The longer you play fast and loose with the law, the more you delude yourself into believing that what you’re doing is OK.
The fast-moving events in Syria and Turkey have made for head-spinning headlines and sometimes personal anguish for many U.S. soldiers who have fought in that region. The outpouring of emotion at the plight of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ People Protection Units (YPG), a primarily Kurdish militia, has ignited nationwide debate as to the U.S. governments’ loyalty to allies. Soldiers – indeed, officers, have openly questioned the motives of the commander in chief (CINC) and disparaged his order to withdraw up to 1,000 troops from areas of direct conflict in northeastern Syria.
Here we find ourselves in 2019, partnered with the YPG, itself affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Turkey. Chasing al-Qaida through Iraq, which begat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or al-Sham or Syria (ISIS), we found ourselves on the other side of the Iraq-Syria border, teamed up with YPG Kurds who wanted to kill ISIS as much as we did. They were willing partners in the fight against a common enemy, but they had geopolitical baggage. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right? Not so fast.
Let’s review how we got here. There has only been one authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and we’ve been deploying forces under its auspices ever since. It’s just 60 words long, so we should take a moment to review it again — for many of you, perhaps for the first time:
[T]he President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Everybody got that? If you planned, authorized, or committed the 9/11 attacks, or aided or harbored those that did, you’re in the U.S. crosshairs. Bin Laden’s al-Qaida in Afghanistan? Yup. Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI)? It was a stretch, but the CINC said yes, so onward! ISIL? The next CINC said they were the offspring of AQI, so again, here we go! ISIS? Again, son-of-a-son, so Charlie Mike!
Does it matter that not likely a living soul in the current ISIS planned, authorized, or committed the 9/11 attacks, nor aided or harbored 9/11 perpetrators? Apparently, not a wit. Does it matter that the last administration recognized the 2001 AUMF had outlived its shelf-life and offered a new one, including ISIS language, to Congress? Nope; rejected. Does it matter that a bipartisan group of senators subsequently authored a similar AUMF, to accomplish the same thing? Nope; never left the starting blocks.
We’ve been playing fast and loose with the law ever since 2003, when we connected AQI with the 9/11 perpetrators and now, the chickens have come home to roost and we don’t like it.
We partnered with the enemy-of-my-enemy in Syria to fight the son-of-a-son and we made some friends. We confused that partnership with an alliance and that partnership grew to be as strong as an alliance.
But the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs reminded everyone on Thursday that our actual ally, Turkey, had been a NATO ally for the past 70 years. On Sunday, the new secretary of defense gently corrected his Sunday news show host, when she casually referred to our YPG partners as allies. “The Kurds have been very good partners,” the secretary affirmed. There’s a difference between a 70-year ally and a regional partner, no matter how distasteful you find your ally’s actions to be or how loyal you believe your partner to be.
In 2001, the commander in chief declared, “You are either with us, or with the terrorists.” NATO invoked Article 5, which states that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all of its members, for the first time, in response to the 9/11 attacks. NATO allies, including Turkey, aided the coalition effort in Afghanistan.
What if Turkey should invoke Article 5 now, in response to what it sees as a terrorist threat? US forces are withdrawing from areas of combat in northeastern Syria now, but can we see ourselves obligated to a fight on the sides of the allied Turks, against partner Kurds?
Rather than threatening sanctions, Congress should update an AUMF they’ve been dithering on for 16 years. Better still, let Congress declare war on Turkey, on behalf of the Kurds, as Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution authorizes them to do.
Don’t bet on either. We’ll just continue to play fast and loose with the law.
John Robinson is a retired senior Army officer and former U.S. Central Command strategic planner, with over 31 years of service, including multiple tours in the Middle East and Central Asia. These views are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.