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June 25th, 2022

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'The United States is not at war.' Oh, really?

Jeff Jacoby

By Jeff Jacoby

Published Sept. 28, 2021

 'The United States is not at war.' Oh, really?
Near the start of his address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, President Biden declared that the United States had "ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan" and assured his listeners that "as we close this period of relentless war, we're opening a new era of relentless diplomacy." Near the end of his speech half an hour later, he put the point more categorically:

I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war. We've turned the page. All the unmatched strength, energy, and commitment, will, and resources of our nation are now fully and squarely focused on what's ahead of us, not what was behind.

The United States not at war. As an aspiration, that could hardly be improved on — especially in remarks to an organization that was created, in the opening words of its charter , "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." It would be wonderful indeed if the United States had reached the idyllic state foretold by Isaiah, whose words are carved on the wall that faces the UN's headquarters: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more."

But Biden's words weren't true.

To be sure, the United States is not involved in a war declared by Congress. But that's nothing new: Only 11 times has Congress formally adopted a declaration of war , and the last time was in 1942. There have been wars aplenty since then — the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to name the most obvious. All of them were fought with at least some form of initial congressional authorization, but Congress long ago abandoned to the executive its constitutional prerogative to decide when America goes to war.

In 2001, just days after 9/11, Congress passed an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that empowered the president to use military force against any nations, organizations, or individuals that "he determines" played a role in the terrorist attacks. The measure, adopted by votes of 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House, has been relied upon ever since by presidents ordering military strikes in numerous countries — sometimes against entities that didn't even exist in 2001. A second AUMF was approved by Congress in 2002 to greenlight military action against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. It too remains in force.

"Along similar lines," Politifact noted on Friday,

an obscure legal authority originally passed as part of the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act allowed the US to send special operations teams into combat alongside foreign allies in raids against armed militants. Many of these programs — known as "127 echoes" — are kept secret from the public; however, investigative reporting has suggested that they have taken place across the Middle East and East Africa, in countries that include Kenya, Somalia, Mali and Niger.

According to a detailed map produced by the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the United States has engaged in antiterrorism operati0ns in 80 nations on six continents. "Contrary to what most Americans believe," wrote researcher Stephanie Savell, an expert on post-9/11 military activity, "the war on terror is not winding down — it has spread to more than 40 percent of the world's countries." There are still 2,500 US ground troops in Iraq and about 900 in northeastern Syria, with no plans to remove them any time soon.

Biden may have ordered all US troops removed from Afghanistan, but he has not renounced his authority to order military action under the resolutions Congress passed two decades ago. Indeed, just one day before Biden's appearance at the UN, American forces carried out a drone strike on an al-Qaeda operative in Syria, incinerating the vehicle in which he was driving. On Aug 24, there was an aerial attack by the US Africa Command against al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia. (The Pentagon has announced that there may soon be American service members on the ground in Somalia once again.)

In a report to Congress in June , Biden noted that he was continuing to deploy "forces to conduct counterterrorism operations and to advise, assist, and accompany security forces of select foreign partners on counterterrorism operations." Most of those deployments do not involve "routine" combat, he wrote, but US forces frequently have to fight: "In many of these locations, the security environment is such that United States military personnel may be required to defend themselves against threats or attacks." He went on to list the major theaters in which counterterrorism operations continue: counterterrorism missions in Iraq, Syria, Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, East Africa, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Philippines.

The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan does not spell an end to the war against radical jihadists in Afghanistan. Biden himself has conceded as much.

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"We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries," he told the nation on Aug. 31 . "We just don't need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what's called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed." In short, when the president tells the UN that the United States has "ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan," all he is saying is that the conflict has been moved to a nearby location.

Biden's confident words about ending the war in Afghanistan remind me of Barack Obama's similar boast about his decision in 2011 — his deeply misguided decision — to remove all US forces from Iraq. As he campaigned for reelection the following year, he crowed again and again and again that he had ended the war in Iraq. He eventually stopped crowing when it became clear to everyone that the withdrawal had proved calamitous, unleashing fresh hell and bloody horrors across the region. The departure of US troops was followed in relatively short order by the near-collapse of the Iraqi government, the meteoric rise of ISIS, a dramatic expansion of Iranian influence, and the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II.

Eventually Obama bowed to reality and ordered the military back into Iraq. Before his term as president ended, thousands of Americans in uniform were once again on the ground, fighting the war that he had taken credit for ending. Did Biden learn nothing from that experience? Will it be only a matter of time until he too is compelled to reverse his withdrawal order?

The war in Afghanistan isn't over, however much Americans and their president might wish it were. The enemy gets a vote, it is often said in military and intelligence circles, and the jihadist forces concentrated in Afghanistan have voted to keep fighting. In case there was any doubt of that, the enemy killed 13 US personnel — and at least 170 Afghans — in a terror bombing at the Kabul airport on Aug. 26.

Like Obama's withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the world more dangerous, not less. Like it or not, the United States remains at war, against fanatical extremists who have not yet been defeated.

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