Today in our series 9/11 at 20: A week of reflection, we 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 reliableestimates 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)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.