Early October will mark 20 years since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.
The legislation that allowed swift military action to take place just weeks after the terror attacks was the 2001 congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force, or the AUMF. But in the 20 years since, subsequent presidential administrations have abused the AUMF to conduct military operations beyond Afghanistan with little pushback from Congress.
Policymakers should pause and consider what the AUMF was designed to do two decades ago, how it has been used, and its usefulness for addressing today’s national security challenges.
Four days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress agreed upon a path forward. Without yet confirming who was directly responsible, Congress passed Joint Resolution 23, which condemned the “acts of treacherous violence” and permitted the president to use military force against “those nations, organizations, or persons” the president determined “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks. President George W. Bush signed the bill four days later. Airstrikes in Afghanistan began in early October.
Since then, the 2001 AUMF has been unilaterally expanded by presidents to cover national security challenges far beyond Afghanistan and al Qaeda. Almost immediately, it was broadened to include those responsible for 9/11 as well as “associated forces,” a phrase absent from the actual authorization. Despite this, the 2001 AUMF has been accepted by courts concerning enemy detentions in Guantanamo Bay and has served as the legal basis for strikes in several nations, including Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and against the Islamic State.
Opponents of lingering war authorities may take comfort in the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan. But they must remember that the 2001 AUMF is still in place. Just as quickly as troops left Afghanistan, under any future administration, they can just as quickly reenter — no additional congressional permissions needed.
The Constitution says that only Congress can declare war. In turn, the decision to keep the 2001 AUMF in place leads to a number of institutional and policy concerns. For one, it continues to shut out Congress from the broader debate on the War on Terror. Who is the enemy? Where is the enemy? What does the commander in chief need to defeat the enemy?
Another worry is that as public consensus grows that the 2001 AUMF is outdated, administrations will rely on it less. They might turn to other authorities to continue similar military operations. Note that the 2001 AUMF isn’t the only lingering congressional authorization for military force; authorizations from 2002, 1991, and 1957 remain on the books — although all irrelevant to current national security conflicts, they offer fodder for future abuse.
Fortunately, after two decades, there is growing bipartisan interest in reexamining what authorities the president needs to protect the nation. Indeed, repealing or replacing the 2001 AUMF need not be an indictment of the past two decades of foreign affairs. Rather, it’s a proactive, responsible decision to protect Congress’s national security role and offer the president authorities to combat today’s threats. But in a manner that limits the potential for abuse of outdated authorizations.
If the public wants to have a larger say in when its sons and daughters go to war, the best avenue is through their representatives. But if their representatives are unempowered, the public is as well.
Image credit: Orhan Cam 
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