If Biden Doesn’t Act on AUMF, the US’s Blank Check for War Continues

It all began more than 20 years ago. On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” and told a joint session of Congress (and the American people) that “the course of this conflict is not known, yet its The outcome is certain.” If he meant a 20-year slide to defeat in AfghanistanThere has been a rise in militant groups all over the country. Greater Middle East AfricaThis is in addition to a world-spanning, never-ending war that has claimed at least 300 more lives than the victims of the American terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. He was absolutely correct.

Days earlier, Congress had authorized Bush “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determine[d] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 or harbored such organizations or persons.” By then, it was already evident, as Bush said in his address, that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. It was clear, however, that he didn’t intend to lead a limited campaign. “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he announced. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

Already, Congress had consented to the president’s actions. It had voted 420-1 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate for authorizing the use of military force (AUMF). This would allow the president (and future presidents) to declare war on the rest of the world.

“I believe that it’s broad enough for the president to have the authority to do all that he needs to do to deal with this terrorist attack and threat,” Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) said at the time. “I also think that it is tight enough that the constitutional requirements and limitations are protected.” That AUMF would, however, quickly become a blank check for boundless war.

In the two decades since, that 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force has been formally invoked to justify counterterrorism (CT) operations — including ground combat, airstrikes, detention, and the support of partner militaries — in 22 countries, according to a new report by Stephanie Savell of Brown University’s Costs of War Project. According to the U.S. State Department (USSD), the number terrorist groups that threaten Americans and American interests has more than doubled during this time.

The AUMF allows U.S. troops to conduct missions on four continents. These countries include some that are familiar, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, as well as some less-known nations like Georgia and Kosovo. “In many cases the executive branch inadequately described the full scope of U.S. actions,” writes Savell, noting the regular invocation of vague language, pretzeled logic, and weak explanations. “In other cases, the executive branch reported on ‘support for CT operations,’ but did not acknowledge that troops were or could be involved in hostilities with militants.”

For nearly a year, the Biden administration has conducted a comprehensive evaluation of this country’s counterterrorism policies, while continuing to carry out airstrikes in at least four countries. Biden has used the 2001 AUMF for a number of military operations in 12 countries, including Afghanistan, Djibouti (Iraq), Jordan, Kenya and Lebanon, Niger as well as the Philippines, Somalia, and Yemen.

“A lot is being said about the Biden administration’s rethinking of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, and while it’s true that Biden has conducted substantially less drone strikes so far than his predecessors, which is a positive step,” Savell told TomDispatch, “his invocation of the 2001 AUMF in at least 12 countries indicates that the U.S. will continue its counterterrorism activities in many places. Basically, the U.S. post-9/11 wars continue, even though U.S. troops have formally left Afghanistan.”

AUMFing Africa

“[W]e are entering into a long twilight struggle against terrorism,” said Representative David Obey (WI), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, on the day that the 2001 AUMF’s fraternal twin, a $40 billion emergency spending bill, was approved. “This bill is a down payment on the efforts of this country to undertake to find and punish those who committed this terrible act and those who supported them.”

A house is something you should consider buying. 20% down paymentThe traditional ideal. However, to purchase an interminable war against terror in 2001, you would need less that 1%. War costs have risen to approximately 1% since that initial installment. $5.8 trillion.

“This is going to be a very nasty enterprise,” Obey continued. “This is going to be a long fight.” On both counts he was dead on. According to the Costs of War Project he was dead on both counts twenty-plus decades later. one million people have been killed in direct violence during this country’s ongoing war on terror.

Over those two decades, that AUMF has also been invoked to justify detention operations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; efforts at a counterterrorism hub in the African nation of Djibouti to support attacks in Somalia and Yemen; and air strikes or ground missions in Afghanistan, Iraq Libya, Pakistan Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. The authorization has also been called on to justify “support” for partner armed forces in 13 countries. The line between “support” and combat can, however, be so thin as to be functionally nonexistent.

