After 18 years of conflict, Congress needs to rein in the forever wars


Over the past several years, the organizations we lead – Concerned Veterans for America and VoteVets – have vigorously disagreed on major public policy issues, including the future of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). We have also worked on the opposite side of many political fights across multiple election cycles.

But we both served our countries in uniform – including in Iraq – and we both believe that one important way to alleviate the strain at the VA is to pursue a more restrained foreign policy, which will create fewer injured veterans.

To achieve this vision, we are joining forces to urge Congress to reassert its role in authorizing the use of military force, ensuring our country fights only the wars that are necessary to keep us safe — and to stop giving the executive branch free rein to entangle America in new conflicts.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to eliminate the threat posed by Al Qaeda and to punish the Taliban in Afghanistan – an action which was clearly justified at the time.

However, that law, barely more than a printed page long, has for nearly two decades been put to many uses for which it was never intended.

Through 18 years of conflict, congresses led by members of both parties have abdicated their war powers to three administrations led by members of both parties, while failing to challenge the concentration of authority in the executive branch. In fact, nearly 90% of the current Congress never voted on the 2001 AUMF.

The result is a "war on terror" that has stretched far beyond Afghanistan. According to Brown University's Costs of War Project, the United States has had combat troops on the ground in 14 countries in just the past two years. Some, like Syria, most people know about. Others, like the Central African Republic, have barely registered with the American public.

These conflicts are increasingly removed from immediate national security concerns. But they nevertheless impose serious costs in terms of American lives and treasure. Thousands of troops have died, trillions of dollars have been spent already, and the costs will continue to grow as we care for the veterans of these conflicts. Half of U.S. veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq War have applied for long-term disability through the VA, which is likely to add hundreds of billions of dollars to the federal budget over the coming decades.

Since 2001, the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have engaged the United States in a series of military missions without congressional approval and have used an overly broad interpretation of the 2001 AUMF to justify them. For example, both the Obama and Trump administrations have used the legislation to justify military action in Africa against groups that did not exist in 2001.

There can be no real expectation that any presidential administration will have the incentive to pause to reflect on the damage done to U.S. national security or our constitutional system by this kind of abuse.

The solution lies with Congress, which for too long has persisted in what author Stephen R. Weissman has called "a culture of deference" on foreign policy.

It is past time for Congress to end the deference.

The recent resolutions that passed Congress mandating an end to American military support for the war in Yemen offer a hopeful sign and a roadmap for how Congress can become more assertive in shaping American foreign policy.

Lawmakers should also repeal the outdated 2001 AUMF, which has allowed multiple presidents to operate under the assumption that Congress has ceded all war-making authority to them. Different bipartisan bills, like those recently introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), offer potential vehicles for repealing the 2001 law.

More fundamentally, lawmakers need to reclaim the legislative branch's power of the purse, its most effective tool – and one it has wielded effectively in the past to restrain military action.

Americans are tired of forever wars. While they're divided on much, after 18 years they overwhelmingly support withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and other conflicts.

Like many Americans, we certainly expect to continue to butt heads on other issues. But we just as certainly expect to work together to achieve the common goal of persuading Congress to reassert its role as a co-equal branch of government when it comes to authorizing the use of military force.

Dan Caldwell is executive director of Concerned Veterans for America. Jon Soltz is the chairman of VoteVets.

SEE ALSO: Leaving Afghanistan: How the first 'Forever War' might finally end.

WATCH: Operation Enduring Freedom turns 17

.S. Army Spc. Jonathan Pampell, a military intelligence mentor to the Afghan National Army (ANA), with the 319th Military Intelligence Battalion, walks past a group of wild dogs while on a patrol near Forward Operating Base Lightning, Paktya province, Afghanistan, Feb. 20, 2013. (U.S. Army/ Sgt. Aaron Ricca)
(Photo: CNN/screenshot)

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.

Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."

Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.

Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.

Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.

"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."

Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.

Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.

"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.

Photo: Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.

Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.

Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.

When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."

Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.

Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.

Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.

"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.

"Yes," Graffam said.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexi Myrick)

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