Fifteen years ago today, George W. Bush announced the beginning of the Iraq war. Two U.S. presidents, thousands of lives lost, a withdrawal and a reengagement later, American troops are still on the ground—and dying—in Iraq. There are no plans for withdrawal, even though the most recent foe there—ISIS—has been almost entirely defeated.
The conflict in Iraq is just one facet of an ever-expanding and seemingly endless U.S. military campaign across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. Last week, the White House, as required by a new provision in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, issued a report to Congress on all the countries where ongoing U.S. military operations are taking place. According to the unclassified portion of the report, America is currently at war in seven countries:
• In Iraq, the U.S. military is continuing to train and assist Iraqi security forces in order to prevent the reemergence of ISIS, as happened after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011.
• In Syria, American troops are still on the ground, ostensibly to mop up the last remnants of ISIS, though administration officials have also mentioned several other goals, including putting pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s government, supporting local Kurdish allies, and countering Iranian aggression. These troops have been in an increasingly complex and precarious position as open warfare has broken out between Turkey and the Kurds—both officially U.S. allies.
• In Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been fighting since 2001, making it the longest conflict in U.S. history. Thousands of new U.S. troops were dispatched last year to support the Afghan government and security forces and fight the Taliban and ISIS. Nonetheless, the Taliban continues to increase the amount of area under its control.
• In Libya, the U.S. military conducted airstrikes against ISIS with what appear to be loosened rules of engagement.
• In Somalia, the Trump administration has dramatically ramped up the number of drone and special operations strikes against ISIS, al-Qaida, and al-Shabaab as well as assisting local forces. Last May saw the first U.S. combat death since the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident.
• In Niger, around 800 troops are working to train and assist local forces. The U.S. presence in the West African country was little known, even to senior lawmakers, until the firefight that killed four American troops last October. This confrontation was apparently not an isolated incident in what was not originally intended to be a combat mission.
• In Yemen, the U.S. is carrying out strikes against ISIS and al-Qaida targets as well as providing what the White House report calls “limited support” to the Saudi-led coalition fighting against Houthi forces. This last operation has proven particularly controversial given the horrific humanitarian consequences and unclear strategic objectives of the Saudi campaign. A bill, which could see a vote in the Senate this week, seeks to end U.S. involvement in the conflict against the Houthis.
This list is a bit incomplete. It doesn’t include, for instance, Pakistan, where the U.S. has continued to carry out periodic drone strikes, or the Philippines, where American troops were reportedly on the ground during a fight between that country’s military and ISIS-linked militants last summer. And as the Niger incident proved, deployments that are not intended to be combat missions can quickly turn into them if American troops are attacked by enemies that don’t respect the combat/non-combat distinction.
Most of these operations are still being carried out under the legal authority granted by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks. Though generally understood at the time as meant to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan, it contained no limits on the length or geographic scope of the operations it authorized and has been subsequently used for strikes against groups like ISIS and al-Shabaab that didn’t even exist in 2001. The new Yemen bill and the outrage that followed the Niger raid may be signs of a growing backlash against the administration’s ever-expanding authority to wage limitless global war, but we’re still a long way from any meaningful limits being placed on that authority.
The White House report shows how this authority can be extended almost indefinitely. It argues that recent strikes against Syrian regime forces were justified under the 2001 AUMF because the Syrians were threatening U.S. forces who were involved in fighting ISIS. The operation against ISIS is justified because the group was once, though is no longer, affiliated with al-Qaida.
The White House report doesn’t just use the 2001 AUMF as justification. It also argues that operations in Iraq and Syria are additionally justified under the 2002 authorization for the war in Iraq. As the report acknowledges, that authorization, which permits the president to use military force to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” was overwhelmingly understood at the time to be targeting Saddam Hussein’s government. But, the White House argues, it has subsequently been understood to have the “dual purposes of helping to establish a stable, democratic Iraq and…addressing terrorist threats emanating from Iraq.” Given that ISIS operates across the border in Syria, operations in that country also fall under the 2002 authorization.
This is presumably not what Bush had in mind on March 19, 2003 when he promised the country that by deploying decisive military force against an outlaw regime, we would soon “pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace.”