When President Biden looked into the cameras last week and firmly declared that "the war in Afghanistan is now over," his words were, in his view, the culmination of a central campaign promise.
In the summer of 2019, Biden delivered a speech laying out the blueprint for his foreign policy agenda. He argued that it was "past time to end the forever wars, which have cost us untold blood and treasure."
It's a position he took again and again — in the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine, in his first official address to Congress, and even in his remarks last week on the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops, marking the official end of the 20-year mission in Afghanistan.
But critics — and even some Biden allies — question whether the "forever wars" are truly over. The president may have shrunk the wars, they say, but he has not ended them, nor are they confident he can without the backing of Congress and the public.
"The use of military force, the support of autocratic regimes, the maintenance of a facility at [Guantanamo Bay] — these are all still aspects of the forever war that are a backdrop of what America is in the world," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser under former President Barack Obama. "And until we dismantle at least aspects of that infrastructure, we can't say that we brought a forever war to a close."
Biden wants to refocus U.S. foreign policy
When Biden came into office, he was trying to reorient U.S. foreign policy — scaling down the focus on global terrorism and expanding the focus on China, Russia and cybersecurity threats.
In addition to pulling ground troops out of Afghanistan, U.S. drone strikes were at an all-time low for the first six months of Biden's administration, as Foreign Policy magazine reported in July. Biden's National Security Council has been working on an interagency review of counterterrorism policy, which includes the use of drones.
A senior administration official said the president established "interim guidance" on the use of military force to ensure he had full visibility into any potential action while the review was underway, but no final decisions have been made about new counterterrorism policies. The New York Times has reported that the Biden playbook could be a hybrid of drone policies administered under Obama and former President Donald Trump.
Experts say despite Biden's original foreign policy aims, the resurrection of the Taliban, the chaos in Afghanistan and the possibility of a failed state that could become a breeding ground for terrorists could complicate his ambitions to truly end the wars.
The United States carried out strikes this summer in Iraq, Syria and Somalia. Late last month, it also struck targets connected to an alleged ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan as the U.S. was withdrawing from the country.
The U.S. air war stretches over the horizon
"We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries," the president said last week. "We just don't need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what's called 'over the horizon' capabilities."
He was referring to drone and missile strikes. Even as vice president, Biden insisted that counterterrorism efforts from the air were more effective than protracted ground warfare.
But experts say that means the war in Afghanistan is morphing — not actually ending.
"Under no definition of warfare would the end of ground troops be called the end of war," said Seth Jones, who previously advised U.S. special operations in Afghanistan and now works with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If the U.S. is prosecuting a lethal campaign against terrorists [who are] on the ground, that's an act of war."
Biden's allies scoff at criticism, suggesting it's a matter of semantics, and insist he's taken a decisive step his predecessors wouldn't.
Vali Nasr, a senior adviser to former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke between 2009 and 2011, said Biden's words are a sign that he's recalibrating the U.S. mission.
"I think the significance of what President Biden said is not so much that he literally is going to withdraw from every single theater of military operation all at once and will not go back in again," said Nasr. "It just means that the United States will not be thinking about a military presence as a first option in every single international situation."
And, he said, Biden understands that the era of U.S. nation building is over.
"In the end, we destroyed al-Qaida not because we tried to build Kabul or Iraq into a shining city on the hill," Nasr said. "We destroyed al-Qaida by hounding them individually with drones and special forces and eliminating them."
The widespread use of drones and the human cost on the ground from airstrikes have been contentious issues.
The U.S. government has no comparable publicly available total from the past two decades. In the past few years, the Pentagon began issuing annual reports about civilians, and those annual death toll numbers are significantly less than NGO estimates. The U.S. government says the discrepancy is because it has access to confidential information. Skeptics say there's no clear information because some of these strikes are covertly carried out by the CIA, and so the government won't publicly admit they exist.
Earlier this summer, the ACLU joined with more than 100 other groups to call on the Biden administration to end "the unlawful program of lethal strikes outside any recognized battlefield."
"Airstrikes, including through the use of drones, that take place outside of recognized armed conflict — that is a centerpiece, a hallmark of the forever wars," said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project.
Congress and the public have a say
Critics of the so-called forever wars say the only way to end them is not by focusing solely on specific policies, but also the legal framework, principally the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that, they say, has allowed for open-ended warfare.
For the past two decades, the basis for Republican and Democratic presidents alike to carry out military operations has been the war authorization passed by Congress in the frenzied days after the 9/11 attacks.
"This was a 60-word authorization that was a blank check," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who at the time was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 war authorization. "It just said the president is authorized to use force in perpetuity, forever, against any nation, organization, individual, he or she deemed connected to 9/11."
Lee is working to repeal the 2001 AUMF, as well as the one passed in 2002 to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq the following year. The White House has said it supports narrowing war authorizations but hasn't been explicit about the 2001 authorization and how it should be rewritten.
We are committed to working with Congress 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.— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) March 5, 2021
Obama's deputy national security adviser Rhodes says dealing with outdated war powers is an important first step, but he thinks it will be much harder to completely end the wars.
"The reality is this is going to be a long process of essentially unwinding a series of wars and authorities, and I would argue excesses, that date all the way back to those early months after 9/11 that have shaped American foreign policy," he said. "I don't even think a president alone could end the forever war. It would take Congress. It would take a shift in prioritization from the American public."
Perhaps that opening is coming.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released last week found that a slight majority of Americans now believe domestic terrorism is a greater threat to the United States than global terrorism, a marked shift from the fears in the country immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.