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How presidents used the 2001 AUMF to justify wars unrelated to 9/11

Congress's blank check helped launched conflicts, many currently ongoing, that have nothing to do with the terrorist attacks.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Today in our series 9/11 at 20: A week of reflectionwe hear from Stephen Miles, Executive Director at Win Without War, a diverse network of activists and organizations working for a more peaceful, progressive U.S. foreign policy.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Congress convened to do something it had not done in a decade — give the commander-in-chief the authority to respond militarily. After some limited negotiations, language was agreed to, 60 words in total, that would permit the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against those who attacked us on 9/11 and anyone who harbored them. 

While not included in the text itself, it was already becoming clear that the most likely culprit was al-Qaida, then based out of Afghanistan, which was ruled by the Taliban. If you ask a lawmaker today who voted that September, nearly all are quick to point out they believed they were authorizing a war in Afghanistan to attack al-Qaida and bring its leader, Osama bin Laden, to justice. 

Famously, one member of Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), saw it differently. In defending her vote against the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, Rep. Lee noted Congress was passing a “blank check.” It has become fashionable to point out how history has vindicated Rep. Lee, but sadly, even her prescient warning was a gross understatement. The 2001 AUMF has become not just “a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events anywhere, in any country...without time limit,” as Rep. Lee warned then. It’s become a blank check for wars that have nothing whatsoever to do with those attacks 20 years ago. 

From its earliest days, the Bush administration took an expansive view of its new powers in what it called the “Global War on Terror.” Administration lawyers would claim that the 2001 AUMF gave the president legal authority to attack al-Qaida, the Taliban, and so-called “associated forces.” But just who exactly those associated forces were and just how global the war would become remains astonishing. Presidents would ultimately cite the 2001 AUMF’s authority dozens of times in multiple countries around the world. 

The first and most famous of the 2001 AUMF’s battlefields was obviously Afghanistan. Within weeks of September 11, major military operations were launched, driving the Taliban from power, and attempting to capture or kill al-Qaida leaders. Over the next two decades, including 10 years after Osama bin Laden was ultimately killed in Pakistan, the United States waged an aimless, futile war in Afghanistan that would kill tens of thousands of Afghans, more than 2,400 U.S. service members, and cost American taxpayers more than $2 trillion.

However, the war was never only waged just in Afghanistan. From the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad to scores of drone strikes and special forces raids across small towns and villages, Pakistan was a major post-9/11 battlefield for U.S. forces. Given their secretive nature, the full scope of these attacks will never be known, but some reliable estimates point to more than 400 strikes that killed thousands, including hundreds of civilians. While it’s currently unknown whether President Biden has authorized strikes in Pakistan, his rhetoric about continued counterterrorism efforts gives little reason to believe this particular post 9/11 battlefield has truly seen its last military action. 


While Pakistan is likely the most famous of the post-9/11 battlefields, its earliest was actually Yemen. In November 2002, George W. Bush launched what is believed to be the first targeted drone strike on suspected al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. With al-Qaida having previously attacked the USS Cole in Yemen just one year before 9/11, it is perhaps not surprising that Yemen would become a front in Bush’s Global War on Terror, yet it was under his successors that the war there significantly expanded.

Under Presidents Obama and Trump, the United States conducted more than 336 airstrikes in Yemen, killing more than 1,020 people, including more than 174 civilians. U.S. special forces also operated on the ground in ways that still remain secret, with unknown numbers of troops. The ostensible target of these attacks was an entity called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, yet as elsewhere in the world, reporting indicated a far different reality. Victims included an entire wedding party, an anti-AQAP cleric, and a 14-year-old shepherd tending his goats. Even when the U.S. military did hit its intended targets, it raised troubling legal and constitutional questions, such as the targeted execution of American citizens far from any traditional battlefield. 

While all of this was happening, the United States joined what it claimed to be an entirely separate war in Yemen in 2015 when it supported a Saudi-Emirati intervention into Yemen’s ongoing civil war against the Houthis. When it joined the war, the Obama administration technically never claimed that the 2001 AUMF gave it the legal authority for this effort. In fact, the administration provided no legal justification as it absurdly claimed it wasn’t really involved in the war since it only sold the bombs, sold and maintained the planes that dropped them, and provided the targets onto which to drop them. Yet in perhaps one of the most absurd episodes of our post-9/11 wars, our allies in the anti-Houthi war in Yemen were directly collaborating, aiding, and at times fighting side by side with AQAP militants, against whom we were also actively waging war at the time. 

In his remarks on the drawdown in Afghanistan, President Biden said that if the perpetrators of 9/11 had plotted the attack from Yemen, we never would have gone to war in Afghanistan. The irony that we not only went to war in Afghanistan, but also in Yemen where the 9/11 attacks were decidedly not plotted from, seems to have been lost. 

Despite the expansive realities of the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, there was at least a clear throughline to al-Qaida. But our post-9/11 wars did not stop there. 


