The recent Democratic presidential debates allotted an all too brief amount of time to discussing candidates’ views on foreign policy – especially since, as some pointed out, that’s one of the areas in which presidents’ views actually do make a difference. In the 10 minutes the debates spent on this incredibly broad issue, many of the candidates seemed to respond to growing anti-war sentiment among Americans and condemned “endless war,” as the post-9/11 US war against terrorism has come to be known. Yet by and large, they problematically equated America’s “endless war” with Afghanistan and only Afghanistan.
Admittedly, the CNN moderators pushed the Democratic candidates towards a focus on Afghanistan, asking multiple candidates if they would withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan in their first term in office. However, only one candidate even superficially made the connection between Afghanistan and the war in other places. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke said, “It is time to bring those service members back home from Afghanistan but also from Iraq, also from Yemen and Somalia and Libya and Syria. There is no reason for us to be at work all over the world tonight.”
Seeing as how the US is currently conducting counterterrorism operations in over 40 percent of the world — at least 80 countries across the globe — this omission is both a glaring blind spot and just plain incorrect.
These limitations in the “endless war” discussion reflect both journalists and candidates’ scant attention to a key framework for US foreign policy today: counterterrorism. Despite the US military saying its new focus is on great power rivalry with Russia and China, evidence from around the world suggests that counterterrorism is alive and well as a primary vehicle and pretext for U.S. engagement in many countries.
In fact, according to my research for the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, in 2017-2018, America’s endless war on terror involved airstrikes in six countries in addition to Afghanistan: Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria. It also involved ground combat by U.S. troops in 14 countries, many of which are lesser known and rather unexpected, like Tunisia, Mali, and Kenya. Officially, the military labels many of these “train advise and assist” missions, in which the U.S. military ostensibly works to support local militaries fighting groups the American government labels terrorist organizations. But when we look into the details, we discover that many of these missions are indistinguishable from combat. In several African countries, U.S. special operations forces have planned and controlled missions, operating in “cooperation with” – but actually in charge of – their African counterparts. In Tunisia, for instance, there was at least one sustained battle between joint U.S.-Tunisian forces and al-Qaeda militants. In addition to these combat operations, the U.S. is actually training and assisting security forces in counterterrorism in a remarkable number of nations: at least 65.
It is in the name of counterterrorism that American foreign policy is becoming ever more militarized. Diplomacy and aid are increasingly granted via “countering violent extremism” programs, at the expense of programs with other goals and frameworks, such as development, humanitarianism or conflict prevention. In some countries, like Somalia, that are particular focal points of American efforts against militant groups, the U.S. military has become the most significant representative of the United States, over and above our diplomatic corps. In many places, the U.S. is actively training local militaries and police, shaping their tactics and honing their skills even when the governments they work under are proven abusers of human rights. Take Cameroon for instance, a country that has bought millions of dollars worth of American weapons, has had over 6,000 soldiers trained by American troops and has had over $234 million in security assistance provided by America, all in the name of counterterrorism. These very same soldiers have been accused of numerous cases of torture and indiscriminate killing. Even worse, many of these actions took place at the very same military base used by US personnel.
It might be a different story if all this activity were actually meeting its objectives and making Americans safer. But research has shown that the militarization of U.S. foreign policy has only fueled intense resentment of this country and provided yet more recruits to extremist Islamist groups, which have multiplied substantially since 9/11.
The vast scope of these counterterror wars is incredibly important for candidates to discuss, for it comes at tremendous cost. Costs of War research shows that almost half a million people have died in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan alone. At the same time, continuous combat tours place incredible stress on our service members and their families. Beyond these human costs, the wars have been incredibly expensive, having cost the American taxpayer at least $5.9 trillion since 2001. Though much of this has been paid for by credit card war financing, the enormity of this sum still means that there is less money for every other area of federal funding. Pick your issue -- crumbling infrastructure, unaffordable healthcare, climate change -- and it’s a problem whose solution is being stymied by how much the US spends on war.
America is currently embroiled in counterterror wars stretching across the planet, and public discussions are largely ignoring them. It’s good to see the Presidential candidates talking about ending the war in Afghanistan, but the American public deserves to know what these candidates plan for the rest of the wars as well.
Stephanie Savell is co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. An anthropologist, she has conducted research on security and civic engagement in the U.S. and in Brazil. She co-authored The Civic Imagination: Making a Difference in American Political Life.
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