Endless War

The U.S. has launched airstrikes, two land invasions, and drone strikes around the world since 9/11 under the auspices of the "war on terror." Have they worked? Have they made any country safer in since 2001?

F-15 Eagle at Sunset

F-15 Eagle at Sunset Cory Bush / U.S. Department of Defense

Violent extremism won't be stopped by "killing bad guys." Instead, we need a strategy to address the reasons people join these dangerous groups in the first place: political instability, unemployment, poverty and fear. More bombs will only make these problems worse.

2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force

Since 2001, a single law has been used to justify military interventions, indefinite detention, and lethal drone attacks that spread terror in communities around the world. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force — the law behind the "War on Terror"— has been called “the most dangerous sentence in U.S. history.”

That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

-- 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force

With no end date, this authorization has set us on the path of endless war. Given its lack of geographic restrictions, three presidents have used this authorization to wage war across the globe without consulting Congress. It has even been stretched to include groups that did not exist in 2001, such as ISIS. The 2001 AUMF is essentially a blank check for endless war. But how do we fix this?

When Congress has to vote on wars — when their constituents can hold them accountable for war-making — the U.S. is less likely to pursue military action. We’ve seen what happens when the president can act alone: special ops in 150 countries, drone strikes with unthinkable civilian deaths, warrantless surveillance of Americans, and indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay. It's long past time for Congress to take its power back, to debate and vote on each and every war the U.S. undertakes, in keeping with the 1973 War Powers Act. Congress should repeal the 2001 AUMF and take back its authority to determine where and when the U.S. goes to war.

Some members of Congress have made significant efforts to repeal the 2001 AUMF, but their efforts have been stifled. In June 2017, the House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment introduced by Representative Barbara Lee that would repeal the 2001 AUMF after eight months. This is the ideal legislation, as it gives Congress ample time to consider the weighty questions of whether or not the U.S. should continue to be at war. However, Speaker Ryan stripped the amendment from the overall bill without a vote.

Other attempts to repeal the 2001 AUMF would replace this authorization with one that is just as bad- if not worse. The AUMF 2018 introduced by Senators Corker and Kaine would actually expand the president’s war powers by explicitly allowing the president to add new groups to target without requiring additional approval from Congress. This is not progress.

Congress needs to repeal the 2001 AUMF without enacting another authorization for endless war.

Drone Strikes and a New Kind of Warfare

For much of our country’s history, war has meant direct confrontation between armed groups. Attacking an opponent meant weighing the risks to your own country and people against the potential damage that the attack could inflict. In years since 9/11, the ways in which our country wages war have shifted. The U.S. is now engaged in a seemingly endless war against “terror”– fighting an ideology rather than a particular nation. Technological advances, including drones, allow individuals to be assassinated and communities to be attacked with little direct risk to the attacking nation. These attacks are shrouded in secrecy, insulating the vast majority of people from the violence that is being carried out in their names.

Armed drones are the tool of choice for this new warfare. These weapons let the U.S. attack in secret, regardless of national borders and without oversight or public debate in the United States. As Jo Becker and Scott Shane of the New York Times reported, the targets for these attacks are selected by the administration from what is sometimes referred to as the “secret kill list.”

Drone violence is a moral and ethical issue as much as a legal one. Coming face to face with someone described as an enemy requires a deliberate choice to override a deep human instinct against killing. Drones override this check on lethal violence, making the decision to kill seem more like a videogame than a matter of life and death.

Violent conflict is ugly. If we forget that, we lose something that is fundamental to our compassion and humanity.

Violent conflict is ugly. If we forget that, we lose something that is fundamental to our compassion and humanity. When drones kill for us, with little public awareness or scrutiny, we can more easily avoid thinking about the human life affected by these conflicts and the common humanity we share with those we are targeting.

Moreover, targeted killings will not succeed in ending violence against the United States. Drone killings destroy trust and lead people to respond out of fear. As Yemeni activist Faera Al-Muslimi testified before Congress in YEAR, one drone strike instantly radicalizes people against the United States in ways that al Qaeda propaganda never could. Drone assassinations destabilize national and global security. If one government, no matter how powerful, decides it can kill whomever it wants, where and when it wants, what’s to stop other countries from deciding they can as well?

A critical step in having a national conversation about drones is transparency and accountability, so that people can better understand what our country is doing and the basis on which decisions are being made.

Background Understanding Drones 

Drones have rapidly become one of the U.S. military's primary weapons as U.S. counterterrorism policy has gravitated toward methods that are more secretive, more lethal, and more removed from the battlefield. Here's what you need to know.