With a few notable exceptions and caveats, President Joe Biden has been keeping his campaign promise to wind down America’s “forever wars”—the open-ended counterterrorist campaign the U.S. has been fighting around the globe for the past 20 years.
Most dramatically, Biden announced the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. While this is a somewhat slower timeline than the May 1 withdrawal originally agreed to by Donald Trump, it nonetheless will represent the end of America’s longest war, and the announcement showed Biden’s determination to act despite some significant political, military, and humanitarian risks.
But the war in Afghanistan was always more—and less—than a failed attempt to create and stabilize a friendly regime in the country. Legally and strategically, Afghanistan was meant to be the center of the U.S. military response to al-Qaida. For two decades, across four administrations, presidents have been sending American forces to kill and be killed under a congressional authorization to confront the perpetrators of 9/11.
One of the main critiques of the resulting war on terror has been that it is less a distinct conflict than an all-encompassing framework for military action not limited by time, geography, or target, effectively turning much of the world into a battlefield where the president can order military action with little oversight. If the Afghanistan conflict, the wellspring of that entire campaign, is officially defunct, where does that leave the 2001 authorization of military force that so much of the American war project has depended on?
Joe Biden’s commitment to de-escalating the forever wars seems real enough, operationally. Fears that the president who famously voted to authorize the war in Iraq would give in to his hawkish instincts or get rolled by his generals at the slightest sign of trouble in the Middle East have proved overblown. (Not that Biden is a dove; his hawkishness is just directed at China and Russia rather than jihadists.)
Besides the Afghanistan announcement, in February Biden announced the end of U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, though the U.S. is still helping the Saudis with “defensive” operations, which allows some wiggle room. The U.S. and Iraqi governments have also agreed to the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 troops in Iraq—the last of those deployed by Barack Obama in 2014 to fight ISIS, three years after the previous withdrawal from Iraq. The timeline of this current withdrawal is still unclear. Some 900 U.S. troops also remain in northeast Syria, and there doesn’t seem to be much urgency about removing them. But there hasn’t been a single strike against ISIS in Iraq or Syria since Biden took office, according to the monitoring site Airwars, and the role of these troops seems more about backing up America’s Kurdish allies, who currently control the area but face a variety of threats from their neighbors. In late February, the U.S. did launch a strike against an Iran-backed Shiite militia group in Syria, which was allegedly behind attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
The global covert counterterrorism war appears to be winding down as well. There hasn’t been a single U.S. drone strike in Pakistan under Biden—the last one was on July 4, 2018. There’s been only one possible—though unconfirmed—U.S. strike in Somalia since Biden took office. The Trump administration had dramatically ramped up the covert war against al-Shabab in Somalia, with hundreds of strikes, before abruptly pulling the plug on it in its final months. The last U.S. airstrike in Libya was in 2019 according to New America. The Biden administration has also taken steps to disclose some of the rules the Trump team was using to authorize drone strikes and commando raids outside of established war zones.
Yet Biden still holds the power to renew or expand hostilities if he sees fit, and he’s not in any hurry to give up that authority. Anyone hoping for a genuine end to the war on terror as a whole was probably given pause by Biden’s address to Congress last week—in which, after touting his Afghanistan decision and the decimation of al-Qaida, Biden added that the U.S. would “maintain an over-the-horizon capability to suppress future threats to the homeland.” It sounded as if he was reserving the authority to continue bombing Afghanistan even after U.S. troops leave it.
Biden continued: “Make no mistake—the terrorist threat has evolved beyond Afghanistan since 2001, and we will remain vigilant against threats to the United States, wherever they come from. Al-Qaida and ISIS are in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and other places in Africa and the Middle East and beyond.”
If the threats have evolved over time, though, Congress’ legal authorizations of the president’s war powers have not evolved along with them. In the modern era, the U.S. doesn’t do anything so blatant and clear-cut as declaring war. Since the 1973 War Powers Resolution limited the president’s ability to order military action unilaterally, what happens is that Congress OKs military action via authorizations for the use of military force—AUMFs—which are less formal than declarations of war, and also have a tendency to stick around for a while once they’re on the books.
Iraq and Afghanistan are both testing that sticking power. In March, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to advance legislation rescinding the 2002 AUMF against Iraq. Despite the fact that the 2002 resolution was intended to target Saddam Hussein’s government, it easily outlasted his overthrow and death; it was subsequently used by the Obama administration as part of its legal justification for airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq in 2014, and by the Trump administration for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last year. A similar bill in the Senate would rescind both that authorization and the 1991 AUMF for the first Gulf War, which is still technically in effect 30 years later.
Repeal of the Iraq AUMF has a decent chance of passing, in part because many of the activities it has been cited to authorize would also—arguably—fall under the 2001 anti-terrorist AUMF. (The Obama administration cited both as the legal basis for its anti-ISIS campaign.)
