Last week President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan after two long and frustrating decades. Amid the praise and accusations that followed, the phrase “end endless wars” – and its variant “end wars forever” – was repeated among experts.
However, the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11th raises a question for the foreign policy community: What now? “Ending Endious Wars” has become a neat and effective political buzzword for analysts left and right. But what does that actually mean for US foreign policy after Afghanistan?
This does not conflict with the President’s decision to withdraw. Formerly considered a “good war” – as opposed to the invasion of Iraq – the US encounter in Afghanistan suffered from mission creeps, interest creeps, spectacular corruption, double partners, ineffective partners, and an American public largely unknown to the conflict of the past two decades. Withdrawal from Afghanistan is hardly risk-free. Any objective observer must (or should) be concerned about the Taliban’s resurgence and what it means for the Afghan people and efforts to combat extremism. Yet the Americans have proven time and time again that they cannot repair Afghanistan. Knowing this, Biden decided to end a truly endless war.
In recent years, however, the term “endless wars” has expanded well beyond Afghanistan and is being used by a group of analysts and policy makers – commonly known as “holdoffs” – to describe a range of US efforts in the Middle East . Take Syria as an example. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama sent forces back to Iraq to fight the Islamic State after conquering Mosul. The campaign against the Islamic State included the deployment of US forces in Syria, where the self-proclaimed caliphate had established its capital in Raqqa. Some of these soldiers must continue to put pressure on the remnants of Islamic State, keep an eye on Iran, and maintain some leverage against Russia. The United States supports the overthrow of the Assad regime, but not directly through military action. These goals can be argued, but is it fair to call Syria an eternal war?
Is Yemen an Endless War? It could be for Saudi Arabia that came stupidly to Yemen thinking it would accomplish its mission, whatever it was, in a matter of months. It doesn’t seem like an eternal war for the United States, however. The United States appears to be breaking away from Riyadh’s folly, with the Biden government pausing in arms sales that could be used in what could very well become permanent conflict. And what about the Second World War? After all, the United States still has forces in Europe and Asia that are a legacy of that conflict as well as the Cold War. I don’t mean to be unnecessarily snarky, but definitions are important, and without a rigorous one that tells us something unique and useful about “endless wars,” the slogan can be applied to just about any ongoing military mission at all.
The invocation of “endless” and “forever” suggests that these conflicts have a temporal aspect. When does a war become an eternal war? After five years? A decade? Or does the term instead refer to a military intervention that has failed to achieve its goals regardless of the length of the war? That could happen before a war becomes “endless”, if we only knew what it is. If any place is a candidate for perpetual war, it is Afghanistan, where the United States has been fighting since October 2001 and has little to show. At the same time, the American experience in this country is very different from the US military presence elsewhere around the world, which detracts from Afghanistan’s usefulness as a comparison. In other words, maybe Afghanistan is unique because it is the only war forever.
In the absence of a good definition of “forever” or “endless” war, ending war has become a calling card and catch-all term for both progressives and conservatives who share a desire to get out of the Middle East. Given the recent failures and waste of resources in the region in America, their reasoning is easy to understand. The pull of retreat, however, is more mainstream. The Americans elected two consecutive presidents who explicitly criticized the over-ambitious foreign policy of their predecessors, and the new president was equally clear about de-emphasizing the Middle East. Obviously, Obama, Donald Trump and Biden were not elected alone or primarily because they condemned their predecessors’ regional policies. However, their dwindling criticism of US Middle Eastern policies was part of the underlying (and successful) logic of their presidential campaigns.
Maybe Obama, Trump and other proponents of ending wars are forever right or maybe not; In both cases, people are trying to determine the best approach to the Middle East in a completely wrong way, even backwards. Starting with the preferred outcome is not an analysis – it is advocacy. The policies of the United States in the region should be based on an understanding of what is important and what resources it has to achieve its goals. America’s goals in the Middle East for some time have been to ensure the free flow of energy resources; Ensuring Israeli security; Promoting counter-terrorism and non-proliferation activities; and maintaining US dominance in the service of these other goals. Now is the right time to consider whether these goals continue to be important to the United States, and if so, to determine how best to achieve them.
Proponents of ending wars forever have done a valuable service challenging the foreign policy community under their assumptions. American power is limited, and not every problem has an American solution. However, the goal of ending wars forever is too gossip and too neat. It does not allow for course corrections or the possibility that the United States was or could be a constructive actor in the Middle East. It may well be that restraint is what the US approach to the region calls for, but the way that restraint is combined with the “Ending Forevers Wars” mantra is too limiting. After spending trillions of dollars, losing lives, mutilating people, and skewing politics, Americans in the Middle East need to be careful, but that doesn’t mean associating yourself with a subtle slogan. The risks are too great.