In October 2017, after the Islamic State ambushed U.S. troops in Niger — one of the 13 AUMF “support” nations — killing four American soldiers and wounding two others, U.S. Africa Command claimed that those troops were merely providing “advice and assistance” to local counterparts. Later, it was revealed they had been working with a Nigerien army under Operation Juniper Shield. This is a broad-ranging operation that covers a wide range of topics. counterterrorism effortIn northwest Africa. They were actually slated to support another American commando group trying to kill or capture Doundoun Cheffou, an Islamic State leader, until bad weather prevented this from happening. Obsidian Nomad II.

Obsidian NomadIn fact, it is a 127e program — named for the budgetary authority (section 127e of title 10 of the U.S. Code) that allows Special Operations forces to use select local troops as surrogates in counterterrorism missions. Run either by Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive organization that controls the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the Army’s Delta Force, and other elite special mission units, or by more generic “theater special operations forces,” its special operators have accompanied local commandos into the field across the African continent in operations indistinguishable from combat.

For example, the U.S. military conducted a similar 127e counterterrorism operation, codenamed Obsidian Mosaic. It was carried out in neighboring Mali. As Savell notes, no administration has ever actually cited the 2001 AUMF when it comes to Mali, but both Trump and Biden referred to providing “CT support to African and European partners” in that region. Meanwhile, Savell also notes, investigative journalists “revealed incidents in which U.S. forces engaged not just in support activities in Mali, but in active hostilities in 2015, 2017, and 2018, as well as imminent hostilities via the 127e program in 2019.” And Mali was only one of 13 African nationsAccording to Don Bolduc (retired Army Brigadier General), there were three areas where U.S. troops fought in combat between 2013-2017. Bolduc served as Africa Command’s Chief Special Operations Command Africa during these years.

2017: InterceptThe torture of prisoners at a Cameroonian military baseU.S. personnel, as well private contractors, used the data for training missions and drone surveillance. That same year, Cameroon was cited for the first time under the 2001 AUMF as part of an effort to “support CT operations.” It was, according to Bolduc, yet another nation where U.S. troops saw combat.

Bolduc stated that American forces also fought against Kenyan forces at the same time. Some even suffered casualties. This country was actually cited under the AUMF by the Trump, Trump, and Biden administrations. While Biden and Trump acknowledged U.S. troop “deployments” in Kenya in the years from 2017 to 2021 to “support CT operations,” Savell notes that neither made “reference to imminent hostilities through an active 127e program beginning at least in 2017, nor to a combat incident in January 2020, when al Shabaab militants attacked a U.S. military base in Manda Bay, Kenya, and killed three Americans, one Army soldier and two Pentagon contractors.”

In addition to cataloging the ways in which that 2001 AUMF has been used, Savell’s report sheds light on glaring inconsistencies in the justifications for doing so, as well as in which nations the AUMF has been invoked and why. Few war-on terror watchers would be shocked to see Libya included on the list of countries where authorization was used to justify ground operations or air strikes. The dates cited might surprise them, however, as the authorization was used to cover military operations only in 2013 and then again from 2015 to 2019.

The U.S. military and civilians were unable to participate in Operation Odyssey Dawn, NATO’s mission that followed it, and Operation Unified Protector (OUP) in 2011. eightOther air forcesHe flew sorties against Muammar Gaddafi’s military, resulting in his death and the end to his regime. According to reports, NATO conducted around 2,000 sorties. 9,700 strike sortiesMore than 7,700 precision-guided munitions were dropped.

In fact, U.S. drones flew regularly from Italy between March and October 2011 to monitor the skies over Libya. “Our Predators shot 243 Hellfire missiles in the six months of OUP, over 20 percent of the total of all Hellfires expended in the 14 years of the system’s deployment,” retired Lieutenant Colonel Gary Peppers, the commander of the 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron during Operation Unified Protector, told the Intercept in 2018. Despite those hundreds of drone strikes, not to mention attacks by manned aircraft, the Obama administration argued, as Savell notes, that the attacks did not constitute “hostilities” and so did not require AUMF citation.

The War for Terrorism?

In the wake 9/11, 90% of AmericansThey were preparing for war. One of them was Representative Jerrold Ndler (D-NY). “[W]e must prosecute the war that has been thrust upon us with resolve, with fortitude, with unity, until the evil terrorist groups that are waging war against our country are eradicated from the face of the Earth,” he said. Al-Qaeda continues to exist more than 20 years later. Their affiliates have multiplied and many harsher and more dangerous ideological successors are emerging on multiple continents.

