Is there an end in sight for the Global War on Terror? Don’t count on it.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 30, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faced a barrage of questions from lawmakers over the need for a new authorization for the use of military force to replace 2001 AUMF that, passed amid the fear and panic that gripped the nation in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, has justified U.S. Department of Defense counterterrorism missions around the globe ever since. And after the deaths of four Army Special Forces personnel during an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger, lawmakers are reconsidering the Pentagon’s expanding footprint in Africa and abroad with renewed political vigor.
The White House isn’t that interested: Confirming September reports out of the National Security Council, Tillerson told lawmakers today that the White House is not currently seeking a new AUMF to iron out the legal questions surrounding the ever-evolving Global War on Terror.
“The United States has the legal authority to prosecute campaigns against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and associated forces, including ISIS,” Tillerson said. “The 2001 AUMF remains a cornerstone for ongoing U.S. military operations and continues to provide legal authority relied upon to defeat this threat.”
Should Congress decide to exercise its constitutional war-making (and -stopping) authority, though, Mattis and Tillerson have a few requests: first, that there be no gap between the repeal of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs and the enactment of a new authorization to avoid “operational paralysis” (Mattis objected to even repealing the 2001 and 2002 authorizations); and more importantly, that there be “no time or geographical constraints” on when and where U.S. military assets are deployed in its game of whack-a-mole against terror groups.
Even operational limits — like, say, restricting engagements to airstrikes and bombing sorties, rather than deploying combat troops — would end up hindering long-term objectives “given the way the enemy morphs,” Tillerson said.
“Legislation that would prematurely end the AUMF would be inconsistent with a conditions-based approach and embolden enemies who want to outlast us,” Mattis said, citing the Afghan war strategy Trump laid out during an Aug. 21 speech. “The enemy does not limit itself based on geographic boundaries [and] the collapse of the ISIS caliphate means it will attempt to burrow into new countries and find new safe havens. There must be nothing that restricts or delays our ability to respond rapidly to terrorist threats to the U.S.”
Trump’s strategy “in South Asia is conditions-based because war is unpredictable. We cannot put a firm timeline on conflict,” Mattis added. “These are not traditional threats. We must be prepared to swiftly engaged this global enemy with our allies and partners.”
Translation: No limits, no change.
Mattis doubled down on the the Obama administration’s 2014 claim that the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs provided all the legal basis they needed to initiate Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS as an “associated” offshoot of Al Qaeda — despite the fact that ISIS didn’t even exist when the legislation was drafted more than 15 years ago. After the 2011 military drawdown in Iraq and the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Al Qaeda “quickly rebranded as ISIS,” said Mattis, launching attacks from “the Sahel to Southeast Asia” — thinly veiled references to evolving ISIS beachheads in the Lake Chad Basin region and the Philippines. (Mattis is, strictly speaking, wrong here: ISIS is not a rebranded Al Qaeda, and in fact the groups have been at each other’s throats. But he’s not wrong that they’re both dead-end anti-American groups.)
Mattis even mentioned the ISIS-inspired attacks on San Bernadino and Orlando as reminders of the group’s domestic dangers. “A statement of congressional support would be welcome,” Mattis said, “but it is not legally required.”
Despite the month-long political imbroglio triggered by the Niger ambush, it appears the administration won’t face much pushback in Congress — and the White House knows it. Tillerson and Mattis’ conditions on a new AUMF rule out the March bill proposed bill by Sens. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia.
In his opening remarks, committee chairman and Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker stated that the good ol’ 2001 AUMF, despite its flaws, “will remain necessary for the foreseeable future to prevent attacks on America and our allies,” despite the need for lawmakers “to reassert Congress’s constitutional role” as, you know, the governmental body that actually makes war.
“Congress is united in strong support of the fight against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and other terrorist groups,” Corker said. “Congress has regularly been notified of deployments around the world, including the building in Niger” — hear that, Lindsey Graham? — “and responded accordingly by funding the Department of Defense’s counterterrorism missions.” Mattis concurred later in his testimony, reminding lawmakers that the “power of the purse” — Congress’s constitutional authority over actually funding the U.S. armed forces — “is firmly vested in your hands.”
But if there was ever a time to throw the brakes on America’s forever wars, it may be now. The post-Niger moment of clarity facing both lawmakers and the American public regarding the true scope of the Global War on Terror, along with wavering public support for Trump as commander-in-chief, give congressional watchdogs an opening.
“We ought to aspire to be more than just part of a feedback loop. Article 1 authority is more than that,” said Flake, who announced last week that he would retire from the Senate rather than stand for reelection. “We have to make sure that our adversaries and our allies and most importantly our troops know we speak with one voice.”