The Myth of the Forever War

Despite the name, a forever war can end with the right strategy and a lack of deadlines. Not doing so can have disastrous consequences and a lot to clean up.


Bernie Sanders in an interview with CNN applauded Donald Trump explaining, “I am not a great fan of Donald Trump and his administration, but he was right in trying to end endless wars.”

The notion of “ending endless wars” is founded on the idea that foreign intervention is harmful, and the U.S should focus inwardly while militarily withdrawing from the world. As we can see from Sander’s statement, this is a talking point that progressives, conservatives, and even libertarians can come together on. But nobody desires “forever wars.” The main concern should be the most optimal strategy to end wars.  

One of the most infamous failures of premature military withdrawal was under former President Obama. In an attempt to end the Iraq War, Obama allowed the withdrawal of troops in Iraq after the breakdown of the 2011 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). With a weak security force, ISIS emerged, capturing and brutalizing city after city in Iraq and Syria. Operation “Inherent Resolve” was launched in 2014 to both secure U.S strategic interests in the region and to fix the humanitarian disaster the U.S left behind. This is one of the most clear-cut examples of the policy of “restraint” prolonging a war that such a policy sought to end. 

Following Obama’s legacy, President Biden abandoned the Afghan security forces, leading to the collapse of the Afghan state. Under the Obama and Trump administration, U.S forces played cat and mouse with terrorists rather than building up the Afghan state. The solution isn’t to abandon our Afghan allies; it’s to change our strategy, focusing on the neglected civilian aspect of stability operations. While this war hasn’t been prolonged so far, the greater strategic implications of withdrawal that advocates of restraint failed to account for have been detrimental. The Taliban is now in power, terrorist groups have found a safe haven, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are less secure than ever since 2001.

One lesser known–yet still impactful–withdrawal was the termination of U.S  military operations in Kurdish Syria. In 2013 Kurdish fighters established their own autonomous zone in Northeastern Syria, Rojava, which was later supported by U.S security forces in the fight against ISIS. President Trump in 2019 orchestrated a hasty and unilateral withdrawal from Rojava, cutting military commitments to our Kurdish allies. Months later, Turkey invaded the region, dragging Kurdish politicians out of cars and shooting them. With no other significant opposition, Assad’s despotism and Russian Influence in Syria was cemented.

Military interventions don’t follow neatly constructed time tables—they’re messy and unpredictable. As we can see in some of the largest military interventions of the 21st century, premature military withdrawal has consistently led to detrimental outcomes to both humanitarian interests and U.S strategic interests. Ironically, the very ones who espouse placing military interventions on timelines are the ones who prolong military interventions.