WHAT’S THE AUMF?…….and why should you care?
by Louise Lansberry
Over 17 years ago, a bill not widely known by most American citizens today, was passed by Congress. This bill, the AUMF: Authorization for the Use of Military Force, was passed in the wake of 9/11 in 2001 and allowed for the use of military force against any country, organization, or person determined to be involved with the attacks of 9/11: Afghanistan, the Taliban, and al Qaeda. The only Congress person to vote against the bill was Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California. She said, “We must be careful not to embark on an open ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes”. As it has turned out, Lee’s fears were well-founded.
Military action provided for by the 2001 AUMF began shortly after this bill was signed, and a companion 2002 AUMF was used for entry into war in Iraq in 2003. In addition, over these last 17 years, the Executive branch under Bush, Obama and Trump has expanded the scope of US wars by interpreting the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs to apply to groups and situations that Congress never intended. In fact the AUMF has been invoked 41 times since 2001 to involve the US military in some 18 countries today.
More importantly, however, Congress has not fulfilled its Constitutional duty to debate the use of the US military. Yet, the Constitution was set up to prevent just such a situation. As James Madison pointed out in the deliberations during the ratification of the Constitution: “The Constitution supposes what history demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch most prone to war and most interested in it, therefore the Constitution has with studied care vested that power in the Legislature.” (Letter to Jefferson, 1798) But with Congress abrogating its power, the Executive branch has taken on whatever conflict that it chooses to get involved in, not only with little awareness of members of Congress (e.g. the deaths of four soldiers in Niger in 2017 was a surprise to many) but certainly with most of the public left completely in the dark. And the result is “perpetual war”.
Some might say that most of these “conflicts” since 9/11 have been “small” affairs, other than Afghanistan and Iraq, so why should we care? There are many reasons. One major concern is that, as mentioned above, Congress has not fulfilled its role in declaring war and providing oversight. Yet our country is asking men and women who volunteer for military service to put their lives on the line without any sense of how or whether their service is necessary for the defense of the United States. And the price being paid by the civilian populations in these countries we enter is enormous. The estimated deaths of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq over the period 2001-18 is between 244 and 266 thousand (not including civilian deaths from malnutrition and damaged health systems) while the refugees and internally displaced people in the same areas up till 2017 is 8.41 million. In Syria there are another 12.59 million refugees.
Moreover, our military action may in fact be counter-productive. As the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency (COIN) Manual notes, “an airstrike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory.”
Finally, in addition to the human cost to our servicemen and women as well as to the civilians in these countries we’ve entered is the financial cost. It is estimated by the Cost of War Project that the US has spent nearly 4.7 TRILLION dollars on the military activity we’ve pursued since 9/11, and that doesn’t even cover the continuing medical costs for those who have served in the military or the additional interest on the debt we’ve incurred for the money to pay for these actions. Are these expenditures truly in our best national interest? Are we making friends or enemies by our expansive military posture? What about exploring non-militaristic approaches to these international problems such as pursuing diplomatic channels, using law enforcement tools and intelligence resources? We often hear that there’s no military solution in many of these conflicts, but how often do we see actual diplomacy going on?
In the last two years, it appears that more Congressional members are willing to counter this on-going policy of endless war. In 2017 Senator Rand Paul (R) added an amendment to the National Defense Authority Act to Repeal AUMF 2001 and 2002. Last year, Senator Tim Kaine(D) and former Senator Bob Corker (R) proposed a revision to the AUMF. Last month (Feb 2019) Rep. Barbara Lee of California (the lone voice against the 2001 AUMF) introduced a bill (HR1274) to repeal the AUMF of 2001. Senator Kaine and Senator Todd Young (R) have introduced a bill (SR13) to repeal the 2002 AUMF in the Senate.
Equally timely is the announcement of two veterans groups, VoteVets and Concerned Veterans for America. They represent opposite sides of the fence on most social and political issues, but both have recently announced their opposition to “forever wars” and their support for the repeal of the AUMFs.
At the time the 2019 Lee bill was introduced, it did not provide for any revision or entirely new proposal for any new AUMF. However, if a new AUMF is proposed, groups such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL, a Quaker lobby group based in Washington, DC) believe the following should be required: a sunset clause with a specific end date (with the possibility of renewal), naming of clear military targets (specific groups and countries), geographic restrictions, and restrictions on the use of ground troops. As a member of a FCNL Advocacy Team, I support the position that “war is not the answer”. In the meantime, why can’t we take the first step down the path of ending perpetual war by repealing the AUMF 2001 and 2002?