The Forever War Is Entrenched

By Jack Goldsmith
Monday, October 19, 2015, 7:57 AM

Many commentators noted last week that President Obama’s decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2016 (with the hope of reducing that number to 5,500), combined with the rising number of troops in and around Iraq to fight ISIS, marks a defeat for the President’s campaign and first-term pledges to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Events last week also put an exclamation point on the death of President Obama’s aim, announced thirty months ago, to end the AUMF war. In language that now seems quaint, the President said:

The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old. The Afghan war is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.

So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.

None of this has turned out the way the President wanted. The Afghan war is not coming to an end. Nor is war in Iraq. Core al Qaeda still threatens the United States. (Last week, the USG killed in Syria a leader of the Khorasan Group, “a shadowy Qaeda cell that American officials say has been plotting attacks against the United States and Europe.”) And the President, far from engaging Congress to repeal the AUMF, significantly extended the AUMF on his own to include ISIS, whose influence continues to spread. Even if al Qaeda went away and the war in Afghanistan somehow ended, the conflict against ISIS, General Allen said this summer, will “likely take a generation or more.” (Admiral Winnefeld and General Odierno recently said similar things, as have others from the military.)

Far from ending the Forever War against non-state actor terrorists, the President has significantly extended it. Special forces are present in more nations than ever before. Drone strikes are extensively deployed. Offensive cyberoperations have steadily increased. And most importantly, over the course of the Obama administration the military, intelligence, legal, and bureaucratic architecture for supporting endless war against terrorists in many countries has matured, normalized, and become entrenched. It will be with us for a very long time, long past the Obama presidency, even without further authorization from Congress.

Whether all this is good or bad, necessary or avoidable, I will leave for another day. For now it is enough to note how far we have traveled from the ambition of President's 2013 speech, and from the much further distance of the lofty expectations implicit in the hopeful Washington Post headline on January 23, 2009, which stated: “Bush’s ‘War’ on Terror Comes to a Sudden End.”