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Biden Says He's Ended The 'Forever Wars,' But Some Say They've Just Shrunk

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When President Joe Biden was candidate Joe Biden, he promised he would end the, quote, "Forever Wars." And earlier this week, the final U.S. troops left Afghanistan, marking the end of that 20-year mission. But does that departure truly mark the end of the Forever Wars? NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When President Biden declared the U.S. war in Afghanistan over on Monday, he had this to say.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don't need to fight a ground war to do it.

KHALID: That's because the U.S. can still carry out an air war with things like drone and missile strikes.

SETH JONES: Under no definition of warfare would the end of ground troops be called the end of war.

KHALID: Seth Jones with the Center for Strategic and International Studies once advised U.S. special operations in Afghanistan.

JONES: If the U.S. is prosecuting a lethal campaign against terrorists on the ground, that's an act of war.

KHALID: The United States carried out strikes this summer in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia.

HINA SHAMSI: 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.

KHALID: Hina Shamsi leads the ACLU's National Security Project. The British watchdog group Airwars estimates that more than 20,000 civilians have been killed in U.S. strikes over the last 20 years. That's from an upcoming report that NPR was able to see in advance. The U.S. government has no comparable, publicly available total from the last two decades. In the last couple of years, the Pentagon began issuing reports about civilians, and that gives a significantly smaller death toll. Seth Jones with CSIS says part of the problem is that there's not a lot of information about the effectiveness of strikes.

JONES: Even when I was in government and had access to top-secret information, I do not ever remember seeing an analysis on the costs and benefits of strikes.

KHALID: Biden's National Security Council has been working on an inner-agency review of counterterrorism policy, which includes the use of drones. But critics of these Forever Wars say it's not just the policies. It's the legal framework. For years, the basis for Republican and Democratic presidents to carry out military operations has been the authorization for the use of military force, passed in the frenzied days after the 9/11 attacks.

BARBARA LEE: This was a 60-word authorization that was a blank check (ph).

KHALID: That's California Congresswoman Barbara Lee. She was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 war authorization.

LEE: 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.

KHALID: Lee is working to repeal it. The White House says it supports narrowing war authorizations. Ben Rhodes, who worked on the national security team under former President Barack Obama, says dealing with war powers is an important first step. And withdrawing troops helps shrink the so-called Forever Wars, but really ending them, he thinks, will be much harder.

BEN RHODES: The use of military force, the support for autocratic regimes, the maintenance of a facility at Gitmo - these are all still aspects of the Forever War that are part of the backdrop of what America is in the world.

KHALID: But he doesn't think it's fair to put this all on Biden.

RHODES: I don't even think that a president alone could end the Forever War. It would take Congress. It would take a shift in prioritization from the American public.

KHALID: Fear of terrorism has had an outsized influence on foreign policy, says Vali Nasr. He was a senior adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011.

VALI NASR: Viewing terrorism as an existential threat to the United States became a domestic political obsession.

KHALID: Nasr says you've got to understand Biden's decision to exit from Afghanistan not as a literal end to all military operations, but as a recalibration of the mission.

NASR: In the end, you know, we destroyed al-Qaida not because we tried to build Kabul or Iraq into shining cities on the hill. We destroyed al-Qaida by hounding them individually with drones and special forces and eliminating them.

KHALID: And so whether this is an end to the Forever Wars or not, it appears to be an end to an era of U.S. nation-building.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEGYN SONG, "DEBOLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.