President Biden has placed lethal U.S. counterterrorism efforts under review while his administration determines the scope of his efforts in the nearly 20-year-old War on Terror, the White House has confirmed to The Daily Beast.
Biden issued interim guidance on the United States’ “use of military force and related national security operations” on his first day in office, and reiterated it on Friday, according to Emily Horne, the chief spokesperson for the National Security Council.
The guidance is classified, but its purpose is to give Biden “full visibility on proposed significant actions in these areas,” Horne said. Such actions typically involve drone and other strikes against suspected terror groups and infrastructure, as well as special-operation raids. The administration notified Congress of the change on Monday.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, is leading the review, which concerns “the extant authorizations and delegations of presidential authorities with respect to these matters,” Horne said. Such authorities, as well as who in the chain of command gets to exercise them, involve life-and-death determinations.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, delegated lethal counterterrorism authorities down to theater and other military commanders in 2017. “The burden of proof on the target was changed to a lesser burden of proof, and so that automatically opens up the aperture,” retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, the former senior U.S. special operations officer in Africa, explained to The Daily Beast the following year, after Trump escalated drone strikes.
There is no known timetable for the review’s completion as yet.
Since Biden took office and issued his interim guidance, the U.S. military has announced at least three counterterrorism strikes in northern Iraq targeting the so-called Islamic State (ISIS): one near Kirkuk on Jan. 27; another on Feb. 9, also near Kirkuk, and a third on Sunday in Wadi al-Shai, also in Kirkuk Province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization also reported what it called a “drone strike” in Syria on Feb. 13. The Daily Beast cannot yet confirm that strike. The military command said that, along with the Iraqi military, it has conducted 55 operations against ISIS in February thus far.
While Biden reviews the counterterrorism authorities he has inherited, a left-right anti-war coalition is likely to greet the review as welcome news and a political opportunity. That coalition is pushing to end the Forever War—and getting programmatic about what ending endless wars looks like.
They intend an effort that starts with revoking the authorities underpinning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, five representatives of the coalition tell The Daily Beast, and it does not end there. With Biden’s campaign-trail commitment to end the wars as a lever, they see the nearly 20-year-old War on Terror as politically weak and ready to be toppled.
Hina Shamsi of The American Civil Liberties Union said that both the Trump era and the wave of protest against institutional racism in highly militarized policing have prompted a reckoning with the War on Terror. “People themselves, and especially the younger generations, see as self-evident the connections between, for example, perpetual war-based approaches abroad and militarized policing against communities of color, Black communities, at home,” says Shamsi, who has spent the past 20 years fighting against the War on Terror and is a leading figure in the coalition.
Washington is usually where anti-war politics go to die. Some of the largest protests in human history could not even delay the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Nearly every congressional effort at restricting aspects of the wars failed. The previous two presidents both sounded anti-war notes as candidates. Both escalated in Afghanistan and signed off on a residual force, painting a drawdown as finality.
But that’s starting to change. The current anti-war coalition took shape over opposition to the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war in Yemen. Leveraging the Saudi crown prince’s brutal slaying of Jamal Khashoggi, they succeeded at passing a war-powers resolution through Congress, the first in decades. Trump vetoed it, but now Biden has pulled U.S. support for the war. And last year, after years of falling short, the House voted to rescind the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force in Iraq.
That vote came at the initiative of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only member of Congress to have voted against the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force—the legislative wellspring not only of the Afghanistan war but the broader War on Terror. Now Lee, who sits on the powerful appropriations committee, is at the center of the anti-war effort—and this time, she has a burgeoning movement behind her.
“When I voted no [in 2001], people were of course trying to get me to change my vote—friends—who were telling me in many ways they cared about me and they knew I was going to get death threats, they knew I would lose my election,” Lee told The Daily Beast. Her father, a retired Army lieutenant colonel “who served this country in a segregated military,” told her she had voted the right way.
“I’ve been trying to end [the Forever War], it seems like, since I voted against it,” Lee said.
Multiple people involved in the anti-war coalition said that the first step would be passing Lee’s bill to repeal the 2002 AUMF in the current Congress. They see themselves as having the votes in the House and likely the Senate. But the 2002 AUMF is relatively low-hanging fruit, as it authorized war on a long-deposed Saddam Hussein and bears little relevance to the current reason 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. The movement’s next step—a much harder one—is to end the 2001 AUMF.
Lee has already introduced bills to repeal the 2002 AUMF and sunset the 2001 one. The sunsetting, which she passed through the House Appropriations Committee in the previous Congress, provides an eight-month grace period for the 2001 AUMF’s powers to wind down. That testifies to the dynamics of the war after 20 years: It no longer attracts the fervent support of Congress, but Congress remains fearful of its unwinding.
