When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today, the United States will have been at war for 16 years, 1 month, and 16 days. The 107th Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) on September 14, 2001. At the very moment of the vote, the rubble of the World Trade Center Towers still smoldered. Firefighters and recovery crews smothered those flames a long time ago and One World Trade Center now stands proudly in its place.
Here are a few other changes since that day:
- Children born after that vote can now legally drive.
- All eight Harry Potter films were released.
- Michael Phelps won 23 gold medals.
- Fifty-five new Now That’s What I Call Music albums have been produced.
- The Verizon guy switched to Sprint.
- Snoop Dogg went from recording for Death Row Records to hosting a game show.
Of the 98 Senators who voted for the original AUMF (2 abstained and none voted against), only 24 still hold their seats. Sixteen of the 98 have died. In the House of Representatives, only 95 current members were in office at the time of the original vote. Forty-one who voted for the measure have since died.
Since its passage, the current law has been cited as justification for military operations in 14 different countries at least 37 times. Everyone knows about Afghanistan and Iraq, but many may be surprised the United States has also conducted combat operations in places like Djibouti, Yemen, the Philippines, Kenya, Eritrea, and as we now know, Niger. The United States may very well become embroiled in many other parts of the world due to a little known provision added to the latest Pentagon budget by the Senate Armed Services Committee. According to Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the budget provides Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with “new authority designed to support the ability of our special operators to work with partners to counter irregular warfare, or so-called gray zone challenges, posed by our adversaries.” This will expand SOCOM’s authority to involve themselves in the conflict of other nations by providing forces to support foreign militaries as they battle insurgencies or perform counterterrorism operations.
There is plenty of room for debate about whether or not the United States should still be conducting combat operations all over the world after 16 years. It is doubtful anything approaching a consensus could be reached about such a controversial subject. If, however, the War on Terrorism is something the American people still support, then their representatives should not hesitate to hold a vote on it. And if the current Members of Congress believe it is still necessary to send young American men and women into harm’s way all over the world, then they should be willing to accept responsibility by affirming the mission with a fully transparent vote on a revised AUMF.
As the situation around the world changes, so too should the authorization for war. Each new Congress should revisit this issue and vote on its own AUMF, one that specifies where and against whom military action may be taken. Each should have a two-year sunset clause to serve as a forcing function for the following Congress. This will go a long way to ensure the United States does not find itself in a perpetual state of war. It would also force Congress to understand where Americans are being sent rather than having to solicit information from the Pentagon about ongoing military operations.
The threat of terrorism is still very real. The United States should be taking the appropriate steps to protect its citizens. But by continuing to deploy troops around the world under the cover of a sixteen-year-old law, one begins to wonder if we have lost the necessary focus to accomplish the mission.
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