Only Congress Can End Washington’s Endless Wars – Foreign Policy

October 7 marks the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan. After two decades of “war on terror,” the United States may reach an inflection point. In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, US President Joe Biden spoke of “[closing] this period of relentless war ”and opening“ a new era of relentless diplomacy ”. American forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan. The White House has also suspended most airstrikes outside Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while the National Security Council coordinates a review of the political framework for US direct action operations. , those that involve death or capture.

A bipartisan coalition in Congress is showing renewed interest in repealing and reforming use of force authorizations, including the 2001 Use of Military Force Authorization (known in legal circles as AUMF of 2001), which was the legal basis for the War on Terror and turned 20 last month. There could hardly be a better time for the Biden administration and Congress to determine whether and to what extent two decades of fighting in countries from Niger to the Philippines has made the United States or the world safer. , military force remains an indispensable counterterrorism tool.

Yet the Biden administration seems to focus only on how to conduct the conflict rather than more fundamental questions like whether to continue to wage war or against whom. At the same time, the administration speaks of “ending endless wars”, it continues to discuss future counterterrorism operations “on the horizon” in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Indeed, on October 6, the Justice Department told the United States Supreme Court that despite the “withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan,” the United States continues to be “engaged in hostilities” against al -Qaida. Nor has the executive been under significant pressure to fundamentally adjust its course.

October 7 marks the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan. After two decades of “war on terror,” the United States may reach an inflection point. In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, US President Joe Biden spoke of “[closing] this period of relentless war ”and opening“ a new era of relentless diplomacy ”. US forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan. The White House has also suspended most airstrikes outside Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while the National Security Council coordinates a review of the political framework for US direct action operations. , those that involve death or capture.

A bipartisan coalition in Congress is showing renewed interest in repealing and reforming use of force authorizations, including the 2001 Use of Military Force Authorization (known in legal circles as AUMF of 2001), which was the legal basis for the War on Terror and turned 20 last month. There could hardly be a better time for the Biden administration and Congress to determine whether and to what extent two decades of fighting in countries from Niger to the Philippines has made the United States or the world safer. , military force remains an indispensable counterterrorism tool.

Yet the Biden administration seems to focus only on how to conduct the conflict rather than more fundamental questions like whether to continue to wage war or against whom. At the same time, the administration speaks of “ending endless wars”, it continues to discuss future counterterrorism operations “on the horizon” in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Indeed, on October 6, the Justice Department told the United States Supreme Court that despite the “withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan,” the United States continues to be “engaged in hostilities” against al -Qaida. Nor has the executive been under significant pressure to fundamentally adjust its course.

Over the past 20 years, Congress has left executive power largely to its own devices to delineate the legal and political boundaries of the war on terror, often in secret. Such a state of affairs is a constitutional aberration. The declaration of war clause and other provisions of the U.S. Constitution give Congress, not the president, the lion’s share of the power to decide who and where the United States is at war. But the combination of the broad wording of the 2001 AUMF, jumps in interpretation by the executive and the assent of Congress together made it possible to circumvent the constitutional conception – creating a system in which the president and his advisers determine. where and against whom to wage war. on terror.

Unless Congress resumes its constitutional prerogatives over war and peace, the executive branch may well continue the war on terror for another 20 years in a dozen countries without a fundamental reassessment of whether states -United should be at war.


Beginning with the administration of George W. Bush, the executive branch of the US government led the expansion of the war. This growth has occurred both through top-down decisions in Washington and bottom-up decisions on the battlefield. Legal innovation by executive attorneys, particularly in their interpretations of the 2001 AUMF, has played a critical role in facilitating the spread of US military action against terrorism.

The AUMF of 2001 authorizes the president to use force against “the nations, organizations or persons whom he considers to have planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 or harboring such organizations or persons” . But while Congress clearly wanted the authorization to apply to actors linked to the 9/11 attacks, the executive branch relied on creative interpretations to sever that link.

Such interpretations have included the theory engendered by the executive branch during the administrations of George W. Bush and Obama that the 2001 AUMF permits force against “associated forces” of Al Qaeda – an elastic term which does not appear in the statute itself and has come to include groups remote from Afghan battlefields. (Congress eventually approved the concept of associated forces.) Another such innovation was the Obama administration’s conclusion that the AUMF allows the use of force against ISIS, even if it s ‘has been separated from Al Qaeda for a long time.

The Trump administration, in turn, has used these theories to sweep new “associated forces,” such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and ISIS affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, into the scope of application of the 2001 war authorization. A close cousin to the drift of the mission, this “drift of the law” facilitated the spread of the war on terrorism to new groups and countries, sometimes even before the Congress doesn’t realize it.

At the same time, US special operations forces deployed in operations described as “advise, assist and accompany” in a number of African countries have quietly broadened the reach of the war on terror from below. Without consulting widely with Washington, these forces engage in ground combat and call for air strikes, often under the rubric of self-defense or collective self-defense of local partner forces.

Whatever the merits of the policy of these operations, the legal authority of these hostilities has often been obscure. Executive officials are reluctant to question allegations of self-defense by the forces on the ground. As a result, the executive branch has at times, as with al-Shabab in Somalia, adopted a “shoot first and apply AUMF later” approach, whereby legally questionable combat operations, including airstrikes, are retroactively incorporated into the 2001 AUMF.

As the war spread, the executive tried to manage the fallout by imposing political guarantees. The presidential policy guidelines developed by the Obama administration were aimed at coordinating and streamlining decision-making and creating protections for innocent civilians who might be caught in the crossfire, at least in countries far from the fields of war. burning battles of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The successor cadre created by the Trump administration watered down the protections but did some of the same job. Tinkering with these cadres, as the Biden administration is currently doing, will not help answer the fundamental questions raised by continuing a 20-year war. Indeed, unless this tinkering is combined with a more in-depth investigation into the costs and benefits of war, it will only further accustom policy makers to the use of military force as the primary instrument in the fight against terrorism.

Congress must intervene. It is time for the legislature to resume its role in matters of war and peace. The 2001 AUMF reform would be the ideal vehicle to achieve this.

By adapting the new statute to specify where and against whom the use of force is permitted, Congress may raise questions about the usefulness of war that are in desperate need of public dissemination. By removing the power of the executive to add “associated forces” at will and to read flexibility in the law differently, this may spell the end of “degradation of the law”. And by inserting a requirement that the conflict be reauthorized after two or three years, it can help ensure that the war does not continue for two decades on autopilot.

The Biden administration should welcome such a move. He should explain to Congress and the public the nature of the evolving terrorist threat facing the United States today and the reasons why military action is needed to address this threat. He must be careful in differentiating Islamist militants with local goals from those groups who have both the intent and the ability to attack the United States. Not all terrorist threats are a threat to the United States.

The tragic killing of civilians, including seven children, by the United States in a drone strike in Kabul on August 29 is a reminder of the high human cost of the war on terrorism. Beyond jargon like “precision strike”, “reasonable certainty”, “collateral damage”, “beyond the horizon” and “imminent threat”, the reality is the continuation of war – even than by air strikes and special operations forces – inevitably lead to new tragedies.

After 20 years, it’s high time the White House, Congress, and the American public questioned whether this continuing murder is worth it.

About Joaquin Robertson

Joaquin Robertson

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