Congress struggles with ending the war in Afghanistan … and in Iraq?

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

The war in Iraq is over, everybody knows that. “I promised to end the war in Iraq—and I did” was one of President Barack Obama’s best-received stump speech applause lines last year.

Except it’s not. First, most obviously, because bombings and other acts of violence have killed more than 2,000 people there this year, as detailed in this amazing Agence France-Presse analysis. Pressed on that point last year by Yahoo News, White House press secretary Jay Carney said: "The president promised to responsibly end our war in Iraq, the United States military operation in Iraq. He did that and our troops came home."

Except that "our war" isn't technically over either: The "Authorization for Use of Military Force" in Iraq, signed into law on Oct. 16, 2002, is still the law of the land. (H/t to independent national-security writer Marcy Wheeler, who follows this issue—and many others—closely.)

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is expected to offer legislation this year to repeal the Iraq AUMF. And he's expected to fail—his previous attempt, in November 2011, was routed in a 30-67 vote. (Among those voting no: then-Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the current secretary of state.)

Asked whether Obama favored repealing the Iraq AUMF, the White House had no response at the time this post was published.

Obama made no mention of repealing the Iraq AUMF in a sweeping national security speech on May 23. But he made a case for ending the "perpetual wartime footing" against terrorism—and that means revising a separate AUMF, the founding document of the war on terrorism adopted immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes.

That one, signed into law Sept. 18, 2001, gave then-President George W. Bush the authority to invade Afghanistan. But both he and Obama have used its vague wording to justify a wide range of actions.

"Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states," Obama said in his speech, arguing the time has come to wind down the global war on terror.

"This war, like all wars, must end," he said.

Enter Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California. Schiff, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, has introduced legislation to repeal the Afghanistan AUMF on Jan. 1, 2015—when America's combat troops are supposed to be out of that war-torn country. The problem, he explained to Yahoo News, is coming up with something to replace it.

"There's a lot of bipartisan recognition that we can't continue to rely on this," said Schiff, who has started to seek co-sponsors for his bill. "There's a lot less consensus about what should come after."

Some lawmakers want a much broader AUMF that explicitly expands the list of groups that can be targeted, perhaps to include Iran-backed Hezbollah, Schiff said.

Some believe "we should not have any further authorization" and instead should "use the criminal justice system" the way it was before Sept. 11, 2001, Schiff said, adding that some want a new AUMF "more narrowly tailored to the present threat."

The uncertainty about the post-AUMF legal framework is a "risk" and "the biggest obstacle" to the legislation, Schiff told Yahoo News.

Still, setting a Jan. 1, 2015, sunset date "gives us about 18 months to work with the administration," he said. "I have been working with" the administration in the sense of consulting top officials to find out what they think is necessary, Schiff said.

But "we can't abdicate our responsibility," he said. Without the pressure of a sunset date, "Congress will do what it does best, which is essentially kick the can down the road.

"We’re such a dysfunctional body," he said.

Where does Schiff stand? "It may be necessary to have a further authorization after 2014, but we should also look at extending the capacity of our criminal law system," he said. "It may very well be necessary, but should be much more narrowly constrained."