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In the days after the 9/11 attacks, I remember heading downtown I live in New York City to see what was already being called "Ground Zero" (a term previously applied only to the site of an atomic blast like the one at Hiroshima). Though it was all cordoned off and I couldn't get close, even glimpsed at a distance through side streets, the slanting ruins of the Twin Towers truly took your breath away.
If, however, you had told me then that, in response to those ruins (and the ones at the Pentagon), this country would spend more than $8 trillion; use air power to turn cities like Raqqa in Syria, 80% of which was damaged or destroyed, and the Old City of Mosul in Iraq, 80% of which was also destroyed, into Twin Tower-style ruins; displace untold millions in failed wars in distant lands that would kill about a million people (including yet more Americans), hundreds of thousands of whom would be civilians (like the nearly 3,000 poor souls murdered on 9/11), I would have thought you irredeemably mad. And yet, sadly enough, in such predictions, you would have proved the sanest, most farsighted of Americans.
In other words, a series of presidents and their top officials would take that one-time stroke of nightmarish luck engineered by Osama bin Laden, 19 mostly Saudi hijackers, and their four-plane "air force" and turn it into that rich young Saudi's most fervent dream a series of never-ending American wars from hell that would create the conditions for terror outfits like al-Qaeda to thrive and spread. TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, author of the new book Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump, has followed this particular nightmare and the kind of America it has created from the moment those first hooded "detainees" in their orange jumpsuits were shuffled off planes and into a prison at Guanta'namo Bay, Cuba. They would, in the end, only be part of a far larger Bermuda Triangle of injustice, all places "beyond the reach of the courts." She's been writing about just that at TomDispatch for 16 years now and so has a truly visceral sense of the never-ending quality of the all-American nightmare that once was called the Global War on Terror. Today, she focuses on just how it might finally begin to be ended. Tom
Are We Forever Captives of America's Forever Wars?
What Needs to Be Done to Finally End Them
As August ended, American troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan almost 20 years after they first arrived. On the formal date of withdrawal, however, President Biden insisted that "over-the-horizon capabilities" (airpower and Special Operations forces, for example) would remain available for use anytime. "[W]e can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground, very few if needed," he explained, dispensing immediately with any notion of a true peace. But beyond expectations of continued violence in Afghanistan, there was an even greater obstacle to officially ending the war there: the fact that it was part of a never-ending, far larger conflict originally called the Global War on Terror (in caps), then the plain-old lower-cased war on terror, and finally as public opinion here soured on it America's "forever wars."
As we face the future, it's time to finally focus on ending, formally and in every other way, that disastrous larger war. It's time to acknowledge in the most concrete ways imaginable that the post-9/11 war on terror, of which the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan was the opening salvo, warrants a final sunset.
True, security experts like to point out that the threat of global Islamist terrorism is still of pressing and in many areas, increasing concern. ISIS and al-Qaeda are reportedly again on the rise in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.
Nonetheless, the place where the war on terror truly needs to end is right here in this country. From the beginning, its scope, as defined in Washington, was arguably limitless and the extralegal institutions it helped create, as well as its numerous departures from the rule of law, would prove disastrous for this country. In other words, it's time for America to withdraw not just from Afghanistan (or Iraq or Syria or Somalia) but, metaphorically speaking at least, from this country, too. It's time for the war on terror to truly come to an end.
With that goal in mind, three developments could signal that its time has possibly come, even if no formal declaration of such an end is ever made. In all three areas, there have recently been signs of progress (though, sadly, regress as well).
Repeal of the 2001 AUMF
First and foremost, Congress needs to repeal its disastrous 2001 Authorization for the Use of Force (AUMF) passed with Representative Barbara Lee's single "no" vote after the attacks of 9/11. Over the last 20 years, it would prove foundational in allowing the U.S. military to be used globally in essentially any way a president wanted.
That AUMF was written without mention of a specific enemy or geographical specificity of any kind when it came to possible theaters of operation and without the slightest reference to what the end of such hostilities might look like. As a result, it bestowed on the president the power to use force when, where, and however he wanted in fighting the war on terror without the need to further consult Congress. Employed initially to root out al-Qaeda and defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, it has been used over the last two decades to fight in at least 19 countries in the Greater Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Its repeal is almost unimaginably overdue.
In fact, in the early months of the Biden presidency, Congress began to make some efforts to do just that. The goal, in the words of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, was to "to ensure that the authorizations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars."
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