So, here we are again. The fourth consecutive American president who campaigned on a pledge to withdraw the U.S. from conflicts abroad has been compelled by necessity to prosecute those conflicts.
Shortly after entering the race for the presidency, Joe Biden affirmed his intention to “end the forever wars” to which the United States is presumably party in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, he’s done his best to make good on that promise. Biden has had less luck in Iraq and Syria, where the administration announced early Monday morning that it had executed (another) series of airstrikes on Iran-backed militia groups “to disrupt and deter” the increasingly sophisticated drone strikes on U.S. positions. This language is both descriptive and useful if it helps to break the political class’s unhealthy addiction to the noxious idea that America’s commitments in this region constitute “forever wars.”
Disruption and deterrence have been central to the American mission in Iraq for several years, and it is vastly preferable to the alternative of all-out conflict. No sooner had the Islamic State retreated to the relative safety of Syria’s lawless east than Iran and its proxies began destabilizing the region. In 2019 alone, the Islamic Republic regularly seized and sabotaged commercial shipping vessels in the crucial Strait of Hormuz. It downed an unarmed U.S. surveillance drone over international waters and executed a brazen multi-drone strike on the world’s largest petroleum-processing facility in Saudi Arabia.
This forced the last president, who was himself a critic of American extroversion, to raise the stakes in the region by deploying defensive assets to the region. Iranian catspaws subsequently executed rocket attacks on U.S. positions—attacks to which the U.S. did not respond until one killed an American contractor and wounded three uniformed service-members. A proportionate response to that attack prompted Iran to respond by laying siege to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, to which America replied by neutralizing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani. Only then did Iran respond with a calibrated reprisal conveying a willingness to deescalate, and the conflict subsequently deescalated.
Whatever you think of this adversarial cycle of testing and reaction, it is not an outgrowth of America’s presence in the region. If anything, America’s presence imposes sober circumspection on the theocrats in Tehran. Call this probing a war if you like, but that is a definition that could apply to potential flashpoints where the U.S. is supporting anti-insurgency campaigns or raising the costs of all-out conflict for would-be aggressors all around the globe.
The idea that America’s post-September 11th commitments are hot wars without end would have been defensible years ago when those conflicts involved American soldiers conducting combat operations to secure tactical and strategic objectives. Today, the phrase is explicable only as a childish syllogism: The Middle East is trapped in an unending cycle of instability and warfare, and American soldiers are deployed to this region in the defense of its interests and allies. Therefore, the United States is trapped in an endless cycle of instability and warfare in the Middle East. This expands the definition of “war” to a degree that renders the word a mere analogy.
These theaters are not producing American fatalities. The last American service-member killed in action in Iraq was March 11, 2020, when an Iran-backed militia’s rocket found its target in Iraq. The number of American service personnel lost to hostile action abroad totaled 8 souls for the entire year. Every death is tragic and serving in uniform is inherently hazardous. In 2020, Americans also died in deployments to places like Kosovo, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, the Arabian Sea, and Kuwait.
Of course, American soldiers are at risk wherever they serve, and any life lost is a tragedy. That sacrifice must be honored. But those soldiers are supporting American interests in unstable parts of the world, and sometimes those missions involve policing actions or supporting combat operations conducted by local forces. The qualitative distinction between America’s assistance to friendly governments in Kuwait City, Amman, and Pristina and its support for Baghdad’s sovereignty at the invitation of Iraq’s government is a narrow one. That is, unless the argument is against America’s overseas deployments full stop. That’s an argument that has been repudiated now by four American presidents from both major political parties.
If the price America pays in blood for the defense of the world order over which it presides as the globe’s sole hegemon isn’t that compelling, what about treasure? Americans are regularly confronted with the fact that $6 trillion of their tax dollars have gone to supporting U.S. military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. But the annual cost of these operations in 2019, when America’s footprint in these nations was substantially larger than it is today, was roughly $20 billion annually. That’s a small fraction of the Pentagon’s budget, a modest amount compared to the total cost of America’s deployments abroad and the hundreds of billions the Defense Department spends outsourcing the job of national defense to independent contractors. And the not-so-modest return on that investment has been 20 years without a sophisticated terrorist attack on U.S. soil directed by non-state actors operating with impunity in the region’s more anarchic enclaves.
The case that now tests the “forever wars” thesis is Afghanistan, where Joe Biden is executing a headlong rush to the exits entirely without respect to the security conditions on the ground. The unambiguous result of this experiment has been more war, not less.
The Taliban has filled the vacuum left by retreating NATO troops with astonishing violence. Perhaps contrary to the expectations of critics of U.S. deployments in the Middle East, the White House isn’t enjoying a victory lap as the public garlands Joe Biden with laurels. Instead, the administration is improvising its way through a disaster.
The Biden administration is agonizing over what will happen to American diplomatic staff when the Taliban reaches Kabul. It is publicly wrestling over whether it will commit to executing airstrikes on advancing Taliban positions in support of the government and frantically negotiating with Central Asian governments to ensure continuity in counterterrorism operations. And when they’re not plugging unanticipated holes in that dam, they’re mollifying critics who accuse the administration of abandoning the Afghans who spent the last two decades working with Americans. And when all this work is done, the United States will only have defeat to show for the effort once the group that allowed al-Qaeda to plan and execute 9/11 returns to power.
Critics of America’s commitment to Afghanistan will point to the Ashraf Ghani government’s apparent fragility as evidence of our failure in Central Asia. But the post-World War II history of America’s deployments abroad includes support for a number of fragile governments, with the only end game being the indefinite preservation of those governments in the pursuit of grander, permanent interests. Surrounded as it is by Iran, China, and Pakistan, our interests in Afghanistan will remain permanent whether we see to them or not.
The Biden administration seems to be betting that Americans are so fed up with Afghanistan that they would rather watch as a medieval terrorist outfit undoes decades of progress. Polling suggests the public is not nearly as anxious about the American presence in what has been for years a comparatively low-impact engagement for U.S. soldiers as critics of U.S. deployments abroad like to believe. But withdrawal and insurgency are once again upon us. That will look a lot more like a war than anything to which the United States had been party to in Afghanistan for the better part of a decade. Those who are invested in America’s unconditional retreat seem to be betting that the public won’t notice the distinction. That’s a risky bet.