What Are 'Enduring' Combat Operations Against ISIS? Congress Has No Idea

The AUMF language that pleases Democratic leaders but no one else.

Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, listens during a news conference on federal funding for Planned Parenthood at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.

Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg

At Tuesday's meeting with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, Senate Democrats got a strong sense of what would be in an authorization of military force against the Islamic State.

"The language is probably part of the rub with the members," said New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, after exiting the meeting. "It talks about no enduring combat groups on the ground," said Menendez, and there were questions "about what that exactly means, both in the 'enduring' part, versus offensive combat."

On Wednesday, some time after these details were confirmed by Bloomberg reporters, the language is out. The AUMF would terminate after three years, with options for reauthorization. And the "enduring" portion survived the edits.

The authority granted in subsection (a) does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.

That left one question: What did "enduring" mean? It was written to specify that there would be no long-term, slippery-slope commitment to Iraq. Fine. That didn't mean it was clear. The mission to end Saddam Hussein's reign in Iraq, after all, was called Operation Enduring Freedom. The 2002 AUMF that allowed that war was still being used to justify strikes on the Islamic State. While the new AUMF repealed the 2002 version, the word "enduring" left some Democrats perplexed.

"I support the general framework but I have significant questions," Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski told reporters on Tuesday. "I don't know what the word enduring means. Enduring is not in the eyes of the beholder. Enduring has to have a clock to it." 

Maine Senator Angus King, an independent who had been advocating for language like this, was more satisfied. "It's an attempt to distinguish between, for example, special forces going in for a special purpose for a few days, defensive forces defending an American facility, versus long-term deployment of ground troops," he said. "That's what they're trying, that's what that term is designed to cover. Obviously, that's a term that doesn't have precedence in prior foreign policy, and so it's going to have to be defined. There'll have to be legislative history, and a lot of discussion. But that's the purpose, to distinguish between, for example, a special forces team sent in to rescue a downed pilot from 100,000 ground troops or 10,000 ground troops sent in to liberate Mosul."

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Democratic leaders mostly came out in favor of the new language. Republicans were less convinced by the AUMF, and for totally divergent reasons.

"In my view, it should not constrain the president of the United States, and it should not be specific to ISIS," said Arizona Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "He was elected by the American people. The Constitution of the United States says that he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. We cannot set the precedent of constraining the president of the United States. Again, if we don't like what the president is doing, all we have to do is cut off the funding. We did that after the Vietnam War was over."

McCain was not the only Republican to evoke memories of Vietnam. Alabama Representative Mo Brooks, a conservative member of the House Armed Services Committee, thought the AUMF's limitations were prescriptions for a Vietnam-style American defeat.

"There should be no restraint on what force can be used if the goal is to win," said Brooks. "I hate to think that this president is favoring another Vietnam-like action where the rules of engagement, the use of force allowed, is such that America won't win. We should not get into this war unless we're willing to do whatever it takes to win, and that means no limit on any conventional weapons or conventional forces. If the president's not willing to do that, he just needs to go ahead and admit defeat now."

On the other side of the Republican Party stood Kentucky Representative Tom Massie, a libertarian-minded conservative who wanted no ground troops in Iraq but had no idea how limiting the "enduring" language really was.

"I don't know what it means," said Massie. "I think it all goes to hell in a hand basket once one of those categories of forces that we've put in harm's way gets attacked, according to his AUMF. Right? Then you have the nexus to bring in any kind of ground force you want. So I'm uncomfortable putting any of our boots on the ground, however you define them. You put one American there, you've put him there with some rules of engagement that are probably too limiting, and when, and if he gets attacked, it's on. I think it's a slippery slope."