The Senate Armed Services Committee today held its first hearing on whether or not to revise or rewrite the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) questioned one of the witnesses, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations Michael Sheehan, about how long he foresaw the war against Al Qaeda will extend for. The answer was much longer than the twelve years that the AUMF has already been in place:
GRAHAM: Do you agree with me the war against radical Islam, or terror, or whatever description you like to provide, will go on after the second term of President Obama?
SHEEHAN: Senator, in my judgement, this is going to go on for quite awhile, yes, beyond the second term of the President.
GRAHAM: And beyond this term of Congress?
SHEEHAN: Yes, sir. I think it’s at least ten to twenty years.
GRAHAM: I think you’re absolutely right. I think we’re involved in a generational struggle.
That response appears to contradict former Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson’s comments in January. At the time, Johnson said the fight against Al Qaeda “shouldn’t be regarded as a perpetual war without any sort of end.” Likewise, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in January that the targeted killing program authorized under the AUMF is “not something that we’re going to have to continue to use forever.” While Sheehan’s comments today put a more definite end date on the AUMF’s authority, they are far further in the future than Johnson and Panetta’s comments would lead one to believe.
Passed in the aftermath of 9/11, the law gave the President broad authority to target “those nations, organizations, or persons” who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the 2001 attack. Since then, that authority has been used as the basis for conducting military actions around the world, including not only in Afghanistan, but also in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. At present, the AUMF is criticized for being overly broad in its wording and used to target individuals who had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, leading to conflicting moves in Congress to either narrow or expand its scope.
The Obama administration does have some say, however, in when the AUMF’s authority expires. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked the panel what, other than Congress revoking the AUMF, could shut down the battle against Al Qaeda. “If the President were to issue a declaration stating that the conflict against Al Qaeda has been concluded, I would think that would constitute an end,” the Pentagon’s acting general counsel Robert Taylor said, opening the door to just such a move from President Obama or some future administration.