President Joe Biden ended the America’s longest war when US troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August. In doing so, Biden followed through on a deal made by former President Donald Trump with the Taliban to withdraw US forces from the country. He also followed through on one of his central foreign policy promises to end “Eternal Wars” where US forces are mired in what he saw as dangerous and unmanageable conflicts that divert attention and resources. other important issues. Biden’s course of action raises important questions about the direction of America’s “war on terror”.
On September 20, 2021, President George W. Bush noted that “Our war on terrorism begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until all terrorist groups with global reach are found, arrested and defeated. He said the war would not consist of a battle, but of a “long campaign, like no other that we have seen” which uses all available mechanisms to target terrorist organizations and the nations that provide refuge to these organizations. .
The conflict in Afghanistan was the country’s first salvo in this new war. The United States demanded that the Taliban stop harboring Al Qaeda and dismantle terrorist training camps. When it refused, the US military intervened, quickly dislodging the Taliban from power. The United States stayed in Afghanistan to drive out the terrorists and Osama bin Laden afterwards. American forces finally embarked on nation-building to support Afghanistan’s transition to democracy.
Presidents who have followed Bush have avoided the term “war on terror”. President Barack Obama has notoriously reframed the effort as the overseas emergency operation, but successive administrations have all been heavily engaged in counterterrorism efforts abroad. The strong US military presence in Afghanistan was perhaps the most visible aspect of this war effort, but it was by no means the only or the most important.
For example, the US government has led counterterrorism efforts by eighty-five countries between 2018 and 2020 and trained various military and law enforcement agencies in nearly eighty countries to increase their own counterterrorism capabilities, according to researchers at Brown University. The US military has also participated in combat missions in eight countries, participating in conventional warfare operations and using special operations forces for destruction or capture missions. Drones and / or airstrikes have been used against terrorists and militants in seven countries. In four other countries, the US military planned, organized, and led missions led by local military personnel. These local proxies like the Kurds in the fight against Daesh, were essential to American success.
The question that remains is whether Biden’s decision to withdraw the US military from Afghanistan signals a more significant shift in the US approach to counterterrorism activities that fall under the banner of the “war on terror.” “. The first signs suggest not.
Biden ended the US presence in Afghanistan, but in the same breath he vowed revenge for those responsible for the murder of thirteen US servicemen in Kabul during the evacuation. A controversial drone strike soon after was found to have killed an number of innocent civilians.
Biden has taken steps to temporarily limit the number of drone strikes while his team develops its drone policy, but there is no indication that he plans to abandon drone strikes altogether. Drone strikes are a key part of its “on the horizon” policy. On the contrary, it seems that Biden is only seeking to reign over the program by to re-establish some form of Obama-era procedures that restrict the criteria for who can be targeted. Biden will also likely increase the approvals needed before some strikes can be carried out.
The Biden administration has also expressed its intention to assess and potentially replace the legal instruments that have been used to justify many US counterterrorism efforts abroad. In 2001, Congress almost unanimously passed the Use of Military Force Authorization (AUMF) against those responsible for the September 11 attacks. The language of this AUMF authorized the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force against the nations, organizations or persons whom he deemed to have planned, authorized, committed or aided” these attacks.
The 2001 AUMF was subsequently cited as granting authorizations for military operations against numerous terrorist organizations. It was even used to provide approvals for actions against ISIS, which did not exist until more than a decade after the original AUMF was passed. Indeed, the AUMF has been interpreted as authorizing military force against any terrorist organization that was an “associated force” with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. ISIS fell under this umbrella because it evolved from the Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq.
Biden’s intention appears to be a more specific AUMF that more clearly specifies its targets and that cannot be interpreted broadly (as has been the past) to allow future military incursions against anonymous organizations without seeking the approval of the Congress. It does not seek to end the military effort against foreign terrorism.
By leaving Afghanistan, Biden has undoubtedly put the U.S. military out of harm’s way, but it’s unclear how that will affect the threat posed by terrorists to the United States. Time will tell if the Taliban stick to their agreement not to harbor terrorists seeking to attack the United States or its allies. ISIS-K views the Taliban as agents of the United States and there are fears that it will continue to increase its attacks in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban are willing or able to contain ISIS-K. The threat could still metastasize. Biden’s “on the horizon” approach will focus counterterrorism efforts on airstrikes and drones that minimize US boots on the ground. It will take time to judge whether this strategy can adequately respond to the constantly evolving foreign terrorist threat.
It also remains to be seen how the US withdrawal affects extremism in the region and in the United States. The withdrawal was touted as a major victory for the Taliban. The Americans are gone, the US-backed government has collapsed, and a new religion-based government will be established. This can inspire extremists who share these goals. A report by the Department of Homeland Security in late 2020 ruled that foreign terrorist organizations will have little success strike our homeland. The greatest terrorist threat remains local extremists, those inspired by the actions and ideologies of foreign groups and those motivated by racist and anti-government ideologies. Biden’s Counterterrorism Approach implies an increased effort against these internal threats.
So, rather than ending the “war on terror,” the efforts of the Biden administration only seek to bring it into a new chapter – one that will likely retain many elements that have become cornerstones. counterterrorism efforts.
Dr David Webber is an assistant professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at the Commonwealth University of Virginia.