The brutal chaos that we are witnessing engulf Afghanistan in the face of the withdrawal of U.S. troops is not just about last-minute poor planning. Nor is it just about the failure of our armed forces to adequately train the Afghan army.
In fact, it was built into the original premises for the war; it stems directly—and foreseeably—from the wrongful premises set out in the original declaration for sending troops to Afghanistan.
A lead talking point for Biden and his national security team is that the original goal of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was to vanquish Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora in December 2001.
Meanwhile, the safe havens of al Qaeda were substantially crushed within the first months of the invasion. By 2005, leading terrorism experts Rohan Gunaratna and Anders Nielsen described al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan to have “moved to the ‘ungoverned territories’” of Pakistan in 2002.
But the sad fact is that the text of the authorization for the use of military force, which passed Congress on Sept. 18, 2001, and preceded the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, was tied specifically to neither al Qaeda nor bin Laden. Not only were neither mentioned in the text of the 2001 AUMF, but no mention was made of any enemy by name.
Instead, the president, without seeking further Congressional approval, was authorized to use force against “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”
A Broad and Imprecise Mandate
It was a broad mandate for the use of force wherever the president deemed “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or person.” And not only were al Qaeda and bin Laden not named, but neither were any other specific countries, persons, or organizations.
The imprecision of the 2001 AUMF set the foundation for the current messy and tragically danger-laden withdrawal. For not only did it not name the enemy, but it also left undefined the geographical scope, the time frame, and any allusions to the conditions for the cessation of hostilities.
In its excessive vagueness, the authorization stands in contradistinction both to prior authorizations for the use of force and to more formal declarations of war.
A Departure from Prior Wars and Conflicts
After Pearl Harbor, Congress passed a declaration of war against Japan. Likewise, when it came to war in Europe, the deployment of U.S. troops to each country was predicated on a declaration for each individually. Even the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, though broad in scope, referred to “promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.”
Moreover, prior authorizations and declarations have noted the end of hostilities. For example, the declaration of war against Japan aimed “to bring the conflict to a successful termination.”
From its very inception, the war in Afghanistan diverged from longstanding rules, norms and laws. Instead of limits, presidents were given carte blanche to do as they pleased. And they did.
Not only did the U.S. not pull out of Afghanistan when its purpose was no longer directly applicable, but successive presidents relied on the AUMF to launch attacks with ever-widening scope—in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Niger, and elsewhere. And it has been used to attack not only al Qaeda and its branches, but a widening array of terrorist groups, well outside even the AUMF’s broad scope of those who carried out or aided and supported the 9/11 attacks.
In telling fashion, the original text of the authorization submitted to Congress by the White House following the Sept. 11 attacks contained even more expansive language than the one that ultimately passed. The White House draft asked for authorization “to deter and preempt any related future acts of terrorism and aggression against the United States,” wording which then-Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) considered “heartbreakingly reckless.”
Although Congress removed this astoundingly expansive clause, its essence has become the reality of the war on terror—imprecise in its aims, ever-expansive, and endless.
Vague and Unstated Goals
The lesson is clear. Launching a war wrapped in vague terminology and unstated goals has brought us to exactly where we are today—to a state of unbridled confusion, elusive signposts for progress or failure, and an uncertain future.
As Congress faces this task, it would do well to remember the lessons of this first AUMF. Any future authorizations must begin by naming the enemy, including some geographical guideposts, and setting out what would constitute an ending, lest the “forever war on terror” become a “forever state of war” against whomever, whenever, and wherever the president deems it necessary.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Karen J. Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law and the author most recently of “Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump.”