President Obama’s much-anticipated foreign policy speech at West Point on Wednesday contained plenty of soaring oration and one concrete proposal: establishing a new $5 billion “counterterrorism partnership fund” to train and equip allies abroad who are battling terrorist threats.
The idea is a good one on a number of fronts. Given the rise of extremist militias in Mali, Nigeria, Yemen, and elsewhere, it makes sense to boost the capacity of local partners. As threats multiply and spread across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, it’s wise to remain nimble and flexible, and avoid getting bogged down in any one place. Training partners is also cost effective. For example, the United States spent roughly $600 million to support African Union troops in Somalia over the past seven years. By comparison, the US military in Afghanistan burns through that in less than three days.
But as good as this proposal might sound, the devil is in the details. Unfortunately, details have been scarce. Members of Congress have reportedly complained that the speech was the first they had heard of this proposal. It is not yet clear how this fund would differ from the billions that have already been spent on counterterrorism cooperation.
But perhaps the biggest problem with this proposal is that it does not address the most important question looming over US counterterrorism activities abroad: What legal authority will the US forces operate under once the war in Afghanistan draws to a close?
Currently, most US counterterrorism actions in Afghanistan and beyond take place under the Authorization of the Use of Military Force, passed on September 14, 2001, which grants the president the power to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Although the act was meant to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban, both the Bush and Obama administrations have stretched the limits of this power and applied it to groups that had little to do with the 9/11 attacks.
Despite Obama’s repeated assertions that “the tide of war is receding,” his administration has done little to move away from these sweeping wartime powers, nor has he spelled out what authorities he feels he needs to retain to keep Americans safe. At a hearing last week on the issue, Obama administration lawyers declined to publicly list which groups it targets under this war authorization. Al Shabab in Somalia? Al Nusra in Syria? No one knows for sure. That puts the American people in the bizarre position of being at war, but not knowing who we are fighting.
Given the lack of transparency, and the many years that have passed since 2001, it is a good thing that members of Congress are attempting to end or amend this outdated war authorization. Indeed, after the draw-down on US troops in Afghanistan, there will be little justification for keeping it. Rather than merely seeking new money for counterterrorism partnerships, the Obama administration must urgently come to an agreement with Congress about what authorities the president will have to conduct counterterrorism operations overseas in the future.