How We End the Forever War

The U.S. does not know how to end its wars. Even when US troops are withdrawn from another country, US involvement in the war there does not necessarily end. The Trump administration pulled troops out of Somalia last year, but US military operations in Somalia continue. President Biden has committed to withdrawing the remaining troops from Afghanistan, but it is simply understood that US special forces, drones, and jets will continue to conduct operations in the country for the foreseeable future. The troops move, but the wars continue. As if to drive this point home, Gen. McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM, recently stated that the war on terrorism "is probably not going to end." He could have dropped the probably. When the goals of a war are unachievable, it is not possible for the war to end when our government is determined to keep fighting it no matter what. Like every other war the US has fought since 1945, the forever war is a war of choice. Unless there are major changes in policy, the "war on terror" will outlive the US troop presence in Afghanistan.

It is not surprising that there are many foreign policy analysts and pundits eager to dismiss the very idea of forever war. It is mocked as a cliché and a convenient slogan, and in the same breath that they dismiss forever war as meaningless they insist that the policies that make forever war possible continue indefinitely. Supporters of endless war simultaneously deny that the US is at war while insisting that halting the war would be a disastrous mistake. Other critics of forever war rhetoric would have us believe that rejecting open-ended belligerence amounts to writing off engagement with entire regions, as if there is no way to be involved in other parts of the world that doesn’t involve bombing and special forces raids.

Steven Cook dismissed the call to end forever war by calling it a "nifty slogan" and declared that there are no good definitions of forever war, but in fact there is a sound working definition of endless war that Cook never mentions. David Sterman of the New America think tank published a report earlier this year in which he provided a clear and reasonable definition of endless war. When a belligerent cannot achieve its goals, but at the same time cannot be defeated by its enemy, that is when you have a state of endless war. Cook doesn’t address the findings of Sterman’s report, and it is likely that he is unaware that it exists. That drives home how little he has engaged with the arguments in favor of ending the wars.

A "war on terror" is bound to be an endless and unwinnable war. Not only does a militarized response to terrorism produce more of what it is supposed to eliminate, but because of its unrealistic goals it can never be over. There is no final victory over any terrorist group, which can always regroup or relocate somewhere else, much less a victory over terrorism itself. US policy goals are so far-fetched and impossible that there can be no end to the war. There can be no peace when the enemy is so vaguely and broadly defined that it can apply to almost any armed group anywhere in the world.

"We will always be at war with Al Qaeda and its associated forces" sounds like something out of a dystopian nightmare, but it is the mission statement that defines a major part of US foreign policy on at least two continents. Practically every jihadist group on the planet can be lumped in as one of Al Qaeda’s "associated forces," and that means the US will continue to join in numerous conflicts that have absolutely nothing to do with protecting Americans from attack. The only ways to end a war like this are either to dramatically scale back the goals so that they can be met or to cease fighting it entirely. As Sterman put it in his report, "The only way to truly end America’s endless wars is to bring American objectives in line with achievable results."

To that end, Americans need to recognize that military action is a poor, heavy-handed approach to counter-terrorism. Our endless war brings more death and destruction to other countries, many of which are already wracked by their own conflicts that are made worse by our interventions. The US is already extraordinarily secure from physical attacks. The threat of terrorism is relatively small and does not warrant the obsessive and excessively militarized response that still defines our policies almost twenty years after the 9/11 attacks. The 2001 AUMF has become an open-ended license to kill, and it needs to be repealed. Repealing the 2001 AUMF is essential because the authorization has undermined the integrity of our constitutional system and given multiple presidents unacceptable arbitrary power to order attacks virtually anywhere in the world with virtually no oversight and no consent from Congress or the public. There can be no real democratic accountability in our foreign policy as long as the 2001 AUMF remains on the books.

If Americans are truly going to put a stop to arbitrary presidential warmaking, we will need to go even further. As Samuel Moyn and Jack Goldsmith pointed out in an op-ed last month, simply repealing the old 2001 and 2002 AUMFs is inadequate if we are to succeed in reining in the president’s ability to wage war:

"If this is right, Congress must do more than withdraw old permission slips and reduce America’s heavy military presence abroad. It should end its long acquiescence in presidential arrogation of war power by affirmatively prohibiting unilateral uses of force except in tightly defined circumstances of actual self-defense. It should automatically cut off funding for discretionary presidential wars after a short period, absent congressional permission or a defined emergency. And it should reduce the enormous global military and intelligence infrastructure that leaves the United States always on the precipice of war even when presidents opt not to strike."

This will be a much more daunting task than just repealing an AUMF, but anything less than this will leave far too much unchecked and arbitrary power in the hands of future presidents to order attacks without Congressional approval and ensnare the US in unnecessary wars. The US can be at peace, but it requires abandoning the permanent war footing that our government has been on for decades.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.