Activist groups urge Biden, Congress to end 'forever wars'

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·5 min read

WASHINGTON — Advocacy organizations from across the ideological spectrum teamed up to send letters Wednesday morning to members of Congress and President Biden, urging them to end “the forever wars,” referring to U.S. engagement in overseas military operations since the 9/11 attacks.

The signatories, from both conservative and progressive backgrounds, recommended specific strategies for Congress and the White House to bring troops home from Iraq, Afghanistan and other lesser-known conflict zones. The letters come at a time when polling suggests Americans, including veterans, are more supportive of withdrawing from the long-fought Middle Eastern conflicts, and amid a days-long summit of NATO defense ministers during which engagement in Afghanistan will most likely come up.

“We now have an administration that has promised to end our endless wars, and a public that is strongly in agreement,” said Erica Fein, the advocacy director for Win Without War, which pushes for a progressive foreign policy, and one of the lead organizers for the letter to Congress.

U.S. soldiers of B Troop, 1st squadron of 4th US Cavalry Regiment, fire a 120 mm mortar shell during a mortar registration exercise at COP (Combat outpost) Sar Howza in Paktika province October 29, 2012.  (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
U.S. soldiers fire a mortar shell during an exercise in 2012 at a combat outpost in Paktika province, Afghanistan. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

The letter’s other signatories range from traditional left-wing organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union, to conservative groups, such as think tank the R Street Institute. The second letter, to the Biden White House, was organized by Human Rights First and included a separate but overlapping group of signatories.

The organizations are urging Congress to sunset the 2001 legal authorization for the use of military force, originally aimed at allowing then-President George W. Bush to pursue al-Qaida after the 9/11 attacks, but since has been used to allow a number of military engagements. Signatories also want lawmakers to repeal the 2002 military authorization specific to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, which was most recently used by then-President Donald Trump as authorization for the targeted killing of Iranian military leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who has long advocated to have Congress step in to end endless wars — including through an amendment she proposed that passed the House last Congress to repeal the 2002 Iraq authorization — is an inspiration for the coalition of groups. In a statement, Lee told Yahoo News that “President Biden has expressed commitment in heeding the calls from Democrats, Republicans, and advocates alike to stop endless wars, but we will continue our fight.”

In the letter to Biden, a similar collection of organizations urged the White House to support reform efforts in Congress, and to go further by ending military operations conducted under the congressional authorizations from 2001 and 2002, choosing military force as a last resort and putting in other safeguards.

Ending the “forever wars” was a campaign promise Biden made, and it was included on what appears to be a deliberative draft agenda of the Biden administration’s plans for January and February that circulated in the early days of the administration.

U.S. President Joe Biden arrives to speak at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Biden at the State Department on Feb. 4. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A White House spokesperson told Yahoo News that “it’s unfortunate that some pre-decisional planning documents leaked,” referring to the draft agenda. The spokesperson gave no information about plans or the timing of the executive order but said the Biden administration “will absolutely take steps to bring to a responsible end the ‘forever wars’ that have continued since 9/11, while also protecting Americans from terrorist and other threats.”

In the meantime, Biden has elevated senior officials who have advocated for disentangling the U.S. from “costly overseas conflicts,” including Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, and Robert Malley, the administration’s Iran envoy and previously the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. The White House announced a review process within the National Security Council last week aimed at “assessing the current state of play” at Guantánamo Bay prison, with the broader goal of ultimately closing its doors — though several key officials still need to be officially appointed to get that process going, according to the White House.

While activists are optimistic the administration is moving forward on these issues, there’s growing concern about engagement with outside groups. One member of the activist community, who requested anonymity to preserve relationships with the new administration, told Yahoo News that the Biden team has “been keeping their cards very close to their chests” particularly when it comes to Afghanistan, though it’s still early on in the administration to expect major announcements.

While Trump pushed to lower troop levels in Afghanistan, with the goal of a swift — and what some considered dangerous — withdrawal, Biden has not yet announced any specific plan for the remaining U.S. troops in the country.

Additionally, though many celebrated the White House’s announcement that it will end support for offensive operations in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, there is concern about how government officials might define the term “offensive,” a term several advocates have openly questioned.

While the civil society groups plan on continuing to engage with the Biden team, they felt the letters were an important opportunity to get their views on the record and to pressure the White House and Congress to take direct action. “We want to give some grace [period] to people, but there is definitely a growing appetite for the kind of engagement we should be seeing,” said a second activist.

Dan Caldwell, a senior adviser at Concerned Veterans for America, a signatory on both letters, said that for Biden to follow through on his campaign promise to end endless wars “makes sense from a policy perspective but also politically ... it’s a no-brainer.”

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