Small Wars Journal

Declarations of War and the ‘Whac-a-Mole’ on Terror

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Declarations of War and the ‘Whac-a-Mole’ on Terror

Jeff Groom

“We are technically not at war.”

The above statement was made by the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, during testimony in 2015 before the House Armed Services Committee concerning the fight against the Islamic State. General Dunford, in tandem with then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, was responding to a line of questioning (begins 1:07:00) initiated by Randy Forbes (R-VA).

Driving a wedge between the two in the hot seat, Representative Forbes cleverly extracted this embarrassing admission from General Dunford after Secretary Carter had mentioned earlier in the testimony that the United States was at war with ISIS. Dunford clarified that a technical declaration of war would come from the Congress. With this glaring omission, Representative Forbes pressed further, highlighting that ISIS had expanded strategically since 2010 despite a continuous military effort to contain and defeat the new caliphate.

In over two hours of testimony, Forbes’ questioning stood out as the simplest yet most thought provoking. After all, how can one win what won’t be declared? The military’s strength is in creative mission accomplishment, not in creating the mission itself.

As the ‘Whac-a-Mole’ war on terrorism continues for its 17th year, debates over conflict authorization and war declarations commonly assume a tenuous starting point: state control of violence. Investigating this assumption provides a framework for how future conflicts should be declared. And won.

For America’s greatest generation, things were relatively straightforward. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the Congress declared war unanimously, the nation mobilized, the war was conducted and won. Japan and Germany surrendered, and the armed forces followed suit and laid down their weapons.

In Vietnam things weren’t as cut and dry. After years of sending advisors, the conflict gradually grew into a full-fledged war under the cover of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. As President Nixon gradually drew American forces down in the face of public pressure and military stagnation, the lessons learned came early with Congress’ passage of the War Powers Resolution of 1973. This resolution sought to limit the unilateral power of the President to use military force. The President would be required to notify Congress within 48 hours of engaging in hostilities and subsequently obtain an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) or a war declaration. If not, the troops would not be allowed to engage in hostilities for more than 60 days followed by a 30 day withdrawal period.

A similar story is panning out today. Following 9/11, an AUMF was passed by the Congress that authorized the President to attack terrorist forces as well as the countries that harbored them. A similar AUMF was passed in October 2002 concerning force against Iraq. With the unconstitutional bombing of Libya under President Obama and the expansion of the war against the Islamic State, some members of Congress pursued change. Sponsored by Senators Kaine and McCain, the S1939 War Powers Consultation Act was introduced in 2014 and sought to repeal the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

Defining “significant armed conflict” as “any combat operation involving members of the Armed Forces lasting more than a week or expected by the President to last more than a week”, the bill excludes from this definition limited acts of reprisal against terrorist states, covert operations, or actions taken to repel imminent attacks. The bill stipulates that no later than 30 days after the deployment of members of the Armed Forces into “significant armed conflict” a joint congressional consultative committee shall debate and approve or disapprove continuation of hostilities.

Unfortunately, our Congress and most military leaders are locked into a worldview that is no longer valid. This worldview coalesced in 1648 at the end of the religious Thirty Years’ War with the advent of nation-based sovereignty. With the Treaty of Westphalia the modern state came into existence and assumed a monopoly on the use of force by use of the uniformed military personnel that fought under a flag and for their country. To win in war, simply be better on the battlefield and the state would yield.

Modern Western powers think of war as a light switch, either on or off, war or peace, and not much in between. But mankind has taken up arms not just for his flag and state but for his tribe, his religion, his honor, his lands, and even for his very existence. The line between war and peace, combatants and noncombatants, and mercy and slaughter has been very grey historically speaking.

The United States found this out the hard way in 2003. Defeating the Iraqi regime was relatively easy but American forces soon discovered our adversaries were willing to fight and die for more than a few arbitrary lines drawn in the sand by the British and represented by a flag. Defeating and disbanding Saddam’s army just took the lid off religious and tribal tensions that had existed for centuries and were only held in check by a dictatorship.

S1939 was introduced due to recent experiences in the Middle East and the mission creep that has been measured not in weeks or years but in decades. Our historical bias to conform to this notion of warfare is reflected in the idea of “significant armed conflict.”

But does “significant armed conflict” mean advising? Training and assisting? Building schools? Helping to train Afghans to fight for themselves doesn’t seem like significant conflict. And that is because it isn’t. It is low intensity conflict.

As frequent TAC contributor and military historian William Lind frequently columns, we have now entered what is known in military theory as fourth generation warfare. Low intensity conflict is back as the state loses control of its populations. In the state-based view which the famous von Clausewitz theorized within, war is politics through other means, but in the fourth generation, politics is now an extension of war, or put another way, all politics is local.

So how should the consultation bill be modified to account for this new reality of conflict?

As Lind and Marine Lt Colonel Gregory Thiele explain in their Fourth Generation Warfare Handbook, there are two modes of fighting in the 4th Generation. The first, called the Hama model, after the Syrian Army’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, is war in the traditional state-based view, gloves off, no mercy. Kill the enemy until he yields.

The consultation bill should allow for this option by granting the President unilateral use of strike capability in the form of aircraft and missiles for 7 days and unilateral use of ground forces for 60 days.

Given today’s military technology that will be likely more than is required to achieve a political end state. In order to cripple a German ball bearing plant in Schweinfurt in 1943 the United States sent 376 B-17 bombers. Today only a couple dozen Tomahawk missiles are required to do similar damage. The accuracy of every weapon system has jumped by many orders of magnitude, thus requiring fewer personnel and delivery systems to achieve the same result.

But just as a parent that spanks their rebellious child in public will likely get a few stares, there is an inflection point in the use of brute force. Beat the child for too long and the child gains the power of weakness and bystanders will begin to intervene. Just as police forces are trained to de-escalate tensions to keep the peace, so too will the military be required to tone down the violence.  This is the second mode of 4th Generation Warfare.

US forces are operating in this manner in Afghanistan and Syria. Sometimes violence is required, other times it must be avoided. Whether we should or shouldn’t needs to be debated and voted on by the Congress. At the 60 day point the length of conflict or necessity to remain engaged becomes very complex and hard to predict. The costs, both in human lives and taxpayer dollars, will be orders of magnitude lower. This is when the Congress must vote on whether the troops shall remain. If the Congress says no, the troops come home within 90 total days. If they vote yes, the troops stay.

And most importantly, the moral decision to continue hostilities must be accompanied by a financial accounting for war. As a recent TAC article noted, there was a time when wars were paid for via taxation. According to the Watson Institute of Brown University the total cost of the war on terrorism if you include spending on Homeland Security and the VA as of September 2017 was 4.3 trillion dollars. Separating the conduct of war from the cost of war is without precedent in American history.

This part of the policy needs debated to incorporate a threshold for money and time. For example, once the troops remain for over a six months taxes will be raised to cover all costs associated with the campaign. Or once the costs reach one billion dollars the taxes will be initiated, or a combination of whichever comes first.

Not giving the military quantifiable objectives has been disastrous for the institution as well as the taxpayers. The Congress should immediately pass a modified version of the S1939 bill incorporating 4th Generation Warfare considerations followed by a vote on all current conflicts.

About the Author(s)

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). You can follow him at @BigsbyGroom.