George W. Bush will perhaps forever be most associated with his disastrous war in Iraq in 2003. But only four short years later, Bush would launch another war in Somalia against the militant group al Shabaab, which itself had been fighting an insurgency against the internationally recognized government of Somalia. The United States has been engaged in the conflict ever since.

In recent years, some of the 254-plus declared military actions in Somalia have also targeted al-Qaida in East Africa and the Islamic State. What does any of this have to do with 9/11? Not much. However, the executive branch has routinely claimed its actions are authorized by the 2001 AUMF because al Shabaab is an “associated force” of al-Qaida. This claim is primarily linked to al Shabaab’s 2012 pledge of alliance with al-Qaida. So, the U.S. war in Somalia started 6 years after Congress passed the 2001 AUMF based on a connection made 11 years after 9/11, and a year after Osama bin Laden was killed. 

But that’s not the most convoluted fashion in which the 2001 AUMF has been used to justify U.S. military action.

Iraq & beyond

When the United States launched a disastrous war of choice in Iraq to topple Sadaam Hussein, the Bush administration sought and received a separate war authorization (the 2002 AUMF). During the war, a brutal insurgency developed with one of its fiercest combatants being a band of militants — which would become known as al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI — led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Zarqawi had been a low-level al-Qaida militant in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, yet AQI’s fighters were a mix of Sunni tribesmen and former Baathist soldiers primarily targeting a mix of U.S. forces and Iraqi Shia and Kurds. Zarqawi himself would be killed in 2006 by a U.S. airstrike, but his group would live on and a decade after its founding re-emerged in the chaos of the Syrian civil war under a new name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). Within a few years, President Obama would take the country back to war in Iraq, but this time he would use the 2001 AUMF as its legal backing. 

This new war, starting in Iraq but quickly spreading to Syria, was, in the eyes of the administration, wholly different from the one it had ended in Iraq in 2011. Yet a new war needed a new authorization. Just a year earlier, Obama had sought a new war authorization in Syria against the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons during Syria’s growing civil war. Following massive public opposition, Congress ultimately refused to authorize a new war, and perhaps unwilling to once again be rejected, the Obama administration decided the anti-ISIS campaign would rely on a 13 year old “blank check” for war. 

As in Somalia, the case for the 2001 AUMF against ISIS would be simply that it was an “associated force” (technically a “successor force” in this case) of al-Qaida’s. It didn’t matter that ISIS had not existed on 9/11, nor that it grew primarily as an insurgency in the Iraq War. All that mattered was if U.S. leaders connected enough dots, the U.S. military could once again go to war and no one would have to vote for it. This war in Iraq and Syria continues to this day. 

LIke al-Qaida, ISIS would go on to have numerous militant organizations around the globe claim an alliance with it. That in turn would give the United States the authority, or so it claimed, to expand its wars even further. In Libya, where again the United States fought a wholly separate, unauthorized war against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, U.S. attacks on ISIS militants (thriving in the post-Gaddafi chaos we helped create) added yet another post-9/11 battlefield. In 2017, four U.S. soldiers were killed in a mission in Niger, surprising not just the public but also members of Congress who by and large had no idea we had military forces there. 

On top of all of these battlefields, over the last 20 years, presidents have acknowledged U.S. military deployments to a host of additional countries including Cameroon, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, the Philippines, and Turkey. If that wasn’t enough, we’ve also engaged militarily on “the high seas” and worked with “friends and allies in areas around the globe” — who and where never being defined publicly. Further, U.S. forces have both supported these operations via a global network of hundreds of overseas military bases and waged remote warfare operating unmanned drones sometimes piloted from thousands of miles away in the United States. And increasingly, our post-9/11 wars have been waged by partner forces which the U.S. arms, trains, and often fights side by side with as “advisers.” 

Any full accounting of the 2001 AUMF must also include that, beyond military deployments, it has been invoked for other wartime authorities such as indefinite detention without charge at Guantanamo Bay, warrantless surveillance of American citizens, and other civil liberties abuses. From CIA blacksites where detainees were tortured to horrific crimes committed by private contractors supporting America’s wars, the human rights abuses stemming from the 2001 AUMF and our post-9/11 wars also cannot be ignored. 

It’s a staggering scale of war, spanning the globe, and, in truth, there are battlefields we still do not know about. Throughout their entire duration, these wars have largely been fought in secret, with details being provided via classified notifications to Congress or covert missions with even less oversight. The hard truth is the American people do not now know, nor have they ever fully known, everywhere our country has waged war in our names in the two decades since September 11th. 

Operation Mountain Viper put the soldiers of A Company, 2nd Battalion 22nd Infantry Division, 10th Mountain in the Afghanistan province of Daychopan to search for Taliban and or weapon caches that could be used against U.S. and allied forces. Soldiers quickly walk to the ramp of the CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter that will return them to Kandahar Army Air Field. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kyle Davis) (Released)
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