Fighting ISIS Here, There, and Everywhere

Many in Congress worry that the Obama administration wants the right to hit potential Islamic State targets around the world and far from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.

Kerry, Carter, And Dempsey Testify On Authorization To Use Force Against ISIL
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: Secretary of State John Kerry (R) testifies while flanked by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (C) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (L) during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, March 11, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony from top administration officials on President Obamas request to Congress for authorization to use force against ISIS. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

What started as a set of limited airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria has the potential to morph into a global battle that could see U.S. military operations in places like Nigeria and Libya.

That’s because the Islamic State’s tentacles -- both real and virtual -- are beginning to reach into countries around the world, and the U.S. military wants to reserve the right to go after the militants wherever they show up.

For some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, that’s a blank check they’re not willing to write.

What started as a set of limited airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria has the potential to morph into a global battle that could see U.S. military operations in places like Nigeria and Libya.

That’s because the Islamic State’s tentacles — both real and virtual — are beginning to reach into countries around the world, and the U.S. military wants to reserve the right to go after the militants wherever they show up.

For some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, that’s a blank check they’re not willing to write.

“If we’re going to go to war in Libya, I want to vote for war in Libya. If we’re going to go to war in Nigeria, I want to vote for war in Nigeria,” Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said Wednesday, March 11, at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate said he is worried that the White House’s proposal for a new authorization to use military force against the Islamic State is written so broadly that it could be used to launch military operations of indeterminate size all over the world.

Wednesday’s hearing kicked off a debate that could take months to resolve. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said he wants to hold a floor debate and vote on the new authorization for use of military force (AUMF) sometime this spring, but the Senate is supposed to take longer.

Paul’s not the only one who has deep reservations about the potential for mission creep, but the Islamic State’s kidnappings and attacks on oil fields in Libya, its videotaped beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians there, and the recent decision by Nigeria’s Boko Haram to ally itself with the militants are bolstering the White House’s case for more flexibility to take on the group wherever it could pose a threat.

The United States has been fighting the Islamic State in Iraq for seven months, and it began striking the group in Syria in late September. As of March 2, the United States had conducted a total of 2,141 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria at a cost of more than $1.5 billion. U.S. Central Command also estimates that it has killed 8,500 Islamic State fighters since airstrikes began in August.

But the White House’s proposed AUMF does not limit future operations to these two countries. Instead, it leaves the door open to go after the Islamic State and “associated persons or forces” wherever they turn up.

On Wednesday, a powerhouse lineup of Secretary of State John Kerry, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter appeared before the Senate panel to make the case for the AUMF that the White House has proposed.

It’s wise not to include geographical restrictions in the legislation because “ISIL already shows signs of metastasizing outside of Syria and Iraq,” Carter said, using another name for the group.

“The proposed AUMF takes into account the reality … that ISIL as an organization is likely to evolve strategically, morphing, rebranding, and associating with other terrorist groups, while continuing to threaten the United States and our allies,” he added.

Over the weekend, signs of that metastasizing appeared to be taking place in Nigeria, where Boko Haram, a group of militants trying to establish an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria, declared its allegiance to the Islamic State. It’s believed to be the largest jihadi terrorist group to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State, but counterterrorism experts warn that it’s too soon to say how close that relationship really is.

When asked whether the United States would have the authority under this AUMF to go after Boko Haram, Carter first said that a pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State would not be enough for the United States to strike. Instead, he said, the militant group in question would also need to threaten Americans.

However, later in the hearing, Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, noted that the proposed AUMF actually talks about groups engaged in “hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners,” which is a much broader definition than Carter first described and could easily be construed as to include Boko Haram.

Carter agreed with Murphy’s interpretation of the bill and added that the United States already has the authority to go after Boko Haram under a 2001 AUMF that was drafted in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to go after those responsible for the terrorist attacks. The Bush-era legislation has been used ever since to justify U.S. military operations against al Qaeda-linked groups in countries such as Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan.

The 2001 AUMF also provides the legal underpinning for operations against the Islamic State, even though al Qaeda disavowed the group a year ago. This means that if the United States decides to strike an Islamic State-linked group in Libya before Congress reaches agreement on the new legislation, Barack Obama’s administration is confident it already has the authority to do so.

It also means that even if geographical limits are written into the new AUMF, the White House will retain the authority to attack groups very loosely affiliated with al Qaeda all over the world as long as the 2001 AUMF remains on the books.

There have been calls to repeal the 2001 AUMF, but the legislation proposed by the White House does not do that and Congress is not expected to take that on as part of this debate. The draft bill put forward by the White House would repeal a 2002 AUMF that authorized the war in Iraq.

Because the White House already has the authority to execute its fight against the Islamic State under the 2001 AUMF, this new authorization bill is much more about political messaging, said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security.

Obama and members of Congress are trying to signal to their constituents that they’re authorizing a limited mission — one that bears no resemblance to the long, bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — while at the same time giving the military the flexibility it says it needs to be successful, Fontaine said.

But Paul and other lawmakers have said Congress should be consulted each time the fight against the Islamic State moves to a new country or takes on what looks like a new enemy.

“If we have to go to other places, we should have other authorizations. I’m not saying I won’t vote for the authorizations; we just need to have them,” Paul said.

Most of Paul’s Republican colleagues disagree, preferring instead to offer military commanders as much flexibility as they need upfront, but there are plenty of Democrats who are worried about authorizing an endless war.

California Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, would also like to see geographical restrictions in the final bill.

“I support a narrowly-tailored bill that sets limits on time, geography and the use of combat forces, but whatever the will of the majority of Congress may be, it must act,” he said in a statement to Foreign Policy.

Schiff said he is dismayed that this debate is only beginning now, more than half a year into the war against the Islamic State. “Any further delay by Congress in taking up an authorization bill for debate and vote is inexcusable,” he said.

Schiff and Paul have separately offered draft authorization measures that would restrict operations to Iraq and Syria, but neither measure gathered enough support in the House or Senate.

A group of prominent legal scholars has also noted that geographical limits have been included in 60 percent of past force authorizations, and they argue that this new AUMF should be limited to where there is an ongoing armed conflict between the Islamic State and Iraq and the United States “and to any other locations from which ISIL forces actively plan and/or launch attacks against the United States or Iraq.”

But support for geographical restrictions does not seem to be gathering steam. Instead, fear is spreading that the Islamic State will show up or co-opt terrorist groups in other countries. Libya and Nigeria get the most attention, but there is even concern about the Islamic State’s making inroads in Afghanistan, especially as U.S. troops continue to leave.

In December, before the Republican leadership took over, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed draft authorization legislation that did not include geographical restrictions, an indication that even among Democrats the preference is to keep options open.

“The problem with having a geographic limitation is the adversary gets a vote and the adversary can move,” said Stephanie Sanok Kostro, who served at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad before joining the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“I think when you’re talking about transnational groups like [the Islamic State] that aren’t affiliated with a particular state, putting a geographic limitation on it actually is harmful from a military perspective,” she said.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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