The Military

Do we have the tools we need to combat ISIS?

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In recent weeks, the Trump administration has intensified the pressure on ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The use of conventional ground forces along with the evolving threat presented by ISIS constitutes a new phase in the fight. Therefore, it would be prudent for Congress to contemplate an additional authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). 

While the expanded scope of the military campaign alone would be reasonable grounds for Congress to contemplate an additional AUMF, it is the changing nature of ISIS-inspired activity, as well as its expansive footprint, that should compel further action

Since September 2014, the Obama administration has cited the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs as providing both its legal and policy framework for military operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Obama administration also sought — if not half-heartedly — a new authorization. This request ultimately went nowhere, there was little-to-no public reaction, and military operations continued.

This past week, Secretary James Mattis expressed his support for an authorization. But it should not surprise anyone if this call were to again go unheeded.

{mosads}In many respects, presidents maintain discretionary authority in decisions to use military force and are almost assured support for military operations so long as their efforts are perceived as successful. These dynamics, which have become emblematic of the status quo after World War II, do not necessarily equate to optimal policy outcomes. If Congress succumbs to the gravitational pull of passive support, in this instance, it would fail to embrace the complexity of what is likely a generational conflict.


While reasonable legal scholars and policy wonks could have an honest debate over whether the existing AUMFs provide sufficient legal basis for the current military campaigns against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, it is difficult to make that same case for the expanded set of ISIS groups around the world.

While core ISIS has been unequivocally reduced, it still maintains a number of affiliates. Not only has the extent of the terror group’s activity changed, there has been an outflow of militants that will require continued military pressure in conjunction with law enforcement and intelligence activities. 

To date, the congressional dialogue surrounding a new authorization has exclusively centered on the scope of the Iraq-Syria mission. While details such as length of the campaign, number and type of troops are certainly important, not enough attention has been paid to how ISIS is evolving.

If President Trump intends to “crush and destroy” ISIS beyond Syria and Iraq, we believe that there is a bipartisan path to work with Congress to obtain an additional AUMF to counter ISIS predicated on the following framework:

First, we must not upset the current fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates. The 2001 AUMF has provided sufficient authorization to conduct the necessary operations against these groups globally. 

Second, a new authorization should have mechanisms to allow for periodic congressional review, to include how it comports with broader governmental efforts over time.

Third, an additional counter-ISIS AUMF should not limit “boots on the ground.” We believe that this would certainly warrant continuing the public debate in Congress but, as already evidenced, we will need some U.S. boots on the ground.

Furthermore, to be successful against ISIS, there should be a recognition of the requirement for much more than military boots. It will require the active engagement of those from all the relevant agencies of our government. ISIS will not be defeated through “kinetic” operations alone. After all, the fight against ISIS is as much a war of ideas that will continue beyond the elimination of its territory.

The most important foreign policy question for any president remains whether to enter a conflict militarily — an action that risks U.S. blood and treasure. Indeed, Congress has a shared responsibility in these decisions. 

An additional AUMF would not only provide a sound legal basis for operations against ISIS around the world, it would also send a powerful message of support to members of our military as well as a signal of our unwavering resolve to the enemy.


Alex Gallo is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee for five years. He is a West Point graduate and combat veteran and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. His work has been published by The Washington Post, National Review, The Hill and Foreign Affairs. 

Jaron S. Wharton is a West Point classmate, combat veteran and graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. He is currently a Ph.D. student at Duke University whose research focuses on the domestic politics that underpin decisions to use military force. The views expressed in this article is his own.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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