling card and catch-all phrase for both progressives and conservatives who share a desire to get out of the Middle East. It is easy to understand their reasoning given America’s recent record of failure and wasted resources in the region. The appeal of the withdrawal is more mainstream, however. Americans elected two presidents in a row who explicitly criticized the overly ambitious foreign policies of their predecessors, and the new president has been equally clear about de-emphasizing the Middle East. Of course, Obama, Donald Trump, and Biden were not elected solely or even principally because they condemned the regional policies of their predecessors. Yet their withering critiques of U.S. policy in the Middle East were part of the underlying (and successful) logics of their presidential campaigns.
Perhaps Obama, Trump, and other advocates of ending forever wars are correct or maybe they are not; either way, folks are going about determining the best approach to the Middle East in the entirely wrong way, even backward. Starting with one’s preferred outcome is not analysis––it is advocacy. The policies the United States pursues in the region should be based on an understanding of what is important and the resources it has at its disposal to achieve its objectives. For some time, America’s goals in the Middle East were securing the free flow of energy resources; ensuring Israeli security; promoting counterterrorism and nonproliferation measures; and maintaining U.S. dominance in service of those other goals. Now is as good a time as any to consider whether these objectives remain important to the United States and, if so, to determine how best to achieve them.
Advocates of ending forever wars have done a valuable service challenging the foreign-policy community on its assumptions. There are limits to American power, and not every problem has an American solution. Yet aiming to end forever wars is too pat, too neat. It does not allow for course corrections or any possibility that the United States has been or can once again be a constructive actor in the Middle East. It may well be that restraint is what is called for in the U.S. approach to the region, but the way that restraint is combining with the “ending forever wars” mantra is too limiting. After trillions of dollars spent, lives lost, people maimed, politics warped, Americans need to be careful in the Middle East, but that does not mean becoming wedded to a nifty slogan. The risks are too great.
Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook