To Honor our Veterans, End the War

11/11/2012 10:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Amid the parades, yellow ribbons and cries to "support our troops" that come with every Veteran's Day, you probably didn't hear this year what really needs to be said: the way to honor our troops is to acknowledge they've won the war they were sent to fight. It's time to bring them home.

President Obama's reelection is, among other things, a mandate for his promise to withdraw most combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2013. But he hasn't said when he'll end what increasingly looks like an ever-expanding war around the world -- what the U.S. government calls the war against "al Qaeda and 'associated forces.'"

In fact, no U.S. government official has ever indicated how that war -- which most people have been calling the "war on terror" since the Bush years -- might end. For the sake of our veterans who've fought that war for the last 11 years, and for the sake of all our national security, now is the time to spell that out.

President Obama, his senior advisors and a broad range of military and national security experts admit that the al Qaeda our troops began fighting in 2001 has been "decimated." It's splintered into a fragmented force in Pakistan with loosely-connected affiliates in Yemen, Africa and other parts of the world. Yes, they still threaten violence, mostly against their own governments. But none are engaged in a war against the United States. We shouldn't push them into one.

Even Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which counterterrorism experts say poses the greatest terrorism threat to us, has only tried to attack the United States three times. Every one of those attempts failed. Three attempted strikes are sporadic acts of criminal terrorist activity; they do not constitute -- nor do they justify -- a war. The United States' increasing covert participation in a Yemeni civil war, however, could incite one.

The United States' goal should be the opposite. The windup of the war in Afghanistan is the time for the United States to declare a successful end to the conflict it sent our soldiers to fight in 2001. The Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force was "against those nations, organizations, or persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons." That conflict is over; the United States has won.

That doesn't mean the United States can't still call on the military to repel an imminent threat, from terrorists or anyone else. But the ability to send in Special Forces or even use drone strikes to stop an imminent attack against Americans doesn't require this country to be in a perpetual state of war. A perpetual state of war doesn't end terrorism, it breeds more of it.

As former CIA counterterrorism director Robert Grenier acknowledged: "We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield. We are already there with regards to Pakistan and Afghanistan."

It's no coincidence that despite pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world, in key Arab nations and other predominantly Muslim countries, public perception of the United States remains negative, as it has been for the last decade, and in some cases has gotten worse.

Osama bin Laden said that the purpose of the 9/11 attacks was to "unite the Muslim world in the face of the Christian Crusade." Responding to criminal acts of terrorism by launching a global war plays right into that strategy. Instead, as White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has said, we should "show that the United States offers a vision of progress and justice, while al-Qa'ida offers nothing but death and destruction."

Justice in the United States means using our intelligence and law enforcement agencies to find, arrest and prosecute terrorists and those supporting them wherever they're found. (The Department of Justice has already prosecuted and convicted nearly 500 people for terrorism-related activities and is aggressively pursuing many more.) It means working with allies across the world to share information, assist economic and political development and strengthen other countries' capacity to enforce the rule of law; ultimately, it means demonstrating our shared values of peace and justice, which undermines al Qaeda's ability to recruit new fighters to its cause.

International law does not authorize war against loosely-affiliated regional terrorist organizations around the globe who are not fighting us.

President Obama at some level understands this. When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he said: "I believe that all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I -- like any head of state -- reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don't." And, again, in his first major appeal to the Muslim world, President Obama in Cairo said, quoting Thomas Jefferson: "I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be."

Now is the time to heed that wisdom. Our veterans have sacrificed enough.