After 20 Years of Grey Wars, a Moment to Consider a Different Course

September 10, 2021

Reflection pool at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. CREDIT: Steve Gardner (CC)

As we approach the 20-year commemoration of 9/11, a chapter in the history of U.S. foreign policy is closing. This chapter is aptly described as the period of “Grey Wars,” the title of a new book by N. W. Collins. As Collins puts it, the attacks of 9/11 launched "a new type of global war—hazy and lethal." Coinciding precisely with the passage of two decades, the fall of Kabul punctuates this chapter's end.

What began in Afghanistan in 2001 grew into a long list of military operations in at least 20 countries, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and interventions into the hotspots of Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan, as well as less-known places like Mali, Niger, and Somalia.

As these grey wars grew, American society evolved along with them. On the home front, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established a new bureaucratic structure for the national security. The Department was aided by the Patriot Act and the USA Freedom Act to vastly increase capacities for government surveillance and border patrol.

Abroad, U.S. armed forces were transformed to meet new threats and provide new capabilities. New units, particularly under Special Operations Command (SOCOM), were created to implement newly relevant doctrines of counterterrorism (capture and kill) and counterinsurgency (clear, hold, and build).

Military hardware also evolved to include Reaper and Predator drones equipped with Hellfire missiles. Single platforms were developed to integrate intelligence and weaponry in order to "find, fix, and finish" targets. These bellicose names and images were embraced by a country committed to full spectrum dominance and global reach in its war against terror.

Paradoxically, as technology enabled greater and greater precision in the delivery of force, many targets remained in the shadows, hard to identify, embedded among innocent bystanders and non-combatants.

In the years directly following 9/11, the opaqueness of new rules designed to identify enemies also extended to the use of force. This created a situation that was at best heroically humanitarian in intent and at worst self-defeating as collateral damages inevitably mounted.     

The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) issued by Congress in September 2001 is still in use. Its vague wording gave successive presidents responsibility to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."

This AUMF was the ember that smoldered and sustained 20 years of war. Its expansive nature provided no meaningful limits. By authorizing all means necessary against the 9/11 terrorists and those associated with them, the AUMF did not define a specific enemy, a geographic theater of war, or a timetable. It also opened the door to preventive wars—leaving behind the traditional threshold tests of imminent threat and "clear and present danger."

Perhaps the greyest part of the grey wars has been the rules of engagement. At times, lethal force was unleashed; at other times the military was asked to coordinate with contractors, non-governmental organizations, and international relief programs to build infrastructure. This dual approach—shifting from kinetic to non-kinetic means— required almost superhuman performance by those on the ground.

Greyness concerning rules reached its apex early with the controversies over treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and more recently in the court martial case of Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher.

While at one level there has been a reckoning and reconsideration of "enhanced interrogation" and torturous means such as waterboarding, political leaders such as former President Trump still believe in the virtues of merciless war and the acceptance of cruelty, and there is significant public sentiment to support it.

Twenty years of war under these grey conditions has taken the U.S. into an ethical fog that has proven unsustainable. This is true both for individuals who under these circumstances have felt empowered to commit certain acts, as well the U.S. as a nation, which is supposed to be committed to rigorous duties and restraints as outlined in the law of armed conflict and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

And what did these wars and their moral uncertainty provide in return to the U.S.?

To find the troubling answer, we can simply look at the U.S. Army's official history of the Iraq War, commissioned by General Ray Odierno in 2013: "At the time of this project's completion in 2018, an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor."

This accounting and others make it painstakingly clear that the two major campaigns of the grey war period—Iraq and Afghanistan—were defeats for the U.S.

Let's be clear. These results do not diminish the sacrifice of the men and women who served valiantly to capture Bin Laden, defeat al-Qaeda, and fight against the dark ideologies of ISIS and its affiliates. But the verdict on these wars is an unavoidable reckoning with the publicly supported policy failures that framed their missions.

As the next chapter for U.S. foreign policy begins, grey wars may fade from view, but they will continue even if not at the scale of nation-building. A realistic and ethical approach suggests that the best strategy is to not catastrophize and militarize. It is rather to think of security and the protection of human rights in a more restrained, limited, and targeted way.

Early signs for the next chapter are concerning. Challenges from China are fueling a bipartisan consensus around the possibilities for a new Cold War. We see this in a variety of threats ranging from freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the defense of Taiwan to the militarization of outer space and cyberspace.

Emerging technologies are leading to new rivalries over 5G broadband, the development of artificial intelligence, and uses of new biotechnologies such as gene editing and climate engineering. Will these areas be governed peacefully, or will they become militarized? 

Will we enter a new period of grey war of a different type? Or will this be a moment to pause, reflect, and act on shared values and interests?

It is rare to have an inflection point as clear as the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 and the end of the war in Afghanistan. Let's not miss the moment to consider a different course—less violent, more restrained, and committed to using American power to address the global-scale challenges that face us all.

Joel H. Rosenthal is president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

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