Repealing the AUMF is Biden’s opportunity to end the ‘forever wars’

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The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) is older than many of the Americans now sent to Afghanistan. Its corollary, the 2002 AUMF against Iraq, has also lived well beyond the Bush era. And despite four years of lambasting the “forever wars,” President Trump failed to bring an end to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. President Biden has a chance to correct that by scrapping and narrowing these military authorizations. 

Congress, to its credit, has attempted to repeal or replace the AUMFs in the past. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced legislation in 2019 to repeal the 2002 AUMF to no avail. But according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the administration is open to reevaluating the AUMFs. This means Biden may finally be the one to deal a death knell to the forever wars.

Why is repealing the AUMFs necessary?

The AUMFs are not inconsequential. Only a year ago, Trump used the 2002 AUMF as his legal justification for assassinating Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. A resolution adopted nearly two decades ago to target Saddam Hussein’s regime is still being abused to conduct acts of war without congressional approval. The 2002 AUMF repeal is long overdue and, two decades later, there’s no reason to maintain an irrelevant law that enables undeclared acts of war.

The 2001 AUMF is more complicated, though it too needs revisiting. It authorizes the president to target “those nations, organizations, or persons” who aided or conducted the 9/11 attacks. The problem is that it does not define the enemy or provide any constraints on the mission in question. The result is a War on Terror that deviates from counterterrorism and that has the bureaucratic inertia to continue without end or purpose. Our presence in Afghanistan is no longer based on an  Al Qaeda presence but rather nation building — a mission that shouldn’t hide behind the auspices of keeping Americans safe.

The 2001 AUMF is a blank check to wage war on virtually anyone at the president’s discretion. How is that fixed?

First, we define the end goal: What does victory look like in the War on Terror? This isn’t a pedantic question. If the end conditions are not set, we will arrive at the same problem of wars with no end in sight. The end goal should be the same reason that justified the 2001 AUMF in the first place: to prevent attacks on American soil. If  Al Qaeda is in such disarray that it can’t conduct an attack, the mission is accomplished. Playing endless whack-a-mole to kill every terrorist is unnecessary if the homeland is safe.

Second, we need to define the enemy itself. This should be clearly limited to  Al Qaeda and groups directly responsible for targeting the American homeland. The Constitution vests the power to declare war in Congress, not the president, for a reason. Deciding who to fight is not a military decision; it’s a societal one. If Americans agree that they’re willing to commit hundreds of billions of dollars to eradicating all terrorist groups globally, that’s one thing. For the president to commit the country to this costly crusade is another. By defining the enemy, we would constrain the goals of fighting terrorism to something achievable and less costly than our current strategy.

Finally, the AUMF should be revised to have an end date to its authority. This doesn’t mean the mission must end but it must make sure the mission is still in line with U.S. interests. Congress can extend authority if the need arises, but we wouldn’t have the problem of a war persisting without end. Or at least not without debates in Congress.

What’s more, we would finally have to debate the mission itself. Votes would have to be tallied and Congressmen would have to be on record as standing for or against the War on Terror. If the cost is worth it strategically and has the mandate of the people, this isn’t a hard barrier to overcome. But in 2021 Americans have reckoned with the costs of staying in Afghanistan and Iraq and have decided the overwhelming costs in blood and treasure are not worth it. Make U.S. policy reflect the will of the people and ensure that these wars either serve a purpose or end.

The Biden administration has a chance to improve U.S. strategy for the better. Beyond the national security implications of revisiting the AUMFs, the administration would better link American institutions to the will of Americans who recognize the futility of these wars. Amidst bitter divides in our country, making U.S. foreign policy reflect the views of the American public is more important than ever. If Biden wants unity, he can start by ending the forever wars.

Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

Tags 2001 AUMF 2002 AUMF Afghanistan War Al Qaeda Anthony Blinken Antony Blinken AUMF Barbara Lee Donald Trump Forever wars Joe Biden Middle East National security Qassem Soleimani Tim Kaine War on Terror

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