Two congressional aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the votes for ending the 2002 AUMF likely existed in the Senate, but the 2001 resolution is a dicier proposition. “Sunsetting the 2001 AUMF without a replacement would be more complicated,” one said. The other expected the twilight period of a sunsetted 2001 AUMF to last for several years if it was to attract sufficient Senate votes.
The anti-war coalition has mixed feelings about replacement authorities for the 2001 AUMF. It issued two letters to the Biden administration this week, first reported by Yahoo News, which said that any AUMF replacement would have to provide what the original doesn’t: constraints on how long, where, and against whom new lethal authorities are directed. And the letters made it clear that the movement rejects the traditional ways presidents of both parties have continued wars under the guise of having ended them.
“Ending large footprint operations and shifting to ‘small footprint’ counterterrorism missions that continue to rely on war-based authorities is not sufficient,” one of the letters reads.
That speaks to the ways the anti-war movement’s ambitions have expanded. Repealing both AUMFs “will not be the end of fixing the problem,” said Heather Brandon-Smith of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “We still need to address the exporting of militarism, and there’s still a military-first approach to counterterrorism that has become normalized over the last two decades.”
The coalition agenda, as stated in the letters, urges Biden to end “war based approaches to detention, trial and lethal force.” That would entail closing Guantanamo, ending military commissions, and, absent “extraordinary circumstances meeting the legal threshold of armed conflict,” grounding the drones. But its agenda treats the War on Terror as something that happens exclusively overseas. As of yet, there is no call to dismantle the Department of Homeland Security, repeal the PATRIOT Act, or purge the data on the various government watchlists of U.S. citizens and nationals.
It’s a question of sequencing, as well as a reflection of where consensus currently stands across a movement with often divergent ideological perspectives—pointing to unsettled questions within the movement itself. Kate Kizer of Win Without War, another leading anti-war movement figure, wants the abolition of “the whole shebang,” she said.
“Not only do we just export some of the practices we created here at home, but we brought practices we used abroad back to us,” Kizer explained. “The wars exacerbated racial inequities and Islamophobia. If we’re not talking about the impact of these wars here at home, we’re missing an opportunity to explain why endless war hasn’t served the American public, let alone people around the world.”
Yet the confluence of the wars overseas and at home speaks to another headwind the coalition faces: the reaction to January 6. With security veterans talking about applying counterinsurgency lessons at home—and even those opposed to expanding law enforcement authorities treating white supremacy primarily as a security problem rather than a political one—there is a temptation, particularly within the Democratic Party, to reorient the War on Terror rather than end it.
“Part of what was disheartening about the response to the horror of January 6 was how many pundits and policymakers seemed to want to translate the failed ‘Global War On Terror’ into a ‘Domestic War On Terror,’” said the ACLU’s Shamsi. “What I hope and what we urgently need is the recognition that the war-based approaches hurt most of all Black and brown people, abroad and at home. Addressing white supremacist violence effectively does not need to, and should not, require doubling down on tools that hurt the communities of color that are largely the targets of white supremacist violence.”
Dan Caldwell of the conservative Concerned Veterans of America, another key component of the anti-war coalition, adds that the track record of the war shows that reorienting it against domestic enemies will make things worse, not least by playing into accelerationist rhetoric on the right about a government crackdown. Caldwell said that all this is part of an elite Washington discomfort with disengaging from a war paradigm—a political battle whose first skirmish is over Biden’s upcoming decision about staying in the U.S.-Taliban deal to withdraw from Afghanistan by May.
“My message to Biden and his administration is there is no political support behind these voices. The politics of this are extremely different from 10 years ago and 15 years ago,” Caldwell said. “The political energy is behind withdrawal. Obviously, I believe getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq is good policy, but it’s also good politics.”
Whether the Biden administration agrees is an open question. Biden is currently reviewing whether to stay in the Trump administration-negotiated Taliban deal. His Pentagon, under Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has a global “posture” review underway to determine where the U.S. ought to have more or fewer military forces. NATO last week committed to enlarging its forces in Iraq. The scope of Biden’s revocation of support for the Saudis in Yemen remains unclear, particularly after Austin told Mohammed bin Salman on a Thursday phone call that the U.S. is committed to “assisting Saudi Arabia in the defense of its borders.”
As for Lee, she sees a reinvigorated movement whose impact will come from its expanded base of support.
“Each year we build more support on the outside,” she said. “We’ve got to broaden our mobilization to include civil rights organizations because of course these Forever Wars are taking away resources from our domestic needs, and the faith community. But we have a strong, powerful group of activists who have been with me all along trying to get these [authorities] repealed.”