It began more than two decades ago. On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” and told a joint session of Congress (and the American people) that “the course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain.” If he meant a 20-year slide to defeat in Afghanistan, a proliferation of militant groups across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and a never-ending, world-spanning war that, at a minimum, has killed about 300 times the number of people murdered in America on 9/11, then give him credit. He was absolutely right.
Days earlier, Congress had authorized Bush “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determine[d] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 or harbored such organizations or persons.” By then, it was already evident, as Bush said in his address, that Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. But it was equally clear that he had no intention of conducting a limited campaign. “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he announced. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”
Congress had already assented to whatever the president saw fit to do. It had voted 420 to 1 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate to grant an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that would give him (and presidents to come) essentially a free hand to make war around the world.
“I believe that it’s broad enough for the president to have the authority to do all that he needs to do to deal with this terrorist attack and threat,” Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said at the time. “I also think that it is tight enough that the constitutional requirements and limitations are protected.” That AUMF would, however, quickly become a blank check for boundless war.
In the two decades since, that 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force has been formally invoked to justify counterterrorism (CT) operations—including ground combat, airstrikes, detention, and the support of partner militaries—in 22 countries, according to a new report by Stephanie Savell of Brown University’s Costs of War Project. During that same time, the number of terrorist groups threatening Americans and American interests has, according to the US State Department, more than doubled.
Under that AUMF, US troops have conducted missions across four continents. The countries in question include some of little surprise like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and a few unexpected nations like Georgia and Kosovo. “In many cases the executive branch inadequately described the full scope of U.S. actions,” writes Savell, noting the regular invocation of vague language, pretzeled logic, and weak explanations. “In other cases, the executive branch reported on ‘support for CT operations,’ but did not acknowledge that troops were or could be involved in hostilities with militants.”