That may seem a minor distinction, but what it means is that it’s no longer assumed that any U.S. service member is working in support of a counterterrorism mission — an acknowledgment that with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, an era in U.S. defense policy has come to an end. The Global War on Terrorism (GWOT, as it was once officially known) is not a thing of the past, but it’s fair to say it’s not the all-consuming priority it was in the two decades that followed the 9/11 attacks.
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But of course that doesn’t mean the world is now at peace — or that the U.S. military has pulled back from the global stage. As 2023 begins, there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces deployed around the world.
And beyond these high-profile security concerns, there are U.S. troops deployed from Niger to Djibouti to the Philippines, and dozens of other missions that have merited little or no debate in Congress or coverage in the media.
What are those troops doing in all these different parts of the world? The answers help paint a picture of the U.S. global military posture, nearly a quarter-century after the 9/11 attacks.
Remnants of the war on terrorism
After the withdrawal of the last troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden assured the country that the global fight against terrorist groups would continue.
Almost a year and a half later, we’re starting to get a better idea of what this “over the horizon” counterterrorism war looks like. In some places, it does indeed involve “boots on the ground,” though in far fewer numbers than were seen in the peak years of the Global War on Terrorism.
“I think the picture is largely one of continuity in many respects,” Brian Finucane, a former State Department legal adviser on military issues, now with Crisis Group, told Grid. “You see a lower operation tempo, what you might call GWOT-lite, but continuity in terms of deployments or even some increases in places in Africa.”
Africa: the war’s new frontier
All these deployments raise separate questions about the nature of the various missions. For one thing, it’s not clear that local terrorist groups in these countries pose any risk to the U.S. — and therefore whether these missions are in the U.S. national interest. The argument for these missions is that these groups are tied to global networks like ISIS and al-Qaeda and could metastasize into global threats. For now, the U.S. troops have not generally been in direct combat with these groups, except for those instances when the Americans themselves come under attack.
Europe: the new threat
Coming soon: a military pivot to Asia?
That may change. The Pentagon has recently announced plans to bolster the U.S. military presence in Australia, including air, sea and land forces, all with an eye on China.
The big picture
But it remains a fact that while the “Global War on Terrorism” may no longer be the defining feature of American military deployments, U.S. forces are currently stationed in (and in a few cases, actually fighting in) a remarkable number of countries with little public debate or awareness back home about what exactly they are doing.
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