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The U.S. is finally leaving Afghanistan. That hardly means America’s done with “forever wars.”
President Joe Biden has defended his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in part by promising to focus on fighting terrorists in places like Somalia, Syria, and other hotspots across Asia and Africa—and, if the need arises, even in Afghanistan.
That means the multinational counterterrorist campaigns unleashed in the wake of 9/11, which have claimed thousands of lives in countries where the U.S. is not technically at war, aren’t over.
The real difference, Biden suggested, will be avoiding massive, high-profile, boots-on-the-ground deployments, like the U.S. had maintained in Afghanistan for two decades and instead relying on lighter military operations that can deliver pinpoint attacks in far-flung areas.
“We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence,” Biden said on Aug. 16. “If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan.”
Biden pledged to use so-called “over-the-horizon capability” against threats to the United States in the region “and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”
That military buzzphrase remains ill-defined, even among defense specialists. But it generally means launching targeted strikes from a distance, using drones, long-distance missiles, Special Forces, or friendly regional military forces.
That approach might be less obvious than deploying thousands of U.S. soldiers as an occupying force and leaving them there for a generation. But the consequences are very real—as the results of American military actions in multiple countries since 9/11 show.
From 2018 to 2020, the U.S. engaged in what it labeled “counterterrorism” activities in 85 countries, including eight countries where U.S. service members engaged in on-the-ground combat against militants. And since 2004, as many as 16,901 people have been killed in U.S. drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan—including up to 2,200 civilians—according to statistics compiled by the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
But consequences of America’s lengthy combat missions have hardly been limited to the battlefield. They’ve been accompanied by a wave of mental health crisis and suicide among U.S. service members. The Costs of War project estimates that 30,177 active-duty military personnel and veterans who served after 9/11 died by suicide, more than four times the 7,057 killed in military operations.
Since taking over, Biden significantly curtailed drone strikes pending a review of authorization policies enacted under the Trump administration. Yet Biden has yet to roll out a specific long-term strategy for handling, and approving, drone strikes.
Now, it remains to be seen exactly what his administration’s counterterrorism strategy will be in the wake of the debacle in Afghanistan—and how the U.S. posture may shift in the wake of intense criticism at home and abroad over the Taliban’s capture of Kabul.
But as Biden pledges to focus America’s efforts on fighting terrorists across both Asia and Africa, America’s post-9/11 “forever wars” don’t appear to be ending anytime soon.