ISIS

The US is Heading Toward More Open-Ended War With No Coherent Mission

New bases and new commitments to defend other countries' borders mean "enduring" military conflicts.

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If the first 14-plus years of what used to be known as the "Global War on

Operation "Enduring" Freedom
Flickr/Ghislain Mary

Terrorism" weren't enough for you, take heart: the Pentagon has proposed a plan that would "build up a string of military bases in Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East" to battle ISIS and its affiliates in any number of countries the US is not officially at war with. 

As reported by the New York Times:

The network of bases would serve as hubs for Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives who would conduct counterterrorism missions for the foreseeable future. The plan would all but ensure what Pentagon officials call an "enduring" American military presence in some of the world's most volatile regions.

Details are vague and thus far the White House has not commented on the plan, but officials told the Times the bases could be manned by anywhere from 500 to 5,000 US troops at a time. They also claim that upgrading existing bases and establishing new hubs in the Middle East and Africa would only cost in the "low millions of dollars."

Hardly anything to do with the military runs in the "low millions of dollars," and as the Times notes, there will very likely be expenditures beyond just supplying our own bases:

Career diplomats have long warned about the creeping militarization of American foreign policy as the Pentagon has forged new relationships with foreign governments eager for military aid.

Don't look now, but a new network of military bases isn't the only new and potentially indefinite entanglement the US looks ready to commit to. Following Turkey's shoot-down of a Russian fighter jet, for crossing into Turkey's airspace from Syria for 17 seconds, the National Interest reports that "the United States and Turkey are working on an agreement that would allow the U.S. Air Force F-15Cs to defend Turkish airspace."

It's no secret that the US and Russia are at odds over a number issues, not least of which are Russia's support of the Assad regime in Syria and the bombing of US-backed Syrian rebel groups

For its part, Turkey has quietly moved armored tank divisions and battalions of troops into Northern Iraq (against the wishes of the Iraqi government) and has been bombing the Kurds, perhaps our most loyal and effective ally in the region in battling ISIS. Yes, Turkey is a NATO ally, but what good is an ally if they're picking fights with behemoths like Russia and bombing the only group who's been able to seize significant swaths of land back from ISIS?

Sticking our neck out for Turkey at a time when they have been a particularly problematic actor in the region seems designed to project a show of strength to the Russians, but at what price? Are we really looking to engage Russian fighter jets in dog fights over brief incursions into Turkish airspace?

On the topic of unhelpful allies, Saudi Arabia (who like ISIS are fond of public beheadings) has been leading a US-backed Arab coalition in a devastating bombing campaign in Yemen, destroying hospitals, schools, homes and killing thousands of civilians, all in the name of battling Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who overthrew the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.

The US recently resupplied the Saudi air-force to the tune of $1.29 billion in air-to ground munitions (including cluster bombs) and since the beginning of the conflict has flown hundreds of sorties to refuel Saudi jets mid-air. Now, PRI reports that the US has begun to take an active role in the conflict as part of a "Joint Combined Planning Cell":

In addition to logistical support and intelligence sharing, the joint cell provides "targeting assistance" to the Saudi coalition, though CENTCOM stressed that the "selection and final vetting of targets" is done by coalition members, not the United States.

"There's actually a small number of US military personnel sitting in Riyadh in a military capacity helping to coordinate airstrikes. That's a game changer," says Belkis Wille, the Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch. "It goes beyond the US just being a supporter of the coalition … they are actually a part of this armed conflict."

You might think taking such direct action in Yemen to help the Saudis fight their proxy war with Iran would put the US in a position to exert its influence, and beseech the Saudis to do us a solid and join the fight against ISIS in earnest. But as it stands, Saudi Arabia engages about one bombing run per month against ISIS, lagging far behind the efforts of long-time US nemesis Iran.

If open-ended war with no coherent end game has you bummed out, there's good news and bad news. 

Although President Obama has been using the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Al-Qaeda, passed days after 9/11/01, as his legal justification to unilaterally attack ISIS, the ISIS-inspired mass murder in San Bernardino led the president to once again call for a new AUMF to specifically attack ISIS, which has begun to generate growing bipartisan support

The fact that Congress is at long last considering doing its job as the official authorizer of military force, having long avoided the responsibility for fear of having "gone on the record" in support of a failed military adventure (which is how the US ended up bombing Libya without so much as a debate on the floors of Congress), is the good news. 

The bad news is the debate over a new AUMF is being split down predictable party lines. Republicans want no limits on boots on the ground, Democrats want strict limits and timetables. Regardless, neither side has thus far put forth an idea of what victory would look like, much less whether the American public will be asked to actually pay for the war this go-round in the form of increased taxes, or what level of collateral damage in countries we are not at war with will be deemed acceptable. 

If a new AUMF is authorized, hopefully it won't be so open-ended that we find ourselves using it 14 years from now as a justification to fight a yet-unnamed non-state actor deemed an existential threat to our existence.