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“You’ve got to tell us more”: The 9/11 blank check, 16 years on

Sixteen years on from the passing of the AUMF, democratic legitimacy, accountability, and operational effectiveness demand fresh debate

The mysterious death of Sergeant LaDavid Johnson in Niger this month has drawn attention to the deployment of 37,813 U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world on secret counterterrorism missions – and the apparent ignorance of leading members of Congress that the U.S. even had active troops in Niger. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told NBC, “I didn’t know there was 1,000 troops in Niger. This is an endless war without boundaries and no limitation on time and geography,” and pleaded with the Trump administration, “you’ve got to tell us more.”

The ‘endless war’ should not really have come as such a surprise to Graham since he voted for the resolution that permits it in 2001. The Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed on September 14, 2001, after the shock of 9/11, gave the president sweeping power to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.”

US President George W. Bush on 9/11, 2001
President George W. Bush with Vice President Dick Cheney and Senior Staff in the President’s Emergency Operations Center after the September 11, 2001 attack. Image: US National Archives

This resolution was a blank check that placed no temporal or geographic limits on the U.S. response to 9/11. Sixteen years later it remains in place. Any group or individual that that the president claimed was linked to the al-Qaeda network – including groups that did not even exist at the time of 9/11 such as Al Shabaab in Somalia – could, and have, been targeted under the auspices of this resolution. With the sole exception of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for which there was a separate Congressional vote, the AUMF has been used to justify every deployment of U.S. military force by all presidents since 9/11 without the need for further Congressional or public scrutiny.

This is significant because the AUMF led not only to the invasion of Afghanistan, but also to a global counterterrorism campaign, still ongoing, that spans multiple countries, conducted by Special Operations Forces and via drone bombing. The George W. Bush administration reasoned that since 21st Century terrorism was transnational, counterterrorism required multiple concurrent operations all over the world, not just in Afghanistan. The Department of Defense called this “war in countries we are not at war with.”

Across Africa, from the Horn in the east to the Gulf of Guinea in the west, from the Philippines to Yemen, Special Operations Forces conducted ‘foreign internal defense’ operations designed to eradicate or prevent the emergence of al Qaeda-inspired terrorism.

Through programs such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (with Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria), the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (with Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Eritrea, and Ethiopia), and the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (with Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, the Seychelles, and the host nation, Djibouti) U.S. Special Forces trained and equipped local security forces and accompanied them on combat missions. In the Philippines, the U.S. conducted a thirteen year mission, from 2002–2015, to train, equip, and advise, the Philippine Armed Forces fighting against the separatist terrorists of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

Many other missions remained classified. In 2008, Admiral Eric Olsen, head of Special Operations Command, told Congress that his forces were active “in about sixty countries.” By 2017, this had reached “80-plus countries.”

Alongside this, a huge and largely unregulated ‘targeted killing’ program developed in which suspected terrorists from Libya to Pakistan were bombed to death via drones without evidence or due process. The targeted killing program started under Bush in Yemen in 2002, but was expanded dramatically under Barack Obama.

This year, President Donald Trump dropped the requirement for high level vetting of drone strikes, and expanded the U.S. areas of operation in Somalia and Yemen without any public debate.

Since no evidence is ever presented, no one really knows who is killed by these strikes. Congressional oversight is minimal: small numbers of committee staff members are briefed on the strikes after they take place but even this has been inconsistent and incomplete.

In 2013, Obama publicly acknowledged the problem of relying on a then-12 year old Congressional authorization for the expansion of his targeted killing program, and pledged to work with Congress to repeal and replace it. But this never happened; the authorization was simply too convenient to disregard and replacing it was too politically difficult.

After sixteen years, Congress must act. Democratic legitimacy, accountability, and operational effectiveness demand it.

The 9/11 authorization, passed in fear, was so capacious that even members of Congress have lost track of U.S. military activity. The extent of this activity and the fact that so much of it is secret means Congress cannot adequately hold the president to account.

The lack of scrutiny means that the public is largely unaware of these deployments, and there is no debate about their effectiveness. This is sorely needed given the available evidence: in Mali in 2012, U.S.-trained forces were unable to prevent the take-over of the north of the country by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In the Philippines, attacks by the Abu Sayyaf Group increased significantly over the course of the 13-year U.S. intervention. In Somalia, one of the few cases that has been investigated in depth by Congress, a report by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations concluded that Al Shabaab’s “foothold in Somalia has probably been facilitated by the involvement of Western powers” and that U.S. air strikes “have only increased popular support for Al Shabaab.”

A full public debate on where soldiers like Sgt. Johnson are deployed and what they are dying for is long overdue.

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