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The Perils of Fighting a Conceptual War

The Authorization for Use of Military Force has complicated our understanding of countering terrorism.

Words: Ki Suh Jung
Pictures: Magnus Olsson

Every year as we approach Sept. 11, I ask my friends, colleagues, friends of friends whom I just met for the first time: Do you remember where you were that day?  The thing is, we all remember. I couldn’t describe any other day from 2001, but like many others, I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the news, how my day unfolded, and even my mood.

I was in seventh grade and sitting in my science class. The teacher was late, which was rare, but no one was troubled. The later the teacher arrives, the less we have to do schoolwork. After some time though, she did come in, and she read off a piece of paper that the World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane. She was crying, but I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Her words didn’t register with me, and they didn’t for a while. I knew something was wrong, but the rest of the school day progressed as usual, with the students bouncing from class to class. During lunch, the school-wide intercom listed names of a few students who would be allowed to depart early. I soon learned that those were students whose parents worked in the Twin Towers.

The AUMF is surprisingly short and broad for the immense authority it imparts on the president.  The question is: If the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan, should the AUMF remain active or should it end?  

When I returned home from school, I turned on the television and flipped through the channels. Every single channel showed videos of the two airplanes flying into the towers, the subsequent explosions in the areas of impact, and the eventual collapse. I was only able to understand what had happened when I witnessed it with my own eyes.  Even then, even though the World Trade Center was only 20 miles from my suburban home in New Jersey, I was in disbelief, my young mind unable to dovetail the relatively worry-free life thus far with the horror that was unfolding just across the Hudson River.  Later that day, I went outside — Sept. 11, 2001 was otherwise a beautiful day in the New York City area — and I saw and heard two fighter jets flying overhead.


This year is unique not only because it marks the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but is also the year that the US troops withdrew from Afghanistan, effectively closing a chapter in the ongoing Global War on Terror (GWOT).

But what is the GWOT anyway? I am not an expert on warfare, but I know that traditionally in wars, we know exactly who the enemy is. During the Gulf War, it was Iraq; during the Korean War, it was North Korea and China’s People’s Volunteer Army; and during World War II, it was the Axis powers. And they all wore distinct uniforms. We also typically know what victory and defeat looks like — one side surrenders or ceases to exist or is deeply weakened. The GWOT, on the other hand, is basically conceptual, as there are dozens of terrorist groups, with new ones seemingly sprouting overnight. Against such fragmented organizations, which are held together by a mix of zealous ideologies, religious fervor, and nationalism, can a war be won? Is “war” even the appropriate characterization?

President Joe Biden justified his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by stating that the United States had achieved its goals: “get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again.” These goals were achieved with the help of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which enables the president to:

“use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001… in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” 

The law is surprisingly short and broad for the immense authority it imparts on the president. As long as the law is in effect, it is solely the president and the executive branch that ultimately determine whether the threat of international terrorism has sufficiently been defeated or remains active. The question is: If the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan, should the AUMF remain active or should it end?  

President Biden was not the first president to conclude that the US had completed its initial objectives. In 2016, President Barack Obama stated that America’s “combat mission” in Afghanistan had ended. US troops decreased from 100,000 to 10,000 and had a much narrower focus, which was to train and advise Afghan national security forces and support counterterrorism operations within the country. Similarly, President Donald Trump emphasized a “conditions-based approach,” with one of the goals being to “stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America.” The AUMF has provided cover to the executive branch during all of these goal adjustments and readjustments.       


The 9/11 attacks were an unprecedented tragedy, and they caught the United States off-guard. In its immediate aftermath, the country rallied and, with emotions running high, responded by invading Afghanistan to destroy the perpetrators of 9/11 and also remove the Taliban from power, who had hosted al-Qaida on its soil. In the name of GWOT, the United States has also sent troops to Iraq, Syria, Somalia, the Philippines, and a handful of other countries to fight against international terrorism.

This seemingly-ubiquitous military campaign has become the new normal. Front-page headlines on the GWOT have become rare unless a novel event — usually of a catastrophic nature — is able to break the monotony of everyday operations. For example, media coverage and public interest in the US military’s involvement in Niger spiked following the deaths of four US servicemembers in October 2017. Yet, even members of Congress were not immediately familiar with the extent of the US military’s presence there. Up until the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I daresay that many of us likely lost track of the days and years that the GWOT has been ongoing.

Considering the persisting threat of terrorism against the United States and the need to counter these threats to prevent another 9/11 from occurring, what is the (im)balance of power that American society is willing to accept and also risk? Given the global presence of terrorist threats, should the president retain the authority to employ forces against them without having to notify Congress of each military action? Or to prevent another protracted and large-scale GWOT operation, should the AUMF be amended to require an additional Congressional approval for the commitment of US forces exceeding a specified size?

On this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, we ought to have an honest discussion of the characterization of the “war on terror,” validity of the 2001 AUMF, and how we might more effectively respond to the threats of international terrorism. For a war that has been ongoing for the past twenty years, we have been disconcertingly disconnected as a society.

Ki Suh Jung is a Foreign Area Officer in the United States Navy. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or US government.

“The Long Tunnel” is a series of articles reflecting on the impact of Sept. 11 and how it has shaped the world we live in today. You can read more in the series here

Ki Suh Jung

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