As both political parties rushed the United States into a “forever war” that globalized the death and suffering al-Qaeda meted out on 9/11, only Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) stood up to urge restraint. “Our country is in a state of mourning,” she explained. “Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.’”

While the United States lost Afghanistan last year to the Taliban, the war against terror continues elsewhere in the world. In fact, President Biden was elected last month informed Congress that the U.S. military “continues to work with partners around the globe, with a particular focus” on Africa and the Middle East, and “has deployed forces to conduct counterterrorism operations and to advise, assist, and accompany security forces of select foreign partners on counterterrorism operations.”

In his letter, Biden acknowledged that troops continue detention operations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and support counterterrorism operations by the armed forces of the Philippines. He also assured Congress and the American people that the United States “remains postured to address threats” in Afghanistan; continues its ground missions and air strikes in Iraq and Syria; has forces “deployed to Yemen to conduct operations against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS”; others in Turkey “to support Counter-ISIS operations”; around 90 troops deployed to Lebanon “to enhance the government’s counterterrorism capabilities”; and has sent more than 2,100 troops to “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to protect United States forces and interests in the region against hostile action by Iran and Iran-backed groups,” as well as approximately 3,150 personnel to Jordan “to support Counter-ISIS operations, to enhance Jordan’s security, and to promote regional stability.”

Biden is the most popular African Biden noted, U.S. forces “based outside Somalia continue to counter the terrorist threat posed by ISIS and al-Shabaab, an associated force of al Qaeda” through air strikes and assistance to Somali partners and are deployed to Kenya to support counterterrorism operations. They also remain deployed in Djibouti “for purposes of staging for counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations,” while in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel, U.S. troops “conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations” and advise, assist, and accompany local forces on counterterrorism missions.

Biden sent the letter to Congress just days after Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, was appointed. announcedAn annual counterterrorism report was released that provided a useful evaluation of more than 20 years worth of AUMF-fueled counterterrorism operations. Blinken pointed to the “spread of ISIS branches and networks and al-Qaeda affiliates, particularly in Africa,” while noting that “the number of terrorist attacks and the overall number of fatalities resulting from those attacks increased by more than 10 percent in 2020 compared with 2019.” The reportEven worse was the situation in Iraq. It noted that “ISIS-affiliated groups increased the volume and lethality of their attacks across West Africa, the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin, and northern Mozambique,” while al-Qaeda “further bolstered its presence” in the Middle East and Africa. The “terrorism threat,” it added, “has become more geographically dispersed in regions around the world” while “terrorist groups remained a persistent and pervasive threat worldwide.” Worse than any qualitative assessment, however, was the quantitative report card that it offered.

The State Department had compiled 32 foreign terrorist organizationsThe 2001 AUMF passed with scattered members around the globe. Twenty years of war, nearly one million bodies, and six trillion dollars later, the number terrorist groups stands at 69, according to the congressionally mandated report.

With the passage of that AUMF, George W. Bush declared that America’s war would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Yet after 20 years, four presidents, and invocations of the AUMF in 22 countries, the number of terrorist groups that “threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security” has more than doubled.

“The 2001 AUMF is like a blank check that U.S. presidents have used to conduct military violence in an ever-expanding number of operations in any number of places, without adequate oversight from Congress. But it’s also just the tip of the iceberg,” Savell told TomDispatch. “To truly end U.S. war violence in the name of counterterrorism, repealing the 2001 AUMF is the first step, but much more needs to be done to push for government accountability on more secretive authorities and military programs.”

When Congress gave Bush that blank check — now worth $5.8 trillion and counting — he said that the outcome of the war on terror was already “certain.” Twenty years later, it’s a certainty that the president and Congress, Representative Barbara Lee aside, had it all wrong.

As 2022 approaches, the Biden administration has a chance to make a long-standing mistake and support efforts to end it. replace, sunsetOr repeal that 2001 AUMF — or Congress could step up and do so on its own. Until then, however that same blank check will continue to be in effect while the tab for war on terror and its AUMF-fueled toll on human lives continues to rise.