Who Is the U.S. at War With? Obama’s Not Telling

Lost in the weekend’s flood of NSA whistleblower news was an important piece by Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times titled “Why won’t the Pentagon tell us who our enemies are?” It’s a good question, and one to which we should be demanding the answer.

After 9/11, Congress passed the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorizes a limited war against those “nations, organizations, or persons who [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

The Bush and Obama Administrations have clarified this enemy to be the Taliban, al Qaeda and “associated forces.” It’s unclear who these “associated forces” are, or even what specific criteria are being used to determine who they are.

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked for greater clarification in a hearing he chaired May 16, but to no avail. Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, told Levin that he’s not sure if there’s a list of “associated forces” but that he would work on one.

According to McManus, a Pentagon official confirmed that it is responding to Senator Levin’s request, but that whatever is produced will be classified.

A classified list just isn’t good enough. The American people deserve, and need, to know with whom the United States is at war. As it stands, the Obama Administration is making life and death decisions based on criteria that no one, not even Congress, has access to. There is essentially nothing to stop the administration from privately designating any random terrorist organization an “associated force” of al Qaeda and committing the U.S. military to fighting that group, including killing its members without public oversight and without charge or trial.

In his speech at the National Defense University, President Obama promised that he would “engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing … [and] engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” He also said that in the future, “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.”

The reality is that even today, not every group that labels itself al Qaeda poses a credible threat to the United States. Some are regional groups with regional ambitions, posing almost no threat to the United States.

It’s a good thing that President Obama is talking about repealing the AUMF, the foundation of our current open-ended global war. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, the president should not just define “associated forces” and who qualifies. He should give the public an honest assessment of the threats we face, and map out a post-war counterterrorism strategy, one that underscores how the United States can counter threats and keep the country safe without being in an endless global war.


Published on June 11, 2013


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