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During a Sept. 28 hearing, the House Foreign Affairs Committee sought to address the last two decades of our country’s war-laden approach to counterterrorism. The hearing came amid ongoing negotiations centered on reforming the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the dangerous policy that continues to be used as the basis for all current U.S. counterterrorism wars. 

The 2001 AUMF isn’t the only outdated war authorization still on the books. For years, FCNL and its network of advocates have also lobbied Congress to repeal the 2002 AUMF—the legislation that authorized the U.S. invasion of Iraq just one year later. 

During the hearing, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland confirmed that the 2002 Iraq AUMF isn’t needed, and Rep. Dina Titus highlighted the strong bipartisan support that exists for repealing it. Despite this and other helpful discussion, the hearing made clear that the Biden administration has no plans to end the forever wars.

Biden’s disappointing counterterrorism approach 

This disappointing sentiment echoed the theme of a key Biden administration document that outlines its strategic approach to counterterrorism. The document, called the National Security Memorandum on U.S. international counterterrorism policy (NSM), was released this past July in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the New York Times. The NSM gives us a look into the administration’s long-term thinking about the War on Terror. And it is deeply concerning.

The Biden administration’s approach to counterterrorism is not a shift away from a militarized response at all, but an outsourcing of it.

While several sections of the NSM have been redacted, the visible parts identify rising tensions with other great powers, climate change, and cyber security as equally or more urgent than terrorism. At first glance, this document appears to build on other Biden administration actions to de-emphasize the War on Terror and pragmatically disengage from the costlier, more intensive interventions of the past. The NSM adds that the United States “must avoid undertaking large-scale, U.S.-led nation-building efforts in the name of [counterterrorism].”

However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the Biden administration’s approach to counterterrorism is not a shift away from a militarized response at all, but an outsourcing of it.

According to the NSM, the administration plans to respond to terrorism abroad by propping up “trusted partners” through military assistance programs in a long list of countries. Since 2005, the U.S. government has employed special authorities to arm, train, pay, and even direct the actions of partner forces fighting local terror groups. 

The failures of outsourcing counterterrorism wars 

The track record for these security cooperation programs is not encouraging. What’s more, with limited reporting on these operations, Congress cannot fulfill its duty to conduct proper oversight and the American public cannot meaningfully assess the costs and consequences of military actions taken in their name. Acting through partner forces, the Biden administration is setting the stage for extended secret wars with little accountability or oversight.

For decades the War on Terror has been treated as a battle between democracy and fundamentalism. This rallying cry launched a militarized worldwide campaign that failed to achieve its stated goal of eliminating terrorism. 

Military force is an ineffective tool to address terrorism. As the NSM itself admits, many terror threats are driven by pre-existing weaknesses in governments and civil institutions. The introduction of military forces cannot change that underlying reality but often further perpetuates violence. The problem of government legitimacy is not fixable in the long-term by a perpetual U.S. military presence. 

Ending the forever wars 

The administration’s implicit acknowledgement of that reality is welcome. But it is deeply disappointing that the Biden administration has chosen to entrench a failed militarized approach that has resulted in the deaths of over 432,000 civilians and more than 7,000 U.S. troops while shielding operations from public scrutiny. 

Instead, the Biden administration should take bold, active steps to end the War on Terror, starting by working with Congress to repeal outdated AUMFs, move our nation off a war footing, and pursue sustainable peace at home and abroad.

Staff: Kevin Snow

Kevin Snow

Program Assistant, Militarism and Human Rights (2022-2023)

Kevin Snow was the program assistant for Militarism and Human Rights for 2022-2023. He lobbied for policy reforms that protect civilian life in conflict zones and to end America’s Forever Wars.