By: Navi Bajwa
In 2001, Congress passed a bill called the Authorization of Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF). The law gave the President power to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons that were behind the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. The group that the bill targeted especially was Al- Qaeda and their associates. Thirteen years later the AUMF is still very much in use as the President’s legal justification to wage war against terrorist groups across the globe, but some are calling the law into question.
The Islamic State (IS), formerly a part of Al-Qaeda, is a terrorist group that is currently waging war in Iraq and Syria. The difference between the IS and other radical groups is that their goal is not random chaos in hopes of destabilizing the west, but the establishment of their own state. Indeed, they have made progress towards their aim by taking over huge swaths of Iraq and Syria and claiming an Islamic caliphate. Along with the smash mouth offensive of the IS that has beaten back Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the brutal repression of innocents within the new caliphate has put increased pressure on Western leaders to act. Considering how much the US has invested in Iraq and the greater region in terms of lives and dollars, President Obama rightly sees the Islamic State as a serious threat. In response, Obama has invoked the AUMF and has launched strikes on IS targets to aid allied forces in reclaiming lost territory.
In the past months, questions have arisen as to whether the AUMF actually covers the IS since the bill is focused on groups that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. The IS and Al-Qaeda split over ideology has left the President and his lawyers in a tough spot as they try to qualify the new threat as a group that was behind 9/11. Certainly, the use of this law against the IS raises serious concerns that this President and future ones can wage nontransparent wars against the American people’s wishes. Although this is a valid concern, a closer reading of the act shows that President Obama may be correct in his use of AUMF against the Islamic State.
Yes, the law’s scope centers around the groups and states that carried out the 9/11 attacks but that can be interpreted in a way that allows the President to carry out the current strikes. The text states the president can use force against those nations, organizations or groups that carried out 9/11. Even though the IS and Al-Qaeda are separate entities now, they were the same organization at the time of the attacks and passing of the law. To give a pardon to the IS because they do not use the same name as those responsible for 9/11 effectively handicaps the President from doing his duty and makes the law incredibly narrow.
It is not realistic to follow the logic of those who doubt Obama’s use of AUMF against IS. In a world of insurgency and unconventional military forces, it cannot be fathomed how many groups are renaming themselves, splitting from other cells, or ceasing to exist. A flexible interpretation of the AUMF is needed so events like the ones just described do not put a halt to needed military operations. If a narrow interpretation was used, the War on Terror would be reduced to operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. One could imagine that list being further reduced if a dubious lawyer was to advise Al-Qaeda to renounce their name and split their organization even further.
Furthermore, the law has two words that are crucial to this debate. “That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines…”. The AUMF leaves incredible amounts of decision making to the President with just those two words. Mr. Obama can simply state that according to his study of the current situation, he has determined that he does not see a difference between the IS and Al-Qaeda since one was born out of the other.
It is settled that the AUMF has troubling provisions that may lead to presidential abuse and futile American involvement around the world. Unfortunately, the post 9/11 landscape will continue to contain new threats like the IS that must be countered. In order for a timely response to be implemented, the AUMF should be interpreted in a way that continues to allow Mr. Obama and future Presidents to take necessary military measures against these extremist groups.