Senate to Reconsider Iraq, Afghanistan War Authorizations

Sources: Corker pushes AUMF hearing on war authority, drone strikes

Afghan police and U.S. forces respond to a suicide car bomb attack on the Jalalabad-Kabul road in Kabul De. 27, 2013
Afghan police and U.S. forces respond to a suicide car bomb attack on the Jalalabad-Kabul road in Kabul De. 27, 2013 / AP
May 7, 2014

The Senate is getting set to reassess the country’s war authorization in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Senate insiders tracking the debate.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) will examine later this month the viability of repealing or replacing the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the winding down of these wars has led some to push for officially rescinding the war orders.

The hearing—which has not been publicly announced but is tentatively scheduled for May 21—could be the first step in a Congressional process to repeal or alter the military authorization for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has seen a major surge in violence since U.S troops withdrew in 2011.

It would also send a firm signal that some in Congress are trying to fundamentally reframe the war on terrorism first launched by former President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.

The upcoming foreign relations committee hearing would be the first public debate on the subject since the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) held a similar hearing last year.

Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the SFRC’s ranking member, is said to be the driving force behind the AUMF hearing, according to multiple Senate sources who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.

Corker told the Free Beacon that Congress has failed to exert its oversight authority over the existing AUMFs.

"This hearing will help inform a necessary debate about whether existing authorities are sufficient to address new and emerging terrorist threats and whether Congress should provide more regular oversight going forward," Corker told the Free Beacon in a statement.

"Congress has been far too passive in overseeing the conflict with al Qaeda and its affiliates, which have evolved substantially since 9/11 while the authorization put in place in 2001 has not," Corker said.

Corker is mainly concerned about the AUMF relating to Afghanistan, which also provides the legal grounding for U.S. attack on al Qaeda throughout the Middle East, according to one senior Senate aide familiar with the hearing.

Corker’s camp has been pushing to update the AUMF surrounding al Qaeda for some time.

Corker has argued since at least last year that the authorization, in its current form, does not provide the legal grounding needed to target the large nexus of terror groups operating across the Middle East and elsewhere.

The AUMF hearing is expected to restart the fierce debate over the feasibility of sustaining the years-long war on terrorism.

Other Senate insiders told the Free Beacon that there is already a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who want to repeal the AUMF for Iraq and who are open to considering a similar repeal for Afghanistan.

Sens. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) filed a bill in January to officially revoke the Iraq AUMF—a position supported by President Barack Obama but not many mainstream Republican in Congress.

While full details regarding the hearing—including a witness list—have yet to be released, insiders tracking the situation say that the idea of repealing any AUMF is already generating nervous chatter behind-the-scenes.

Many experts argue that any changes to the Iraq and Afghanistan AUMFs could jeopardize the ongoing effort to fight terrorism.

"There is no strong reason to change the AUMF," John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Bush administration, told the Free Beacon. "Over the last 13 years, all three branches have constructed a common understanding and series of practices around the AUMF in fighting the war on terror."

The Afghanistan AUMF is particularly critical since it provides the broad legal footing for U.S. drone strikes across the Middle East, including Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

A repeal of the AUMF for Afghanistan would further muddy the legal basis for such strikes, which have drawn condemnation from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

"You break the dam to some extent if you break the AUMF," said a second senior Senate aide who is viewing the hearing skeptically.

Congress should "tread carefully because the war on terror is not over and won’t be soon," added the source. "You could start us down a path of repeal that you can’t turn back."

Some Republicans argue that the timing of the hearing makes little sense and would send the message that Congress is not committed to the war on terror.

In addition to concerns over the legality of drone strikes should the AUMF be repealed or altered, there remains the issue of the 150 detainees still being held at Guantanamo Bay but not charged with a crime.

If the war were to be officially ended, the status of enemy combatants still being held would also be further tossed into legal limbo.

The AUMF "underlies the Supreme Court's approach to Guantanamo Bay, Congress' support of executive actions in the detention, surveillance, and use of force, and the executive branch's war fighting authority," said Yoo. "If Congress were to change the AUMF, it would upset the settled approach to the war on terror, which is not a good idea while the fighting is still going on."

While precise details about the hearing still remain vague, some senior Senate hands say that Iran also could be brought up in such a hearing.

Some on the Hill and in the think-tank world have been pushing for Congress to ready a war authority measure on Iran should it fail to strike a final deal with the West over its contested nuclear program.

An AUMF on Iran could provide the White House with leverage in forcing Iran to either ink a deal or face a U.S. military strike.