Are We Done with War?

Congress must choose peace.

Since the withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan at the end of August, several politicians have said that this is the first time in 20 years that America is not at war. “I stand here today — for the first time in 20 years the United States is not at war,” President Joe Biden said to the UN in September. 

I wish I could agree with him. 

While the end of combat operations in Afghanistan left many veterans with simultaneous feelings of grief and of relief, most are glad that it’s over — and believe it was the right decision. Yet, the fact is with the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) still in effect, there’s no stopping this president or the next one from propelling us back into combat. Until and unless Congress repeals the AUMFs, we’re still technically at war. 

WHY WON’T CONGRESS SPEAK UP?

Five days after the deadly bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, President Biden addressed the nation: “When I was running for president I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war. Today, I’ve honored that commitment.” Rhetoric aside, while we commend President Biden for pulling the US out of this decades-long conflict, we should not have to rely on the good nature of a president to do the right thing. In fact, the previous administration’s drone assassination of General Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Quds Force is a perfect example of why relying upon the whims of one man is very dangerous. 

It’s imperative that Congress fulfill its obligations, reassert its War Powers authority, and maintain oversight on future US military incursions. 

The president, as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is allowed to use the military to defend the homeland or to initiate an emergency response in the case of a crisis or attack. If that action continues for a longer period of time, the president must come to Congress and obtain authorization, according to Article 1 of the Constitution that grants Congress with the authority for war powers, not the executive. The Congress, as a representative of the people, can and should ensure that its voice is heard before military force is used and the US is drawn into costly situations. So why doesn’t it speak up? 

According to historians, there have only been a handful of years without war since 1776, but Congress has only declared war five times, with the last being World War II. In 1973, Congress held a vote to override President Richard Nixon’s veto in order to pass the War Powers Act, which further codified and regulated congressional authority as stated in Article 1. Ostensibly, the War Powers Act was designed to require the president to consult with Congress before using the US military in offensive action for a prolonged amount of time. In practice, however, the law has been disregarded by presidents — and Congress has not done enough to reign in commanders-in-chief who too often rely upon flimsy evidence and shady advice to launch attacks to further their political agendas. 

ARE CURRENT BIPARTISAN EFFORTS ENOUGH?

One of the opportunities Congress does have to exert its influence over this process is passing AUMFs to provide the Pentagon with funding to pay for the troops — including beans and bullets — needed to engage in conflicts. The AUMFs, therefore, are as close as we have to a declaration of war in modern times. With the passage of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, Congress’ War Powers have been eroded to the point that now the executive has almost a blank check to send the military wherever it wants, whenever it wants. Without the voice of the people weighing in on these decisions, how can we justify calling on young people to fight, sacrifice, and die for these conflicts?  

More recently, efforts have been made to advance new war powers resolutions in Congress. The National Security Powers Act (NSPA) was introduced over the summer by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). In the House, Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Peter Meijer (R-MI) introduced the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act (NSRAA), which is also co-sponsored by Democratic Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Joaquin Castro (D-TX), and Ted Lieu (D-CA), and Republican Nancy Mace (R-SC). Both pieces of legislation address reforms of congressional war powers, arms exports, and national emergency declarations, with a few key differences. The NSPA calls for a timeline for existing AUMFs to be closed, while the NSRAA does not. The NSRAA requires presidential emergency action documents to be disclosed to Congress, while the NSPA does not. Importantly, both bills automatically cut off funding for military action after 20 days unless the president obtains congressional approval. 

These concurrent bipartisan efforts are the result of months of work behind the scenes by proponents both inside and outside the government who are in favor of restoring the balance of power. Veterans groups, such as Common Defense, strongly support this new legislation because it is our members and their families who have borne the burden of 20 years of war and who are still at the mercy of presidential whims.  

As we watched the collapse of Afghanistan, similarities between the scenes in Kabul and the images from the fall of Saigon in 1975 were shocking. For the second time in 50 years, America’s attempts at nation-building in a far away place failed. If we don’t institutionalize the lessons we have learned from our two longest wars, then we are destined to repeat the same mistakes again in the next 50 years. It’s imperative that Congress fulfill its obligations, reassert its War Powers authority, and maintain oversight on future US military incursions. 

Naveed Shah is a US Army veteran who served in Iraq and currently works for the progressive veterans organization Common Defense.