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The Iraq War Anniversary Should Remind Us the War on Terror Failed

We must start to correct course now by repealing the 2002 AUMF.

The Iraq War began 18 years ago on a quiet night in Washington: March 19, 2003.

Domestically, the Bush administration justified the Iraq invasion under the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq, which allowed the president to “defend U.S. national security against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” and to “enforce all relevant Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.” 

The 2002 AUMF notwithstanding, many argue that the lengthy, bitterly fought war was illegal under international law. In any case, successive presidents have reinterpreted the 2002 legislation to justify military actions that Congress never authorized, let alone contemplated. Perhaps the most egregious of these was in January 2020 when the Trump administration cited it as authority for the targeted killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani. The drone strike killed nine other people as well as the general. 

No matter who is in the Oval Office, the 2002 Iraq AUMF remains vulnerable to presidential abuse. Thankfully, Congress finally seems in a place to repeal it. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., recently promised to take up Rep. Barbara Lee’s, D-Calif., bill to repeal the authorization this month. In the Senate, Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Todd Young, R-Ind., recently introduced a repeal bill supported by a bipartisan group of senators.

As Congress moves toward repeal, we must remain cognizant of the bigger issue that plagues U.S. foreign policy: the war-based, military-first approach to counterterrorism – the “War on Terror” – of the last 20 years. 

Since 2001, the United States has waged war or participated in combat in at least 24 countries. From 2018 to 2020 alone, the United States engaged in militaristic counterterrorism activities in 85 countries – 44 percent of the world. The post-9/11 counterterrorism wars have killed over 800,000 people, including 335,000 civilians. They have also displaced at least 37 million people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and the Philippines. These forever wars have cost taxpayers over $6.4 trillion.

Despite these colossal human and financial costs, this war-based, military-first approach has not lived up to its goals of eliminating or even reducing the threat of terrorism. Indeed, annual terrorist attacks worldwide have increased fivefold since the September 11th attacks. Today, there are 105 more terrorist groups listed by the State Department than there were in 2001. 

As military adventurism has expanded, it has sparked an increase in anti-American resentment. This, in turn has fueled the recruitment efforts of terrorist groups. Today, there are nearly four times as many Sunni Islamist militants as there were in 2001.

The  “backlash” effect of U.S. counterterrorism wars has hardly gone unreported. In 2004, the Defense Science Board Task Force found that “American actions and the flow of events [since 9/11] have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims.” We’ve known for at least 17 years that sustained U.S. military operations all over the world only worsen the jihadist terrorist threat.  

The costly approach of the last two decades has done very little to keep Americans safe. Instead, it has amplified the very terrorist organizations it sought to eradicate. 

As we mark the 18th year since the Iraq invasion, both the administration and Congress must finally recognize that the costly war-based, military-first approach to counterterrorism has failed. We must start to correct course now by repealing the 2002 AUMF.

Julia Gledhill works in the militarism and human rights program of the Friends Committee on National Legislation.