Lawmakers renew push for counter-terrorism military force authorization

flake kaine
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, left, and Virginia Democratic Sen. (and 2016 vice presidential candidate) Tim Kaine announced a proposal for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force last week. Photo courtesy of Sen. Kaine’s congressional office.

Nearly three years after the U.S. began bombing the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria, and just in time for Memorial Day weekend, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle called for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in the ongoing conflict on Thursday, echoing past proposals.

“Congress should be vigorous about its (constitutional) responsibilities,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) told reporters at a press conference co-hosted by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona). “Our adversaries, our allies and our troops need to know where we stand.”

The two senators “called the lack of action thus far a moral failing of lawmakers and a dangerous message for American troops overseas,” according to the Military Times.

In 2013, as the situation in Syria deteriorated, President Barack Obama called for an AUMF against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That effort ended in failure, with no congressional authorization. Subsequently under Obama, the U.S. employed a strategy of arming rebel groups in Syria that have been engaged in fighting ISIS, Assad, and sometimes each other. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has taken perhaps a more direct approach, launching a much-publicized airstrike against the Syrian government in April. Yet an AUMF remains elusive.

“People don’t want to cast a war vote because there are going to be consequences,” Kaine reportedly said Thursday. “And that should be the gravest vote we cast.”

In the absence of congressional authorization, U.S. troops have frequently and increasingly found themselves at the center of geopolitical controversies surrounding their various missions that they cannot possibly hope to resolve effectively at their level in the chain of command, not only in Iraq and Syria but throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Examples include special operators in Syria causing an international controversy last year when they were photographed wearing patches representing a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers a terrorist group, and Yemen’s February withdrawal of permission for special operations counter-terrorism ground missions in its territory following what was widely described as a “botched raid” against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in January.

“Both Obama and Trump have ordered military missions in the region (and in other locations around the globe) based on broad interpretations of the open-ended authorizations passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,” the Military Times notes.

“We’re now 16 years in,”  Flake reportedly said when asked why he hopes passing a new AUMF is now possible. “We have a new administration. We have a new secretary of defense who came out in favor of it. I believe the administration will want it because it strengthens their hand as they enter negotiations (with other countries).”

On CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis reportedly said “our strategy right now is to accelerate the campaign against ISIS,” describing the group as “a threat to all civilized nations.”

This means the military has “already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics where we surround them,” Mattis said. “Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa. We’re not going to allow them to do so. We’re going to stop them there and take apart the caliphate.”

Mattis added that “civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation,” but that “we do everything humanly possible consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.”

Flake and Kaine’s proposal would reportedly “repeal those (early post-9/11) authorizations and more clearly spell out the parameters of national security actions the White House can take against specific sets of foreign threats.”

It would do this by placing “geographic restrictions on offensive operations” and creating “new reporting requirements to guard against mission creep,” the Times reports. “But at the moment, the specifics are less of an issue than the overarching concept of a new AUMF. While military leaders have frequently voiced support for the move, lawmakers have been less warm to embrace it, ignoring Obama’s 2015 authorization proposal and multiple others from colleagues in favor of the status quo.”

Among his fellow lawmakers, Flake reportedly said “you’d be hard-pressed to find one who says: ‘No, we shouldn’t do an AUMF.’ It’s always, ‘We should do it,’ but people had a hard time coming up with something that could fit the evolving threat we had.”

“We think this bipartisan language does a good job with that,” Flake reportedly added. After a reporter at the press conference pointed out Flake’s past claims to have had “good language” in previous AUMF attempts, Flake reportedly laughed off the criticism, saying that the language of his new proposal “is better.”

The renewed push for a new AUMF comes as proponents of military spending increases prepare for an anticipated budget battle, and as it remains unclear whether the Pentagon will be able to meet its long-postponed deadline for its first-ever audit, which is scheduled for September.



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