Confusion in Combat and Constitution

By Bonnie Kristian

What do you get when you have a war that’s not legally a war, combat that’s not officially combat, and soldiers who aren’t sure if they’re acting as soldiers?

This isn’t the set-up for a too-complicated joke: What you get is a bombed hospital with dozens of civilian casualties, including medical workers and children.

That’s the takeaway of a report from the Pentagon on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital bombing this past fall, and its assessment hardly convinces that similar mistakes will be avoided in the future. The report includes telling details on the broader state of American military intervention in Afghanistan, a state of confusion in which troops are dangerously unclear on their role and responsibilities. As one Special Forces member put it, “’How far do you want to go?’ is not a proper response to ‘How far do you want us to go?’”

That too-memorable exchange is indicative of a systemic disarray which goes all the way to the top, beginning with the lack of legal authorization for current U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. Recall, this is a war which is supposed to be over. President Obama “ended” it way back in 2014, trumpeting the completion of the combat portion of the longest war in American history.

This formal end to the war places the current intervention on shaky legal ground. Nearly 15 years after 9/11, the Middle East in which America is now entangled looks very different from the region Congress had in mind when it approved 2001’s Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the initial grant of permission to invade Afghanistan.

Limitless in chronological and geographical scope and carefully silent on the subject of constitutional allotment of the power to declare war, the AUMF offers no real legal cover to this zombie war.

The White House seems to be aware of this quandary, as evidenced by its persistent avoidance of the word “combat” to describe what U.S. troops are doing in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Mideast. The twisted rationale: If we don’t admit we’re fighting, we can ignore the Constitution. Thus Obama repeatedly insists that “America’s combat mission in Afghanistan came to a responsible end,” which is a difficult argument to credit when U.S. soldiers on the ground there continue to suffer injury and death in combat situations.

It’s also not hard to imagine how such confusion could be dangerous on the ground—leading, perhaps, to questions like “How far do you want us to go?”

Indeed, the Pentagon’s report suggests that many troops are not certain whether they are supposed to act as combatants or as advisors. “It's not a strategy and, in fact, it's a recipe for disaster in that kind of kinetic environment,” said one anonymous soldier was quoted assessing the situation. When his unit asked three times for greater clarity on their roles and permissions, the “only sounds audible were the sounds of crickets...though those were hard to hear over the gunfire.”

It is confusion like this which led to that hospital bombing, which killed 42 innocents, some of them burning to death in their beds. It could have led to much worse, for both civilians and American forces.

And it is confusion which has no end in sight: Obama has pledged to keep Americans in Afghanistan through 2017, and there is a strong possibility that his successor may extend the fight even further.

There is no prospect of chopping off this zombie’s head any time soon, even though the purpose of the war, a misadventure which risks the loss of American life and guarantees the waste of American money, is at this point far from clear.

Sadly, such dangerous, costly, long-term confusion is just what recent years have taught us to expect. When you have a war that’s not a war, combat that’s not combat, and soldiers who aren’t sure if they’re soldiers, that’s what you get.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by Rare on May 24, 2016. Read more HERE

Photo courtesy of wikimedia.