(RNS) — Earlier this August, the White House announced the killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri via a CIA drone attack. This was met with near universal praise in Congress, in the foreign policy establishment and from our international allies.
But for some, including many people of faith, killing is never something to celebrate. The Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Quaker lobbying organization I lead and the oldest religious lobby in Washington, is among those that do not support killing as a response to killing. We oppose acts of terrorism and war. We believe in responding to violence with more effective and less costly approaches grounded in civilian rule of law. These alone can break cycles of violence rather than feed them.
President Joe Biden told the United Nations in September 2021: “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war. We’ve turned the page.” If only that were true, it would be something all of us working for peace could celebrate. But it is far from the reality.
The president withdrew ground troops from Afghanistan but made clear that air and drone strikes would remain an option for dealing with “any resurgent terrorist challenge emerging or emanating from Afghanistan.” Rather than ending our forever wars, the Biden administration has continued to conduct lethal operations in Afghanistan — employing the euphemistic term “over the horizon” strikes. And it has continued to prioritize and promote a militarized approach to counterterrorism around the world. American forces remain in Syria and Iraq, and the president recently sent a military contingent of 500 back to Somalia.
The brutal facts cannot be ignored. From 2018 to 2020, the United States conducted militarized counterterrorism operations in 85 countries worldwide, including air and drone strikes in at least seven. This was up from 80 countries in the prior two years. These strikes take place on a routine basis with limited oversight by Congress and little public knowledge. The American people cannot weigh in on matters of war — for or against — if they do not know when, where or if they are taking place. What’s worse, Congress has done little to find out — or to share what it knows.
But people of faith — and all Americans — should take notice. In the case of the war on terror, innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Asian and African countries have borne the brunt of war’s destructive power. They suffer the loss of lives, homes and hope. These are real people, with names and faces, who have endured daily tragedy and are working tirelessly to keep their communities safe, yet remain mostly anonymous to the Americans who foot the $8 trillion bill for these wars.
This month, we released a report detailing the failures of the war on terror, the harms of two decades of militarized counterterrorism both abroad and at home, and what Congress must do to change this course. We strongly believe the 21-year war on terror has failed to achieve the goals for which it was purportedly launched. The truth is, two decades deep, the annual number of terror attacks worldwide has significantly increased, terror groups have proliferated across the globe, and more than 900,000 people have been killed, including more than 329,000 civilians. Militarized counterterrorism has fueled wars, mass displacement, rising Islamophobia and human rights abuses — all while wasting trillions of dollars.
These results were both predictable and preventable. As Quakers, we are guided by our faith to pursue a world free of war and the threat of war. This belief is rooted in the conviction that violent conflict can and must be prevented through peaceful means, for violence begets more violence. The past 20 years of war show us as much.
History has shown repeatedly that lasting peace cannot be achieved at the barrel of a gun. The failure of the war-based approach to reduce violence and counter terrorism proves we cannot make ourselves more secure by making others less secure. After decades of perpetuating violence as the solution to terrorism, is there a way out of this cycle of endless war and violence? Yes, though it won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight.
The United States needs a new security paradigm grounded in peace building, conflict resolution and diplomatic cooperation. Our government will need time, political will and sufficient resources to develop an effective and morally sound strategy for preventing and responding to extremist violence. What we do know is that continuing the current approach to counterterrorism is doomed to failure, while only making the problems worse.
Following the attacks of 9/11, FCNL hung a sign on our building that still resonates two decades later: War is Not the Answer.
(Bridget Moix is the general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and leads two other Quaker organizations, Friends Place on Capitol Hill and the FCNL Education Fund. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)