Is the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) coming back? Or did it never really end?
The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration is contemplating leaving as many as 5,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan beyond next year. This seems all but inevitable given the manner in which security deteriorated in Iraq in recent years and the high likelihood that a similar scenario would unfold (or, some would argue, already is unfolding) in Afghanistan (the article quotes an unnamed military officer saying that the "lesson of Iraq is very much on people's mind"). According to unnamed "senior administration officials," the plan put forward by then-CJCS Gen. Dempsey calls for NATO allies to take over more of the training mission in Afghanistan, leaving the United States focused on a counterterrorism mission supported by 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops spread across two or three "lily pad" bases in Afghanistan, poised to "strike groups that posed a direct threat to the United States" with some combination of manned and unmanned aircraft as well as, presumably, with special operations raids. And, critically, the article adds that this force "would be one part of an emerging plan for a global counterterrorism footprint, developed after the Islamic State’s rampage through much of Iraq and Syria."
What we are seeing here is a sign of an inexorable shift towards a new normal in which such force-projection "lily pads" will be spread (and, indeed, already have been spread) opportunistically across (or at least nearby) troubled regions in order to provide the physical foundation for quick projection of targeted lethal force against al Qaeda and ISIL today (and their successors tomorrow), without incurring the many costs and burdens associated with large-footprint ground combat deployments. This suggests that expectations that the force-oriented "post-9/11 period" would be temporary, replaced eventually by a force-eschewing model akin to pre-9/11 policies, are not likely to be realized. The only real shift, instead, is the move away from the ground combat deployments of the 2001-2014 period in favor of the light-footprint lily pad model (what we might call the Global Counterterrorism Footprint). Under the latter model, we will see a sustained commitment to the episodic use of force in ways resembling what has happened for many years in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, and which we are now seeing in Syria and Iraq. Afghanistan, on this view, is a transitional case, one that the government hopes to manage more effectively than was the case with Iraq.
The lily pad model will continue to fuel debate regarding the relevance of IHL to U.S. counterterrorism operations, as well as (in some locations at least) U.N. Charter concerns. But note, too, how this model relates to the domestic legal architecture. To the extent that the Global Counterterrorism Footprint model is limited to "direct threats to the United States," to be met with force projected largely through airpower and without combat ground deployments, it simply would not depend on the AUMF any longer; Article II could do the same work from a domestic legal perspective (though the politics/optics would of course be more difficult).