As military action expands against the Islamic State, legislative proposals for authorizing the use of military force are proliferating on Capitol Hill.

While there is no consensus on how Congress should approach an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), most of the proposals demonstrate that lessons have been learned since passage of the open-ended 2001 AUMF.  The proposed language is generally cautious about giving the president unrestricted authority and includes constraints such as geographic limitations, prohibitions on ground troops, and sunset clauses.  All of the proposals circulating so far, though, fail to include a component that will be essential to preventing the war against the Islamic State from becoming an unending and inconclusive conflict:  Well-defined and achievable objectives. 


In announcing military action against the Islamic State -- or ISIL--President Obama stated that the goal of the mission was to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” This is strong-sounding rhetoric--and politically popular – but what does it mean in practical terms?   How will we know when the Islamic State has been “destroyed” and, more importantly, is that even a necessary strategic goal?  Does destruction mean the complete elimination of every last Islamic State fighter, leaving not even loose, disconnected cells? If so, then that is a goal that may not be realistically achievable.   The U.S. has been battling core al-Qaeda for 13 years and while the organization has been massively degraded, it has not been completely “destroyed.”  The Taliban as well has proven resistant to complete eradication since its initial rout in 2001.  Instead of calling for an abstract “destruction” of the Islamic State, military action should focus on what is necessary and achievable in addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State.   Congress can play a vital role by incorporating such objectives into an Islamic State-specific AUMF.

Congress should authorize military action to achieve three specific goals:  First, to prevent the Islamic State from conducting acts of international terrorism against the United States that exceed the capacity of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to effectively counter; Second, to prevent the Islamic State from conducting acts of terrorism against American allies that threaten their sovereignty or continuity of government and  that exceed the capacity of their security services to effectively counter; and third, to eliminate the capacity of the Islamic State to effectively control populated areas.   These objectives are in service of the primary goal of averting attacks on U.S. territory, defending our allies, and eliminating safe havens that can incubate potential terrorist plots. Dismantling the Islamic State’s ability to control populated areas also denies it the ability to extract resources from local populations, a main source of the organization’s financing. These objectives also conform to the law of necessity:  If law enforcement, intelligence agencies, or other nations’ security services have the capacity to deal with potential terrorist threats then military action would no longer be necessary. 

These objectives would work in tandem with a sunset clause included in the AUMF statute, ideally a one year or eighteen month sunset.   Such a relatively short time limit does not imply that all objectives will necessarily be met within that timeline, but instead recognizes that a re-authorization debate that evaluates the achievements and shortfalls of military action should be undertaken at regular intervals.  We’ve seen how an AUMF like the 2001 version, without a time limit, can set the nation on an unreflective drift toward continuous military operations.   A reauthorization debate on an Islamic State AUMF including clear objectives would be a more comprehensive look at where the war stood and would be more enlightening than an ill-defined  argument about whether the Islamic State had been “destroyed” or not.  If “destruction” were the only objective, one lone wolf Islamic State fighter committing a terrorist act against our allies in Baghdad would suffice to support a contention that the Islamic State had not been destroyed and the AUMF needed to remain in force without modification.  The pressure to indefinitely roll over an AUMF without well-defined objectives would be great and the fight more easily described as perpetually “unfinished.”

There are varying views in Congress on whether any AUMF for the Islamic State should be initiated by the President or proposed by Congress. But in either case, Congress should only approve a high-standard AUMF with well-defined objectives as the best means to protect our national security without running the risk of engaging in perpetual war that makes us no safer.   A narrow AUMF with specific objectives could also be critical check against the next president radically altering war aims to something potentially very different than what the nation is currently contemplating against the Islamic State. Such an authorization could also offer insurance against future administrations abusing the authority by using it for purposes unrelated to the Islamic State, as the current administration has done by claiming that both the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs apply to the Islamic State, despite the organization being unrelated to the September 11 attacks or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the respective issues behind those authorizations.. This Congress has the opportunity to show that we have learned from past mistakes and to set a strong precedent for future authorizations. 

Bradshaw is executive director at the National Security Network, a progressive foreign policy research organization.