Afghanistan: America’s Auto-Pilot War

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The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan turns 16 years old this October 7th, and for the war’s Sweet Sixteen it is worth revisiting how the American military arrived at its current station in the landlocked nation. Specifically, I would like to ask the question: who owns the authorization for the conflict in Afghanistan? On face, that is an easy question to answer: Public Law 107-40, passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, authorized use of force ‘against those nations, organizations, or persons he [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons,’  Importantly, the law has no sunset clause or self-termination features.

The rest of the law is impressively succinct, registering less than 400 words to respond to the worst terrorist attack in US history. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, often just abbreviated as ‘AUMF,' remains in effect still today, and is the underlying justification for US involvement in Afghanistan and an additional nine nations according to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report.

Per GovTrack data from the 107th Congress (2001) to the 115th Congress (2017), only 22% of the original senators in the US Senate, and 21% of the representatives in the US House of Representatives who voted for the original AUMF are still serving in Congress. The remainder of the representatives have either since retired, are deceased, lost reelection campaigns in the 2006 and 2010 ‘wave’ elections or chose not to run in their own party’s competitive primaries following congressional redistricting in 2011. 

By the year 2022, it is mathematically possible that every elected representative who took responsibility for US action in Afghanistan will have left Capitol Hill (2022 represents the earliest date possible for which recently elected Senators could terminate service through retirement or electoral defeat).  In a sense, while US military forces will rotate in and out of the conflict on six-month or year-long deployments, it could soon come to pass that no one in elected office will ‘own’ the authorization for war in Afghanistan any more than all Americans collectively own the principal on the national debt. That prospect for sustained conflict in Afghanistan paired with a stale AUMF raises some worrying possibilities, three of them highlighted below.

Upcoming Afghanistan War Milestones

2019: At 18 years, the Afghanistan War might see its first American to participate in combat who was born after the attacks that spawned US intervention in the nation. This milestone could technically come one year earlier since military recruits can enlist at the age of 17 with their parents’ permission.    

2021: At 20 years, the US may enter its first and only intergenerational conflict; a war spanning the same time length that demographers generally mark as two decades.  

2022: At 21 years, it may be possible that none of the original serving US legislators who voted for the original AUMF will still be in office. All of our nationally elected leaders could inherit a conflict they may or may not feel responsible for.

In 2011, on the tenth anniversary of US combat operations in Afghanistan, I was in central Helmand province. It was the height of the Afghanistan ‘surge,’ and US Marines and the British Army had given the Taliban a bloody nose in the midst of the insurgency’s critical poppy harvest season. It briefly occurred to me that maybe the US might have another ten years in the country and the Taliban could continue to cling on to Southern and Eastern Afghanistan. At the time that idea seemed unlikely, but we are indisputably moving toward the above milestones.

I am calling attention to the current AUMF and its last few legislators still in office not because I oppose military force, but because I strongly believe that democratically elected representatives who debate the requirements of a new AUMF would invigorate discussion on US objectives in the conflict. The idea of a ‘fresh’ AUMF, linked to the repeal of the existing authority, has already been raised by both Republicans and Democrats who were party to the original 2001 vote. Our allies and our enemies take notice when US political will is aligned across parties and across governmental branches. Keeping cognizant of the laws that allow the US to wage war is not merely administrative bookkeeping, it is a national security imperative.

Sale Lilly is a former threat analyst and naval officer who served alongside NATO units in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and Afghanistan. He is currently a Senior Policy Analyst at a Los Angeles-based think tank. You can follow him on twitter @SaleLilly

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