Is Biden Meeting His Pledge to End Forever Wars? | Opinion

When Joe Biden was running for president, he vowed to do what his former boss, Barack Obama, couldn't do before he left office: extricate the U.S. military from international civil wars and conflicts. His campaign website couldn't have been any clearer in this regard. The days when tens of thousands of U.S. forces were engaging in counterinsurgency operations and occupations were coming to an end.

With the Biden presidency approaching the one-year mark this week, it's appropriate to ask whether his promises on the campaign trail have been realized. As one might expect in the first year of any administration, the record is mixed.

In some respects, Biden didn't waste any time. U.S. drone strikes have declined precipitously over the last 12 months, a result in part on the White House tightening the rules governing operations.

Within his first few weeks on the job, the president announced that Washington would no longer be an active combatant in Yemen's civil and proxy war, which has killed over 18,000 civilians (likely a low estimate), fueled one of the world's worst humanitarian crises (an estimated 80 percent of Yemenis require humanitarian aid to survive) and crippled the country's hospital system. The fact U.S.-supplied weapons were being used by the Saudi-led coalition against the most vulnerable of targets, including schoolchildren, helped lead Biden to cut offensive arms sales (defensive weapons sales continue). The decision was a no-brainer; the U.S. had no direct national security interest in instigating the war there, and some of the weapons the U.S. sold to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi eventually ended up in the hands of extremist militias.

Biden's most notable move toward ending the so-called forever wars was his decision last year to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan after a 20-year campaign. For those who felt long ago that building a democratic, functional, corrupt-free Afghan government was akin to jumping onto a hamster wheel, terminating the longest war in U.S. history was a long overdue but welcome step. Yet for the president, leaving a war that simply couldn't be won still proved to be extremely controversial. The Pentagon recommended a residual presence as it so often did in the past. The White House was put under an immense amount of pressure, with former commanders describing a full U.S. troop departure as a mistake.

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting
President Joe Biden attends a meeting. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

For Biden, however, advocates of a continued U.S. presence could never fully articulate a suitable end-game. After all, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was never about turning the country into a democracy but about something more straightforward and achievable: decimating Al-Qaeda in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks and punishing the Taliban for harboring the group. Those two goals were achieved in the first few months of the war, and Biden to his credit grasped this reality.

Notwithstanding these successes, the Biden administration still has a lot of work to do. For every Yemen or Afghanistan, there is a Somalia, Syria, or Iraq—three countries the U.S. military is still very much engaged in.

Roughly 2,500 U.S. forces remain in Iraq, four years after the last stretch of ISIS control over Iraqi territory was extinguished. ISIS, a group that once controlled a third of Iraq and at its peak was threatening Baghdad is now a constellation of cells scattered in areas where successive Iraqi governments have seldom had control, like the Hamrin mountains and the small villages dotting the Euphrates River. The prospect of ISIS fighters capturing an Iraqi city like Mosul, Ramadi, or Fallujah is highly unlikely today. Even the Pentagon's own inspector general for the counter-ISIS mission in Iraq and Syria admitted the group is significantly degraded, with attacks largely focused on vulnerable Iraqi army and Shiite militia checkpoints or convoys—hardly a demonstration of strength and tenacity.

The same is true in Syria, where ISIS no longer controls territory, has alienated whatever support base it once had and is under pressure from multiple stakeholders. Russia, the Syrian government, the Kurds, Turkey and Iran may have competing agendas in Syria, but they all agree that allowing what's left of ISIS to proliferate doesn't serve their respective interests.

Even so, nearly 1,000 U.S. troops remain on Syrian soil, participating in what appears to be a never-ending training and advising mission. Those very same forces are prime targets of opportunity for rocket and drone attacks against exposed U.S. positions, the most recent of which occurred this month, when rocket fire (presumably launched by Iran-backed militias) sought to hit a small U.S. base in eastern Syria.

Then there is U.S. military activity in Africa, including the occasional drone strike on behalf of Somali government forces, training missions in Mozambique and intelligence and logistical support on behalf of French counterterrorism operations in the Sahel. According to Brown University's Cost of War project, the U.S. has conducted counterterrorism operations in 79 countries across four continents—many of which are combatting terrorist groups more interested in fighting local governments than striking the United States.

Policymakers in Washington insist the U.S. is turning the page from the post-9/11 era. The Biden administration has started the process in its first year. When the process will end, or, whether it will end, is still very much in question.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.