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The Forever Wars Aren’t Ending. They’re Just Being Rebranded.

The president is pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But many will be headed to other war zones where America’s military grinds on.

John Moore/Getty Images
A U.S. Army soldier looks over Baghdad from the International Zone.

After 18 years of illegal warfare, corruption, and untold numbers of innocent people killed or made into refugees, the U.S. combat mission in Iraq will be declared finished—for the third time. Sort of. This week, President Joe Biden said that the United States is “not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission” in Iraq. The 2,500 U.S. soldiers officially staged there—almost certainly an undercount, as military leaders tend to fudge deployment numbers and reorganize troops under intelligence authorities or noncombat roles so as to disguise the scale of our overseas footprint—will be moving on.

But they won’t necessarily be going home, or even leaving the region. The change in status, while pleasing to anti-war advocates and to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who met with Biden this week, is mostly a distinction without a difference. The U.S. will be moving into an “advise-and-assist role,” as it’s euphemistically described, providing many of the same services it does now. According to ABC News, “the change in mission is more of a semantic one, and the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will not dramatically differ as they shift their emphasis to training and assisting.” U.S. soldiers will be doing “the exact same things they’re already doing, just fewer doing it,” said Wesley Morgan, author of a book about America’s war in Afghanistan.

The forever wars don’t seem to end, they just molt into their next iteration, as assets are shuffled around, missions rebranded, and local allies reassured that we are there to “advise and assist” for as long as is needed. Relying heavily on special forces, intelligence resources, contractors, and unmatched air power, the U.S. continues to be involved in conflicts in Syria, Somalia, Libya, Niger, and other undeclared war zones. In Africa alone, the U.S. has at least 29 military bases and participates in operations against Islamic State sympathizers and other jihadist groups in a number of countries, particularly in West Africa. Earlier this year, making good on a campaign promise, Biden claimed that the U.S. would stop providing “offensive assistance” to the vicious war prosecuted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—with British and American help—in Yemen. We still don’t know if anything has changed, and the U.S. continues to help enforce a devastating blockade of a key port in a country where millions face hunger.

Prolonging a process that was begun under Donald Trump, the U.S. hasn’t so much folded its cards in these conflicts as it has reshuffled the deck. Biden has positioned himself as a reluctant peacemaker—so reluctant that he sometimes brushes off questions about Afghanistan because they aren’t “happy.” But in practice, he appears to be a pliant imperial overseer. In moving to reestablish the relationships and treaties Trump trashed, while rebranding U.S. involvement in various conflicts, Biden’s foreign policy looks much like a return to the muscular liberalism of the Obama era, which gave us the Islamic State and humanitarian disasters in Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere. Any reports that the forever wars are ending miss what is really happening in U.S. foreign policy.

Consider America’s pullout from Afghanistan, which has featured quietly dramatic scenes of fleets of vehicles abandoned at Bagram Airbase and reports of the Taliban capturing district after district. Even in that conflict, there’s little sense that the U.S. is about to abandon its foundering efforts to create a functional democracy in a country wracked by generations of war and outside meddling. Rather than fully exit the region, the U.S. reportedly has been considering repositioning its military assets to surrounding Central Asian countries, including possibly leasing Russian military bases in places like Tajikistan. U.S. forces have also continued launching airstrikes against the Taliban to try to aid the teetering Afghan government and to provide cover for foreign forces set to leave the country. (The Taliban, for its part, promised “consequences” for the U.S. violating its agreement to pull out of Afghanistan fully by August 31.) The U.S. has similarly promised, in the words of Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., to provide “intelligence sharing and advising and assisting through security consultations at the strategic level” to the Afghan government—for as long as that government lasts in the face of growing Taliban assaults.

American military operations seem to be continuing in Syria and Somalia, as well. Trump expressed interest in ending U.S. involvement in Somalia, but according to some reports, U.S. forces were mostly relocated to Kenya and other regional bases, essentially “commuting to work,” as described by Air Force Magazine. Following a six-month respite, the Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia, leading several Democratic senators to demand an explanation. “I have received no information suggesting that these strikes are necessary to protect any U.S. personnel and would need to understand, if this is so, why they are occurring,” said Senator Tim Kaine. The same could be said about much of the last 20 years of America’s wars of choice.

In Syria, the U.S. has carved out a small “buffer zone” in the east of the country, where Green Berets train and assist Syrian Democratic Forces in their battle against remnants of the Islamic State, and other U.S. assets provide air support. Although their presence is probably illegal, and occurred without any congressional debate, the mission will go on. “I don’t anticipate any changes right now to the mission or the footprint in Syria,” an anonymous official told Politico on Tuesday. More detailed information about the U.S. mission in Syria, including photos, videos, and other friendly propaganda, can be found on Twitter, where a U.S. spokesman provides regular updates with the hashtag #defeatdaesh (Daesh being a derogatory Arabic term for the Islamic State). The U.S.-led coalition “is committed to supporting the #SDF to combat terrorism & ensure a long-term stability in NE Syria,” said spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto this week.

In both Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials say, American soldiers no longer participate in raids or kick down doors. They merely do everything else a long-term counterinsurgency campaign requires. This shift to more hazily described assistance roles is supposed to reflect a maturation and evolution of a global war on terror. But they’re also a way of keeping U.S. forces engaged in the region without visibly occupying it. This strategy also allows the U.S. to amp up involvement any time an Iranian-sponsored militia manages to lob some missiles a U.S. base in Iraq or Syria. As Marotto, the coalition spokesman, recently said, “The U.S./Coalition has the inherent right to self-defense. Force protection remains the highest priority of the @Coalition.”

It’s a measure of how distorted our forever-war logic has become. Why keep U.S. soldiers parked at regional bases without any combat role, just so they can be targets for militia drone strikes that may then demand an escalating response? These soldiers and contractors wouldn’t require force protection if they were returned home.

According to The Washington Post, President Biden is trying “to end the post-9/11 era.” From Afghanistan to Iraq to Guantánamo, where a prisoner was recently released after years of confinement and no criminal charges, Biden claims to be turning the page, reorienting toward security threats emanating from China and Russia.

This new eagerness to wave sabers in the general direction of Beijing would be concerning on its own. But it also highlights how ending America’s decades-long imperial drift will take far more than rearranging some military deployments. It will require a complete reimagining of how to engage with a world that has been cynically reduced to a global battlefield populated with endless threats. It requires admitting that we live in a country mostly safe from external enemies, with only a marginal risk of terrorism. For 20 years, our political and military leaders and foreign policy establishment have claimed otherwise. Judging by Biden’s latest decisions—as well as the hysterically overwrought reactions of old neocon hands like George W. Bush and Lindsey Graham, who would be content to occupy Afghanistan for another generation—our elites are still not ready to admit the obvious: We lost these wars, and the only way to expiate our failure is to go home.