Seventeen years have now passed since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the launching of wars against terrorist groups tied to those attacks. While Congress and the George W. Bush administration quickly came to a consensus that military action against al-Qaeda and the Taliban was required, few then could have predicted that the United States would now be in various levels of armed conflict in at least eight countries, while still fighting on the original battlefields in Afghanistan. It is already the longest war in American history and, with no end in sight, it has justifiably earned the moniker the “Endless War.”
For many critics of how these wars have been fought, attention has centered on revising the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, which originally gave the Bush administration congressional permission to go after al-Qaeda, and has been cited as the legal authority to expand that war by successive administrations. President Trump’s National Security Adviser is even saying U.S. troops in Syria under an already stretched reading of the 2001 AUMF to fight ISIS will stay there in order to contain Iran. While the current scope of today’s wars go far beyond what anyone could have envisioned 17 years ago, Congress has acquiesced to the interpretation of the Bush, Obama, and now Trump administrations in how the 2001 AUMF has been applied.
This has created a confusing situation in which advocates and lawmakers working on revising the 2001 AUMF have two distinct and divergent objectives. One group is focused on reasserting Congress’ Constitutional role in war powers, requiring it to explicitly approve the wars, and impose some meaningful limits and transparency on them. The other group views AUMF reform as a means for actually ending one or more of the wars (whether that’s in Afghanistan or Syria or elsewhere). In the long debate over these wars, there certainly was a time when it was justified to believe that a revised AUMF could lead to the end of the wars. However, that time has passed; a new AUMF won’t end the Endless War.
Those who want to see the wars come to an end in the near term hope that a sunset provision in any new AUMF will force the necessary action in Congress that could end one or more of the wars. Unfortunately, the long history of sunset provisions on national security legislation shows that it does not result in the expiration or repealing of authorities. Numerous controversial sections of the Patriot Act also had sunset clauses. All of them were renewed repeatedly, sometimes with modifications, yet always reauthorized, including an authority that had never even been used. More recently, surveillance authority under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was due to expire at the end of 2017. While Congress struggled to reach consensus on what form the reauthorization of 702 would take, its full expiration was never considered and a short-term renewal was passed until an agreement on reauthorization could be reached.
Furthermore, an ongoing war is nothing like a law enforcement or intelligence tool. If the president opposed a cessation of hostilities, it is unclear what would happen if congressional war authority simply expired at the appointed date of the sunset through congressional inaction. This has never happened. Would the president, as commander-in-chief, claim authority to keep the already-deployed forces in the field? What would it take for Congress to prevent that from happening?
The only way to actually end a war is to build a political consensus to end it. It was the growing support in Congress to cut off funds for the Vietnam War that helped push the Nixon administration to reach a peace deal. It was broad political consensus that forced President Bush to agree to a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. It’s what drove President Barack Obama to campaign on ending that war and then actually ending it once in office. We are in a quagmire in Afghanistan because there is neither political support for raising U.S. troops to a level necessary to defeat the Taliban—if that is even possible—or force them to the negotiating table, nor for withdrawing the 15,000 U.S. troops still fighting there. We will remain stuck in the same place until a political consensus emerges for one of those paths regardless of whether Congress passes a new AUMF that requires it to reauthorize the war at regular intervals.
It has long been viewed as too politically risky to directly oppose the post-9/11 wars against terrorist groups. But that ignores recent developments that indicate there is much greater opposition to the wars than the political establishment recognizes. The House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, with a Republican majority, approved an amendment from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) by a voice vote last year that would have entirely repealed the 2001 AUMF in six months. House Republican leaders had to intervene to remove the provision from the final bill to avoid it potentially passing the Republican-controlled chamber. And Trump, who won the Republican nomination despite castigating the Iraq War, regularly rails against the cost of the wars, and only reluctantly agreed to his military advisers plans for Afghanistan.
It is now clear that Congress cannot bring about the end of the wars it authorizes merely by passing a new authorization for the use of military force. It’s time for those who believe in ending the wars to stop tinkering around the edges of the AUMF and start building the political consensus that could bring about that result.