President Joe Biden is playing hide the ball with America’s Forever Wars. In his public pronouncements, he depicts his administration as diligently rolling back the numerous post‐9/11 U.S. military misadventures. He delivered a number of speeches declaring an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and specifying a timeline for a withdrawal of U.S. troops by September. In April, the administration reached a tacit agreement with the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al‐Kadhimi to officially conclude the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. “There will be no U.S. military forces in a combat role by the end of the year,” says a Biden senior official.
This public rhetoric is profoundly misleading. Biden certainly knows that bringing an end to these far‐flung “counter‐terrorism” missions is popular with the electorate. That may explain the eagerness to portray his administration’s approach as one of ending endless wars, as the slogan goes. But it is not true.
In Afghanistan, it looks like most U.S. forces will be withdrawn soon, although a substantial contingent of forces will remain to guard the U.S. embassy. That said, officials have made clear—somewhere beneath the headlines and the prime time coverage—that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will continue indefinitely. In withdrawing from Afghanistan, the administration sought basing access in neighboring Central Asian countries, and U.S. military assets are being repositioned just outside Afghanistan to enable continued support of the Afghan Armed Forces. Aid to the U.S.-backed Kabul regime will also continue. In other words, the United States will continue a combat role in Afghanistan to defend Kabul from the Taliban. This week, General Kenneth McKenzie put it plainly: “The United States has increased airstrikes in support of Afghan forces over the last several days and we’re prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks.” This is not an end to America’s longest war.
As for Iraq, the lofty talk of ending the combat mission hardly seems to match the facts. The public rhetoric is therefore bizarrely contradictory. Officials emphasize that they will “formally end the combat mission and make clear there are no American forces with a combat role in the country,” but that U.S. troop levels will not change, and may even increase. The roughly 2,500 U.S. forces in Iraq will remain there in order to continue assisting Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS and facing other local threats. As a CNN report noted, these changes to the U.S. mission in Iraq “could come on paper only.” When pressed by a journalist, a senior official promises that “it’s far more than semantics” but “I am not going to get into details of what capabilities there are, what capabilities we intend to have in the training/advisory role” and “I’m just not going to talk about numbers at all.” In short, the mission in Iraq continues and the administration believes the exact number of U.S. troops to be deployed in Iraq and what their exact mission will be is none of the American people’s business.
The U.S. military mission in Syria—which suffers from a deeply confused strategic rationale and a genuine lack of legal authority—will also continue unabated. In the same exchange cited above, an unnamed senior official makes this crystal clear. Here’s a brief transcript excerpt:
Q: I’m wondering if you anticipate a similar kind of shift in mission [in Syria]. Or has that shift already been completed? Do you anticipate any change in the U.S. mission there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t anticipate any changes right now to the mission or the footprint in Syria…In Syria, we’re supporting Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against ISIS…that’s something we’ll continue.
So, the Biden administration is talking a big game on ending America’s so‐called endless wars. But this is little more than messaging. Below the surface, and largely outside the view of the American people, Biden is continuing the military mission in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Similarly, after declaring an end to U.S. offensive support for Saudi operations in Yemen, Biden made clear that “We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people” from “missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian‐supplied forces in multiple countries.” In plain language, that means the United States will continue to be militarily entangled in Yemen. And, apparently, Biden will continue to bomb Somalia, as he did twice last week.
Putting an antiwar gloss on ongoing War on Terror policies may be good politics, but it won’t achieve what Americans, at least in part, elected Biden to do.
John Glaser is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. His research interests include grand strategy, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the rise of China, and the role of status and prestige motivations in international politics.