AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Congress: We're Still at War and We're Not Closing Gitmo

A House amendment to end the legal authorization for war fails as Republicans insist “terrorism is not going away.” By Stephanie Gaskell

When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan and the end of next year, will we still be at war?

That’s fundamentally the question that was debated on the House floor on Wednesday as members of Congress, in a relatively narrow 185-233 vote, struck down an amendment that would let the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, expire on at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 2014. It’s also a clear message to the Obama administration that House Republicans are not ready to shift their thinking about the war on terrorism or permit the controversial military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to close.

The AUMF was signed into law shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks killed more than 3,000 people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and stunned the nation. Since the United States wasn’t technically declaring war against another nation, there needed to be legal authority for going into Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and the others who planned the 9/11 attacks. But the measure also became the legal justification for something else: keeping Gitmo open. With the war in Afghanistan winding down, after more than 12 years, the amendment’s author, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said it’s time to let that law expire.

“Although we fell short of passage, today's strong bipartisan vote to sunset the AUMF” – 30 Republicans voted yea – “is illustrative of the emerging consensus that the 2001 AUMF no longer adequately describes the nature of the threat we face.  As we prepare for the redeployment of all our combat forces from Afghanistan, now is the appropriate time to revisit the Congressional authorization that was passed in the days after 9/11."

“This war like all wars must end,” Schiff said during House floor debate. “We do want authority that reflects the precise nature of the threat and that threat has changed since 9/11. It is now a far-flung terrorist challenge.”

Though Guantanamo was not mentioned, the definition of the threat is the heart of the matter – if the U.S. is not at war the next time the military apprehends a terrorism suspect, then Guantanamo is no longer an option.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, took the floor for a rebuttal, saying he essentially agrees with “the hopes that underlie this amendment” and supports a discussion over how to rework the original AUMF to make it better suited to today’s threats. “I hope that terrorism has gone away by Dec. 31, 2014,” he said. But Thornberry and others say the threat is still very real and the nation is still at war, and not just in Afghanistan. 

“The fact is terrorism is not going away,” Thornberry said. “This [amendment] prohibits any military action, not only in Afghanistan but anywhere in the world … That is too dangerous a risk.”

The debate isn’t over as Congress grapples with a bill they signed more than a decade ago during a time of great shock and grief in an effort to find an elusive enemy and hunt them down.

“I think it's a good thing for Congress to discuss what the AUMF means and whether it should be repealed or retired,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel and advocate for Human Rights Watch. “The president has said core al Qaeda has been decimated and the ‘war’ as most Americans understand it is coming to an end with the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan. The U.S. needs the AUMF only to try to justify continued ‘war’ conduct like drone strikes and indefinite detention. It's high time for the U.S. to carefully examine whether it is truly engaged in an armed conflict -- within the international law definition -- outside of Afghanistan. Ending the war and restoring a human rights law framework to detention and any possibly lethal operations would go a long way towards restoring U.S. credibility around the world.