It’s All About the Associated Forces

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quietly joined the battle over authorizing the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant last week. To the surprise of many given his recent comments on the issue, he put an Authorization for the Use of Force, or AUMF, into the record, bypassing any committee process and clearing the way for rapid consideration of this measure by the Senate should he choose. The lack of fanfare accompanying his maneuver, however, portends that this is less about an actual effort to authorize the nearly 18 month old war against ISIL during President Obama’s term and more about establishing the parameters of the debate ahead of a new administration taking office next year.

This move by McConnell comes in addition to action on the House side, where Speaker Paul Ryan has tasked his relevant committee chairman with putting together yet another AUMF proposal. All of this, of course, follows the repeatedly aborted efforts to adopt an ISIL AUMF in 2014 and 2015, and the recent calls from President Obama in the wake of the Paris attacks and San Bernardino shootings for Congress to do its job and authorize the war against ISIL. Given Congress’s track record on this specific issue, and its more general paralysis, the smart money is still on Congress doing nothing, at least for the duration of President Obama’s term in office.

McConnell’s AUMF is not new. Sen. Lindsey Graham first introduced it late last year. Steve Vladeck and others analyzed that proposal at the time and I agree that it fails to learn any of the lessons of the nearly 15 years of the fight against terrorist groups. The McConnell-Graham AUMF, like virtually every proposed ISIL AUMF specifically includes language authorizing the use of force against these associated forces. This is in line with the recommendations of many who watch these issues closely, including those put forth in the paper on AUMFs I wrote last year.

The concept that an AUMF against a terrorist group should include authorization to wage war against other affiliate terrorist groups grew out of interpretations of the 2001 AUMF by the Bush and Obama administrations. In particular, the Obama administration’s reading of that AUMF as encompassing the concept of co-belligerency provided the rationale that when Congress authorizes war against a terrorist organization, it also then authorizes the use of force against “associated forces” of that terrorist organization.

That reading, while narrower than the Bush administration’s view, was used to justify the extension of the war in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda to at least some elements of al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen without any public or congressional debate about the wisdom of the US waging war against those groups in those countries. Indeed, the 2001 AUMF is now being relied upon for authority to conduct military operations in (at least) Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Syria.

I have come to the conclusion that the generally accepted assumption, one which I used to share, that a congressional war authorization must include authority to make war in the future against “associated forces” is unwise. It undermines the separation of powers and makes it too easy for the Executive to expand a war without seriously considering and defending that expansion to the American people.

Furthermore, I now believe that even the effort to strictly define what qualifies as an associated force is misguided. Doing so would likely have little practical impact in ensuring that a future administration seeks public and congressional support before significantly and materially expanding the current wars against different, though perhaps related, terrorist groups operating in separate theaters of conflict.

It is vital in this conflict’s 15th year to avoid enabling a drift into deeper engagement without meaningful consideration of its merits, not least because the explicit strategies of al-Qaeda and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIL are to suck the United States deeper and deeper into a military conflict that will drain our resources, weaken our resolve, and alienate Muslims around the world. The barriers to entry and costs of this kind of conflict with the United States are much, much lower for non-state terrorist groups. This asymmetric dynamic is what sustained numerous insurgencies against vastly better-resourced nation states throughout the last century, including in Afghanistan where the United States has spent trillions of dollars in response to an attack that cost less than $500,000 to execute.

Our actions should not be reactive and based solely on the strategies of our enemies. Simply because al-Qaeda or ISIL want us to fight a broad war against them is not a reason not to fight them. But understanding their strategy should most definitely inform our own thinking about how and when to engage in military action against them and to ensure that it is in our interests to do so.

The problem with the concept of associated forces is that it has now also lowered the barrier of entry for the United States by simply allowing the president and the military to decide when and where to engage in war, largely in secret. It’s not that those decisions are necessarily always wrong, but they lack a complete consideration and strategic assessment that can only come from a fulsome public debate. Given both the history of wars against non-state actors and the explicit strategies of our current enemies, committing the US military to a sustained campaign against a terrorist group should be hard and should only come from the consensus achieved by a public debate and congressional authorization.

Just in the last week, it emerged that the Pentagon was preparing options to expand military operations against ISIL associated forces in Libya. There are growing concerns among Western officials that the instability in Libya could create the same kind of opening that ISIL was able to exploit in Syria and Iraq. Several top ISIL commanders apparently have traveled from Syria and Iraq to Libya and fresh recruits have swelled the ranks of ISIL-connected groups in Libya to an estimated 3,000 fighters.

The situation in Libya as described by Pentagon officials is concerning. It is entirely possible that military action is warranted and that a sustained campaign against ISIL-affiliated groups in Libya is both necessary and appropriate. Yet, because this terrorist group in Libya has been determined to be an associated force of ISIL, there has been no public discussion, no debate, no consensus that it is in the national security interests of the United States to engage in a sustained military campaign against yet another terrorist group in a seventh country, all based on a war authorization that is in its 15th year.

However reasonable and well-intentioned, the manner in which the concept of associated forces has been applied has facilitated deeper US military engagement against terrorist groups without a corresponding national debate and consensus. Any new ISIL AUMF must explicitly identify against which groups and where the US military is authorized to wage war. If a new terrorist group emerges in a different country, even if it is aligned with ISIL, Congress must provide a new authorization targeting that group in that country.

It’s time to get rid of the concept of associated forces. 

About the Author(s)

Ken Gude

Senior Fellow with the National Security Team at American Progress