Debating Use of Force Against ISIL

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Debating Use of Force Against ISIL
By: Stephanie Sanok Kostro

Earlier this month, President Obama proposed an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While welcomed as a starting point for discussion on counter-ISIL strategy, the draft text was also met with significant skepticism. Several key elements will define the debate.

First, the proposed AUMF would repeal the 2002 AUMF against the state of Iraq, but it does not mention the 2001 AUMF—the now-controversial authority under which the president has justified military action against ISIL since last summer. The 2001 language, which Congress passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and which focuses on entities involved in those attacks, has covered a range of military actions, including operations in Afghanistan, the Caribbean and Central America, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Some politicians view the 2001 AUMF as too open-ended and irrelevant to current counterterrorist campaigns. However, its repeal could leave many ongoing operations without authorization.

Second, the proposed text includes a three-year sunset. Some lawmakers— including Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed (D- RI)—have expressed concerns with signaling a short-term commitment. That said, without repealing the 2001 AUMF, the limit may have no relevance to continued U.S. military operations against ISIL.

Third, the draft AUMF would prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” President Obama does not want to commit significant troop numbers, and he presumably means to limit U.S. ground forces to special, rescue, and defensive operations and perhaps to training and advisory efforts in support of partners. However, the phrase itself has no military meaning, and several lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), have balked at the idea of limiting military commanders.

Finally, the AUMF debate will certainly shine a spotlight on the nation’s overall counter-ISIL strategy. While several past AUMFs had mentioned broader strategies that included diplomatic, economic, and other efforts, this proposed AUMF is silent on nonmilitary topics. Yet it is clear that bombs and troops are insufficient to combat ISIL, particularly as the group gains traction throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and even parts of the Western world. As the government enters more fully into public debate, Congress and the administration will need to provide carefully considered responses to the full range of difficult questions, from what to do about Iraq as a failed state, Assad’s future in Syria, and the spread of ISIL’s popularity.

Stephanie Sanok Kostro is acting director of the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program and a senior fellow with the CSIS International Security Program, where she focuses on a range of "seam" issues affecting defense, foreign affairs, and development. Other posts by .


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