Policy & Strategy

Defense lawmakers consider changing rules of terror war

House Defense lawmakers are debating whether to change the rules of war for U.S. counterterrorism operations as part of the Defense Authorization bill for 2014.

According to draft language obtained by The Hill, the changes would require President Obama and the Pentagon to review all groups or individuals now characterized as “associated forces” under the current rules.

{mosads}Individuals or groups with cursory ties to al Qaeda are now considered “associated forces,” and can be targeted in drone strikes just like members of terrorist cells or people with direct links to al Qaeda.

The review mandated by the draft language would require the Pentagon to specifically lay out whether those groups or individuals are directly tied to al Qaeda operations, and if they are engaged with ongoing or future terror plots against the United States or its allies.

Those pushing to change the rules argue the current definition of associated forces gives U.S. military and intelligence agencies far too much leeway in determining who can and cannot be targeted by U.S. forces in counterterrorism “kill/capture” missions, which include drone strikes and attacks like the Seal Team Six mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

Some sources said the language will be included in the draft authorization bill to be considered next week by the House Armed Services Committee, something a spokesman for the panel’s chairmen disputed.

The proposed changes do “not accurately reflect the chairman’s mark,” Claude Chafin, spokesman for panel chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Thursday.

The debate coincides with President Obama’s promise last Thursday to repeal the standing rules of war on terror.

“I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s [Authorization for Use of Military Force] mandate,” Obama said in an address last week at the National Defense University.

Obama argued that unless the 12-year-old rules are changed, Congress risked giving future presidents unbound powers.

“Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” Obama said.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands,” he added.

Supporters of the current counterterror rules in Congress and at the Pentagon say the changes may weaken American efforts to stamp out al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Before Obama’s speech, Michael Sheehan, head of special operations and low-intensity conflicts at the Pentagon, told Congress he sees no need to change the current rules of war.

“At this point we’re comfortable with the AUMF as it is currently structured. Right now it does not inhibit us from prosecuting the war against Al Qaida and its affiliates,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month.

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed support for reconsidering the rules, but there are differences over how much to change them.

“I think everyone agrees the [AUMF] should ultimately be repealed … that is universal,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Defense committee, told The Hill on Wednesday.

However, he noted the threat of al Qaeda “has metastasized” from Pakistan and Afghanistan into places like West Africa and Yemen. That spread means the United States cannot completely abandon the way it fights terrorism under the current rules, he said.

“To somehow think we can bring the [AUMF] to a complete closure contradicts the reality of the facts on the ground,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said shortly after Obama’s speech.

“Al Qaeda will be with us for a long time,” he added.

Tags Adam Smith John McCain

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