The Senate voted to keep fighting the global war on terror under the 2001 framework aimed at striking al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, yet again delaying what most analysts say is a long-overdue update to tailor the war to the current threats of the Islamic State and lone-wolf attacks.
GOP leaders said they feared undercutting the troops currently serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere by trying to rewrite the war framework, but rank-and-file lawmakers said they were shirking their duties and leaving the troops without the guidance they deserve.
“We’ve been going 16 years without a real debate. There will be no real debate on war unless we pass this resolution,” said Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who led the fight to force a new debate on the breadth of the war on terror.
Mr. Paul offered a proposal to immediately repeal the 2002 AUMF that governed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and to set a six-month end point to the 2001 AUMF that allowed troops to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan and to pursue al Qaeda and its allies across the globe.
The six-month window would give Congress a chance to write a new authorization tailored to the modern war, which now includes the Islamic State and other terrorist networks that emerged well after 2001.
Mr. Paul said that with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the entire leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban is different today than in 2001, underscoring just how outdated the old framework is.
Under the 2001 AUMF the U.S. has helped overthrow the Gadhafi regime in Libya, attempted to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria, assisted in anti-terrorism efforts in the Philippines and Georgia, helped Iraqi troops contain the Islamic State in their country, and backed one of the sides in a civil war in Yemen.
Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan enters its 17th year this week.
Just two Republicans joined Mr. Paul in backing a renewed debate, while 13 of the 48 members of the Democratic caucus joined the rest of the GOP in staying the course.
A number of opponents to Mr. Paul said they wanted a new debate, but wanted to have an updated AUMF in hand before they repeal the 2001 policy.
“This would be a highly different debate, and a highly different vote, I think, if we were looking at a real replacement of the AUMF,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The difficulty, though, is that Congress is divided into three camps. One camp wants to keep essentially the existing authorization in place, one camp wants to write a new framework that would empower a broad war on terror, and one camp wants to severely curtail the war.
It’s unclear that any of the three camps can build the supermajority that would be needed to approve a new framework in the Senate, which has left the chamber in stalemate, and allowed presidents to stretch the existing powers beyond recognition.
The Trump administration had sent mixed signals over the summer about whether it wanted a new framework from Congress. This week it said it didn’t want any changes.
“The president believes that the current authorization for the use of military force is sufficient for our needs right now. We’re not looking to change it,” said Marc Short, the president’s top liaison to Congress.
The debate deeply divided Congress, with members struggling with their obligations.
“I don’t know what the right answer to this question is,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, who was in the U.S. House in 2001 and voted for the original authorization.
Mr. Moran said he wants to update the framework, but said he was worried about eliminating the existing ones without a new policy in place.
Two years ago, under pressure from Republicans, President Obama sent up a new AUMF, sparking a debate. But GOP leaders said the framework Mr. Obama proposed was too weak and tied the troops’ hands too much, so they shelved his proposal and ducked the debate.
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