A US drone over Pakistan. Since the beginning of the 'war on terror', US drone strikes have killed thousands of militants and civilians in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. Image Credit: Reuters

Washington: President Joe Biden wants to work with Congress to repeal and replace a war authorisation law passed shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, White House officials said on Friday. That law has been stretched across four administrations to permit open-ended combat against Islamist militant groups scattered across the world.

The Biden administration is committed to working with Congress “to ensure that the authorisations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars,” Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said in a statement.

But her statement stopped short of endorsing any particular proposal for how to overhaul the 2001 law, which is known as the Authorisation for Use of Military Force, or AUMF.

Congress has for years struggled to reach any consensus about that question.


The wording and intent of the 2001 law have grown increasingly detached from how the American government is using it. The law authorised war against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and those who harboured them - essentially, the original Al Qaida and its Taliban hosts.

But as the campaign against terrorism evolved, the executive branch under administrations of both parties stretched its interpretation to justify combat against other terrorist groups far from Afghanistan - like an Al Qaida affiliate in Yemen, Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and Al Shabab in Somalia.

By claiming it already has congressional authority to battle such foes, the executive branch has avoided problems with the War Powers Resolution - a Vietnam-era law that requires terminating hostilities after 60 days unless authorised by Congress - while a gridlocked and polarised Congress has avoided having to cast tough votes.

But many critics, including many lawmakers of both parties, say they believe that the authorization has been extended well beyond its intent, usurping the role of Congress under the Constitution to decide when the country will go to war. Yet lawmakers have been unable to agree on how to update it.

Still, there are signs that the politics may be shifting. While some veteran Republicans who favoured overhauling the AUMF have retired - like former Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona - there are also many recently elected lawmakers, on the far left and right in particular, who share the view that Congress needs to regain its role in war decisions.

Amid the flux, Sen. Tim Kaine, Democrat, Virginia, has been a steady force in pushing for overhauling the war authorisations. In Psaki’s statement, which was earlier reported by Politico, the White House also singled Kaine out on Friday as a lawmaker it wanted to work with in trying to sort through the tangle.

A spokeswoman for Kaine, citing Biden’s deep experience in both the legislative and executive branches, said the senator hoped the new president could help restore balance of war powers. “We need to protect the country but not be in perpetual war,” she said. “And he is already in bipartisan discussion with his colleagues and the administration about how to do that.”

This week, Kaine and several colleagues of both parties introduced a bill that would repeal two other aging war laws that are still on the books: a 1991 one that authorised the Gulf war against Iraq, and a 2002 one that authorised the second Iraq War. In previous sessions, he has also sponsored legislation that would tackle the harder question of how to repeal and replace the 2001 AUMF, but so far he has not reintroduced it.

While the 1991 Gulf War law is obsolete, the 2002 Iraq War law retains relevance. In 2014, after Daesh swept across parts of Iraq and Syria and the Obama administration began bombing it, President Barack Obama asked Congress for a law to authorise the war, while simultaneously insisting he did not need new legislative approval.

The Obama administration’s rationale cited both the 2001 and 2002 war laws as providing a preexisting legal basis to attack Daesh, which had evolved from an Al Qaida affiliate that participated in the Iraq War insurgency. The claim was disputed, but an attempt to get a court to scrutinise its legitimacy failed.