Obama Shouldn’t Rely on 2001 AUMF for ISIL Fight

Yesterday, in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry said that even if Congress doesn’t pass an Authorization for the Use Military Force (AUMF) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as the Islamic State or ISIS), the Obama Administration could continue to fight the group under the 2001 AUMF. But the administration is playing fast and loose with the law here, and this stance could set the stage for a never-ending war.

The 2001 AUMF, passed in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, authorizes military force against those responsible for 9/11: the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Obama Administration has interpreted the law to include “associated forces” of al Qaeda, but has not provided a full list of the groups it believes that covers. Since last year the administration has argued that ISIL is an “associated force.”

The problem with considering ISIS an “associated force,” or even an “associated force of an associated force” of al Qaeda, as some in the administration have reasoned, is that ISIL is neither of those. Though ISIL was once formally linked with al Qaeda as an affiliate (Al Qaeda in Iraq – AQI), they began as separate organizations. ISIL famously broke ties with al Qaeda after a dispute between the two groups over who had ownership of the Al Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s force fighting in Syria. Since the formal fracture, ISIL has attacked al Qaeda multiple times, including killing an al Qaeda envoy and even waging open warfare against Al Nusra in Syria.

Kerry acknowledged to Congress yesterday that ISIL separated from al Qaeda, but at the same time said that the organization “viewed themselves, and still do, actually, as the legitimate heirs of the Osama bin Laden mantle,” adding that “separating doesn’t change where they came from, who they were when we first engaged in the fight with them.” Because of that, he claims, “there is legitimacy to the 2001 effort.”

This is bad logic. ISIL started separately from al Qaeda, and is separate today. Any case the administration is trying to make about ISIL being covered by the 2001 AUMF is flawed.

The Obama Administration should work with Congress to craft an ISIL-specific AUMF that supersedes the 2001 AUMF and includes sunset provisions for both laws to ensure that the wars authorized are actually assessed and debated by Congress on a regular basis. It should also include a provision to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF (which authorized war against Saddam’s regime, but is still on the books).

There is a right way to fight ISIL, but using the 2001 AUMF as justification isn’t it. The administration can’t rely on stretching the authorization even further than it already has, and needs to get a new, narrowly-tailored AUMF.

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Published on March 12, 2015

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