You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Forever War Was Supposed to End in 2014. Instead, Obama Doubled Down.

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

This year was supposed to be the final year of the Forever War. The last U.S. troops returned from Iraq two years ago, and the U.S./NATO combat mission ended—on paper, at least—earlier this month. When President Obama addressed the 2013 graduating class at the National Defense University (NDU), he declared it time “to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.” Almost exactly one year later, fighters from al-Qaeda offshoots seized key cities across Syria and Iraq, and declared a Muslim caliphate called the Islamic State (IS). With the rise of IS, 2014 instead saw the most significant expansion of war since George W. Bush declared war against al-Qaeda. In the final days of 2014, the U.S. is recommitting troops in Iraq, launching a new bombing campaign in Syria, and quietly continuing a downsized combat mission in Afghanistan—not to mention the ongoing drone wars in the undeclared battlefields of Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. 

In the NDU speech, Obama said he looked forward to working with Congress to repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that provided that legal basis for invading Afghanistan. He didn’t mention the 2002 update that applied to the Iraq invasion—most likely because he assumed it was obsolete. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end," he said. When the president unveiled his strategy to defeat IS on the eve of September 11, 2014, he opted to use both the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs as legal justification for his new war, rather than seek new Congressional authorization. He described a U.S.-led coalition that would combine air strikes in Iraq and Syria with training assistance to the Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian opposition fighters on the ground. Obama deliberately avoided the word “war,” only using it to emphasize that his operation would be different than Bush’s ill-fated interventions.

A handful of lawmakers grumbled about overreach of executive power, but most were quietly pleased to avoid making a weighty vote before midterm elections. Under the legal authority of legislation passed over a decade ago, for an entirely different purpose, the U.S. military has bombed thousands of IS targets in Iraq and Syria, spent over $1 billion, and lost three U.S. soldiers. During a recent Pentagon briefing, Army Lieutenant General James Terry said to expect this new war, dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve, to continue for at least three years.

The ease with which IS seized territory (and the lack of a fight put up by the Iraqi military) caught the Obama administration by surprise, but Obama’s reversal isn’t explained solely by the rise of the terrorist group. It’s also indicative of the fact that the administration never really had a solid plan or commitment to ending the War on Terror.

Within hours of the NDU speech, White House officials hosted a background phone call and quickly dialed back the president’s pledge to repeal the 2001 AUMF. Officials described instead a more refined AUMF, which could eventually exclude the Taliban, but would continue to apply to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. And sure enough, the White House fell back on the old AUMF when grasping for legal justification to bomb Iraq and Syria this past summer. “The administration’s argument on how the 2001 AUMF applies to ISIS is breathtakingly broad,” said Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU. “If they’re applying the 2001 AUMF to ISIS, there are very few limitations on where it would apply​,” he added. Though IS was initially an al-Qaeda affiliate, the two groups formally split in February and have fought for recruits, oil, and territory since.

On December 11, four months into the bombing campaign, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a draft of a new AUMF created specifically for the ongoing war against IS. But the new authorization is strikingly similar to the old legislation, and does little to restrict the “perpetual wartime footing” Obama said he was done with a year and a half ago. Two days before the AUMF vote, Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the committee, presenting the Obama Administration’s wish list for its new war authorization:

1. The ability to use force against IS and associated forces

2. No geographic limitations

3. The option to deploy ground combat troops if necessary

4. An initial three-year authorization, with the option to extend

The committee granted all of Kerry’s requests—though with limitations on the use of ground forces. The proposed legislation repeals the 2002 AUMF but keeps the 2001 AUMF active for another three years. If Congress passes the proposed AUMF, the Obama administration will retain the authority to fight the Taliban, al Qaeda, and al-Qaeda affiliates anywhere in the world, and gain the ability to expand the fight to IS and groups that look like IS. This means that the War on Terror could quickly expand to battlefields in Libya and Egypt where groups have already claimed allegiance to IS.

Back in 2012, when Jeh Johnson was General Counsel to the Defense Department, he was contemplating an end to the war against al-Qaeda and its allies. Addressing the Oxford Union, he said, “It is an unconventional conflict, against an unconventional enemy, and will not end in conventional terms,” He continued, “We cannot and should not expect al Qaeda and its associated forces to all surrender, all lay down their weapons in an open field, or to sign a peace treaty with us. They are terrorist organizations. Nor can we capture or kill every last terrorist who claims an affiliation with al Qaeda.”

The end of the War on Terror will be ambiguous, awkward, and will inevitably feel ill-timed. Terrorism will never be fully eradicated, but the presence of terrorists cannot be the sole justification for continuing an armed conflict. Terrorism existed before the 9/11 attacks and was considered the responsibility of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, rather than the military.

“There will come a tipping point—a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed,” said Johnson. “At that point, we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an ‘armed conflict’ against al Qaeda and its associated forces; rather, a counterterrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remnants of al Qaeda.”

Johnson closed his remarks with a reminder: "'War' must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs. War permits one man—if he is a 'privileged belligerent,' consistent with the laws of war—to kill another. War violates the natural order of things, in which children bury their parents; in war parents bury their children. In its 12th year, we must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the 'new normal.'"

The War on Terror is now in its 14th year and is feeling increasingly normal.

This piece has been updated