President Obama has provided Congress and the American people with the language of his authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Now it is up to Congress to publicly debate the issue and send the president a final version. Many have stated that the president's draft is six months too late as air sorties against ISIS have been ongoing since August. The debate among several in the academic world and Congress has focused on the necessary parameters that need to be included to fulfill the president's goal of degrading and ultimately defeating ISIS along with proper restraints to check executive power and the seemingly perpetual state of global war. Now that the president has provided his own language, it paints a clearer picture into his overall strategic goals and transitions the nation into the War on Terror 2.0 — a global conflict against several burgeoning entities.
The president has relied on the initial AUMF passed days after the Sept. 11 attacks for his operations against ISIS and expanded operations against al Qaeda globally. The Obama administration has interpreted the 2001 AUMF (and the 2002 AUMF that authorized the Iraq War separately) to provide legal cover against ISIS, formerly al Qaeda in Iraq, because ISIS is "the true inheritor of [Osama] bin Laden's legacy."
The combat role in Afghanistan has concluded and a reevaluation of efforts is necessary. President Obama sought to end two wars when he was elected but he finds himself bogged down in yet another conflict in the same region. The president's new draft provides broader language than the 2001 AUMF and it clearly provides intended ambiguity for several other parameters.
Similar to the 2001 AUMF, the president's new draft has no defined geographic limit for operations. President Obama has previously asserted that he wants to avoid "playing whack-a-mole wherever a terrorist group appears." However, his ISIS-AUMF draft provides leeway in its definition of "associated forces" the military would be permitted to attack; "individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners," the draft states, using the president's preferred acronym for the terrorist group. ISIS is seeking to expand their reach through the establishment of provinces. The most high-profile attack from an ISIS province came recently in Libya, in which an American was killed when the group besieged a hotel. To many, it would be shortsighted and irresponsible to not permit Obama and future presidents from continuing to attack a group if said group simply changes its name to escape U.S. statutory authority. A balanced check would be to limit operations against ISIS or closely related entities to Iraq and Syria for the time being.
Currently, the safeguard concerning engagement in "hostilities" with certain groups prevents this whack-a-mole scenario as the U.S. is not engaged in an armed conflict with all terrorist groups globally, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. However, consider drone strikes in Somalia against members of al-Shabaab. The administration has never publicly stated that it is engaged in hostilities against the al Qaeda-aligned group (despite the group's aspirations to attack the U.S. homeland). The U.S. only targets individuals in al-Shabaab known to have connections and/or relations in "core" al Qaeda leadership. A similar situation could arise if links between members of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and members of their provinces in Africa or Asia, become more concrete (as an aside, the U.S. typically operates with the permission of the host government, but Libya's governmental situation is much more ambiguous).
Take, for example, a drone strike that recently killed an ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee in Afghanistan who defected from the Taliban and was an emir of ISIS's new province in the Khorasan, a term that describes an ancient region covering the geographic area of central Asia including Afghanistan. Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby stated at a recent briefing to reporters that "[the target] and his associates were targeted, because we had information that they were planning operations against U.S. and Afghan personnel there in Afghanistan." Kirby reiterated that the U.S. will continue to go after members of the Taliban, and essentially other threatening groups and individuals, if they endanger U.S. interests and partners in Afghanistan, despite the new mission. Ideally, the U.S. should not have continued operations in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future with the conclusion of the combat mission (especially considering many legal experts want the 2001 AUMF to sunset) and taking into account the introduction of an ISIS-specific AUMF that should only focus on ISIS's primary areas of operation in Iraq and Syria.
Notwithstanding the inclusion of a three-year sunset in the president's draft AUMF, a new president could effectively continue the trend of expansive legal interpretations and use a renewed AUMF beyond its original intention (so long as Congress keeps a three-year sunset in their final version). The War on Terror, forever war, long war — whatever one chooses to call it — is not curtailed with the president's draft language especially as it leaves in place the 2001 AUMF. In fact, it places the United States into a War on Terror 2.0 that, much like the threat from terrorists abroad, has evolved from 2001 to allow the president to essentially target an entire new brand of terrorists around the globe if he so chooses.
The George W. Bush years saw two full-scale wars while the Obama years saw robust use of special operations forces and the heavy reliance upon combined weaponized/intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance drones for counterterrorism from Iraq, to Syria, to Yemen, to Somalia, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is unclear what tactics the next administration will employ or even the threat it will face. Many might assert that the U.S. has been operating under a War on Terror 2.0 for years. However, President Obama has made it official by providing authorization language.
Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.