On August 8, The New York Times Magazine‘s C.J. Chivers published a lengthy pre-mortem of the failures of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, noting how "Aside from displacing tyrants and leading to the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, none of this turned out as pitched. Prominent successes were short-lived." This faint praise of the War on Terror comes as the Afghanistan War approaches its 17th birthday.
In June, it was announced that a monument for soldiers who fought in the first Gulf War was approved for construction on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial, by the US Commission of Fine Arts. Elizabeth K. Meyer, a professor at the University of Virginia and member of the commission, expressed concern over "the proliferation of war memorials on the National Mall," according to the Washington Post. "The Mall is a public space that symbolizes our collective national identity, and we’re more than wars. We’re more than commemorating the dead…"
Her worry is due to plans for four other war memorials on or around the Mall in the near future: dedications to World War I, Native American Veterans, African-American Veterans in the Revolution, and the most off-putting, yet inevitable of all, a Global War on Terror Memorial, scheduled for construction in 2024.
A Global War on Terror Memorial is objectionable for many reasons, but the most obvious is that the war is not over – and in fact, by the letter of the law, can never be over. Given the war’s unending nature, a War on Terror Memorial prematurely closes the debate and will prevent a full reckoning of whether or not it has been worth it – and the evidence suggests it hasn’t. No one will want to point to the memorial and say this war is unjust and unwise, for fear of disrespecting those still fighting it.
September 11 was the catalyst for the War on Terror. However, it was the September 18 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that confirmed its open-endedness, giving the president wide latitude to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons" he determined were responsible for 9/11.
Little thought was given to how finely stretched that single page would become to include a never-ending ground war in Afghanistan, multiple, unaccountable drone wars, extrajudicial killing of American citizens, omnipresent surveillance, and military deployment in some 37 countries. In half a dozen of these places, such as Somalia and Yemen, the US military and its drones and planes are involved in violent clashes. By definition these are undeclared, open-ended wars in countries nobody in Congress voted to start.
Afghanistan is the mother and permanent child of the War on Terror. The conflict is almost 17 years old, the longest in American history, now in its third presidential administration. Last summer, President Trump announced a new "conditions-based" strategy that maintains the US presence until the Afghan government is able to provide for its own security.
The problem with that is, even after 17 years of American investment, the Afghan government is losing territory to the Taliban. Reconstruction projects fail to deliver even lukewarm results. Rampant corruption and an invigorated opium trade undermine both security and economic development. The policies "that sent [American soldiers] abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded." Yet American troops are expected to labor on forever in hopes the Afghan government will eventually stand on its own.
Any realism is largely absent from public discourse and totally absent at the Pentagon. In fact, we receive the exact opposite, as a May statement on the war’s "progress" from General John Nicholson, Jr. highlights: "violence and progress can coexist, and that’s what we’re seeing."
The 2003 Iraq War had its own AUMF, but those arguing in favor of the invasion relied on two accusations – both untrue – 1) Iraqi possession of WMDs and 2) an overt tie between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda. Although it’s now politically safe to say that war was a mistake, as most otherwise stalwart hawks do, it destabilized the entire region and fed other conflicts, such as the Syrian Civil War (where there are 2,000 American troops). Intervention has created a situation where the Middle East is now "more complex and conflict-ridden than it has been at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire," according to the Cato Institute’s Emma Ashford. The current fight in Iraq and Syria is focused on combating ISIS, who emerged from the power vacuum left after toppling Hussein, and who in many cases evolved out of the most extreme elements of al-Qaeda.
The War on Terror is more than just a bundle of bad policy decisions, though. The project writ large is an assault on liberal values. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed the long-suspected totalitarian surveillance apparatus carried by the surveillance state. President Obama compiled a "kill list" of those he could eliminate without due process, including American citizens (a power that Trump still possesses). Three successive administrations have imprisoned terror suspects indefinitely without a trial, and some were tortured during the Bush years. President Trump is dropping a record number of bombs and killing record numbers of civilians. Perpetual war is inherently illiberal, and it’s what we have.
The War on Terror has been long, devoid of substantive victories, served no long-term strategic purpose, and has made us less safe. We should abolish the AUMF, bring the troops home, and then we can talk about whether this epoch deserve memorializing. Before we erect any permanent monuments to the War on Terror, it should first end.