Repealing the 2001 one is likely to be more complicated. Passed by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, with only Rep. Barbara Lee voting against, the 2001 authorization allows the president to use military force against “nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” The members of Congress who voted for it may only have had al-Qaida in mind, but over time and subsequent administrations, the interpretation of the AUMF has broadened to include “associated forces” of the 9/11 attackers. As of 2018, it had been invoked for 41 military operations in 19 countries around the world from Georgia to Djibouti to the Philippines, as well as to justify the continued imprisonment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
There have been numerous attempts over the years to repeal the authorization, or at least replace it with something more tailored to current events. President Barack Obama vowed in a 2013 speech to work with Congress to replace the AUMF and “determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.” One year later, however, Obama was invoking the same AUMF to wage war against ISIS—a terrorist organization that not only didn’t exist at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but was itself fighting against the group that carried out those attacks.
Part of the problem is that presidents rarely give up executive powers once they have them. And for members of Congress, it’s usually been more appealing to sit back and criticize the president’s conduct of the war than to actually take ownership of it. This has led to a situation where, as evidenced by last year’s Soleimani strike, it’s hard to imagine what Islamist militants the president couldn’t claim the right to bomb under currently existing authorities.
Could the end of the war in Afghanistan, the conflict the AUMF was actually intended to authorize 20 years ago, shift the debate? Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a longtime advocate of AUMF reform, told me by email, “The withdrawal places momentum on replacing the 2001 AUMF, and I will be engaging with the administration on an appropriate revision to account for the war’s end in September 2021.”
The Biden administration is, in theory, willing to play ball. Emily Horne, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, says, “We are committed to working with members of Congress to ensure that the authorizations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars.”
Anti-interventionist voices in both parties are also a bit more common than they used to be, as shown in 2018 by the successful invocation of the War Powers Resolution to block U.S. support for the war in Yemen—vetoed by Trump. Indiana Sen. Todd Young, a Republican who co-sponsored legislation with Kaine to repeal the Iraq AUMFs, says, “Looking back, it’s traditionally been the party out of power that’s tried to use the AUMF debate issue as a means to constrain the party in control. I remember telling my Democratic colleagues during the Trump administration that I hope they’ll remain partners on this issue whenever the White House swings back the other direction.”
But Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who’s been active on war powers issues, warns, “There’s a strong desire to do something on the AUMF, and make a more narrowly tailored AUMF. But coming to consensus about what that narrow AUMF looks like has been the obstacle.”
Some progressives and libertarians say it shouldn’t be replaced at all, but the more common view in Washington is that it should be replaced by a framework that allows the White House to respond to terrorist threats as they emerge. Doing that without simply giving the president carte blanche to bomb wherever he wants has historically been a tough needle to thread.
Under the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry argued against limiting the use of force to specific countries, saying, “In our view, it would be a mistake to advertise to ISIL that there are safe havens for them outside Iraq or Syria.” Biden’s reference to “Africa and the Middle East and beyond” suggests he shares this view, and indeed, a small contingent of U.S. special forces was deployed to Mozambique to help fight against an ISIS-linked insurgency there.
The website Just Security recently published a proposal for what a truly narrowly tailored AUMF could look like. It would identify specific targeted groups, preclude military action against other groups, sunset after no more than three years, and include extensive reporting requirements. The last requirement may be most important, given the sprawling nature of U.S. counterterrorism operations. When four U.S. servicemen were killed in Niger in 2017, several U.S. senators including uber-hawk Lindsey Graham professed surprise that the U.S. even had troops in the country.
Whatever its true preferences, the White House putting the matter in the hands of this Congress could be a pretty good way to signal its good intentions while ensuring that no real limits are placed on its war-making authority. As former U.S. diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford pointed out in a piece for Slate in February, nothing is stopping Biden from unilaterally announcing his authorities if he really wants to.
There’s also the discomfiting possibility that the entire AUMF debate is becoming irrelevant as successive administrations have been increasingly claiming the right to launch military strikes without any authorization from Congress. When it launched airstrikes in Libya in 2011, the Obama administration claimed that military operations don’t constitute “hostilities” under the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution, and therefore don’t require congressional authorization if they “serve sufficiently important national interests” and are not “sufficiently extensive in ‘nature, scope, and duration’ to constitute a ‘war.’ ” The Trump administration cited this position to justify its own strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s military in 2019. The Biden administration did not use any of the AUMFs to justify its own strikes on the Iran-backed group Kataib Hezbollah in Syria in February, instead arguing that the president’s role as commander in chief under Article II of the Constitution gave him, in the words of Pentagon spokesperson Jack Kirby, “not only the authority but the obligation” to attack the group.
That logic doesn’t hold up for Kaine. “The executive branch tends to push the envelope of all its war authorities, whether they be statutory or constitutional,” he said. He added that if the president responds to AUMF repeal by “forsaking claims of AUMF authority and defaulting to claims of constitutional authority based on an overly broad interpretation of protecting our ‘national interest,’ then we should respond by updating the War Powers Resolution to rein in such abuses.”
The post-Afghanistan moment would seem to be the ideal opportunity for such a debate, but the moment is likely to be fleeting. If the “forever wars” fade from the headlines, the impetus to actually legally end them will fade as well, leaving this president and future presidents the opportunity to use the authorization for purposes that may be very different from their original intention. The 2002 Iraq authorization, after all, continued to be invoked long after both the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the first departure of U.S. troops from the country. There’s little hope of a president of either party simply giving up the power to wage war. If Congress is serious about regaining its oversight authority over military force, it’s going to have to take it.