Welcome to the Post-Post-9/11 Era
A year ago, the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan was underway after 20 years of war. In February, we marked a year since President Joe Biden's announcement that the U.S. would no longer support "offensive operations" by the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen's civil war, and come December, we'll hit the one-year anniversary of the (most recent version of the) end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
But those milestones don't tell the whole story. A year ago, I worried in a post at The Week that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan wouldn't meaningfully end when our troops left Afghan soil. Even without a residual force, "over the horizon" strikes—like the one that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in July—could continue apace. But so far, it appears my worry was largely misplaced. Data from Airwars, which tracks U.S. strikes using independent reports as well as official acknowledgments, shows the Biden administration has dramatically wound down the drone war and other airstrikes, not only in Afghanistan but across the greater Middle East.
Then there's the new intelligence assessment which came out this week. It reflects the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community and indicates that Al Qaeda "has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan" in the 12 months since American forces left. Indeed, there are "fewer than a dozen al Qaeda 'core members'" left in Afghanistan, CNN reported. The terrorist organization that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks no longer has "a capability to launch attacks against the U.S. or its interests abroad from Afghanistan."
And though the 2024 presidential race isn't underway quite yet, it's curious to note how absent counterterrorism and its associated wars are from the nascent contest. This is not simply the short shrift that foreign policy is habitually issued for these events; former President Donald Trump, for example, talked about wars and terrorism and murdering terrorists' innocent family members regularly during his 2016 campaign. But now, as a Washington Post analysis of his recent rally themes suggests, those topics are rarely on his radar. Biden, meanwhile, has been remarkably quiet about his own achievement in decimating the drone war.
Taken together, this all feels like a significant shift. At the risk of jinxing things, it seems like we may have come to the end of the post-9/11 era of American foreign policy. My entire political life has taken place in the shadow of 9/11 and the excesses of Washington's response to the horrors of that day, so I make this suggestion with caution. Still, it seems as though we may be at the start of something new, with new challenges to address and, of course, new warnings against hubris, inhumanity, and imprudence to issue.
But the old era, if indeed on its way out, is not quite gone yet. The authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) which initiated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and were later stretched to provide implausible legal cover for a host of other military interventions Congress never directly approved—remain in force. These should be formally repealed so that Biden and future presidents alike must clear at least the hurdle of a vote in our usually feckless Congress if they want to expand the U.S. military presence in the Middle East again.
Relatedly, Biden's more stringent rules for approving drone strikes are an improvement over the loose approach of the Trump administration and the higher civilian casualty counts it helped produce. But those rules aren't law. They're executive guidance that can be immediately altered by the next president—which could well be Trump or another Republican with a similarly nonchalant mindset about bombing children and innocent civilians. While his party has a majority in both houses of Congress, Biden should seek to codify a more careful approach in actual law.
He should also more fully end Washington's forever wars and forever semi-wars, copying the complete withdrawal from Afghanistan in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and the many African countries with U.S. boots on the ground. Though Biden ended the combat mission in Iraq, a residual U.S. force of several thousand is still there in an advise-and-assist role; hundreds of U.S. troops are likewise still working in Somalia and Syria; and the Yemen policy shift is not as sweeping as Biden's obfuscatory rhetoric made it sound. All of these are points of small but needless risk that could lead to reescalation, and in Yemen, U.S. involvement continues to facilitate a criminal coalition intervention which has contributed considerably to the most acute humanitarian crisis on the planet.
Finally, leaving the post-9/11 era behind should include domestic policy updates, too, because the war on terror was never just limited to foreign policy. In February, we learned the CIA has conducted National Security Administration–style warrantless mass surveillance, including of Americans, in the name of fighting terror, and since then…nothing happened? We never even got all the details on what this unconstitutional spying entailed. Also overdue for serious reform (if not total abolition) is the Transportation Security Administration, which continues to be a cruel and demonstrated incompetent imposition on Americans' privacy rights. It's security theater justified by a wildly unrealistic risk assessment, and it should follow other vestiges of the post-9/11 era out the door.