America’s Newest Secret War, Or The Same One We’ve Been Fighting For Ten Years?
American drone strikes in Yemen are intensifying. Is this a new war. or just the same one we've been fighting since October 2001?
Drone strikes against suspected terrorist targets in Yemen isn’t a new thing, but the United States has recently increased the intensity of that campaign at the same time that Yemen itself is falling into political chaos:
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has intensified the American covert war in Yemen, exploiting a growing power vacuum in the country to strike at militant suspects with armed drones and fighter jets, according to American officials.
The acceleration of the American campaign in recent weeks comes amid a violent conflict in Yemen that has left the government in Sana, a United States ally, struggling to cling to power. Yemeni troops that had been battling militants linked to Al Qaeda in the south have been pulled back to the capital, and American officials see the strikes as one of the few options to keep the militants from consolidating power.
On Friday, American jets killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, a midlevel Qaeda operative, and several other militant suspects in a strike in southern Yemen. According to witnesses, four civilians were also killed in the airstrike. Weeks earlier, drone aircraft fired missiles aimed at Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who the United States government has tried to kill for more than a year. Mr. Awlaki survived.
The recent operations come after a nearly year-long pause in American airstrikes, which were halted amid concerns that poor intelligence had led to bungled missions and civilian deaths that were undercutting the goals of the secret campaign.
Officials in Washington said that the American and Saudi spy services had been receiving more information — from electronic eavesdropping and informants — about the possible locations of militants. But, they added, the outbreak of the wider conflict in Yemen created a new risk: that one faction might feed information to the Americans that could trigger air strikes against a rival group.
A senior Pentagon official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday that using force against militants in Yemen was further complicated by the fact that Qaeda operatives have mingled with other rebels and antigovernment militants, making it harder for the United States to attack without the appearance of picking sides.
The American campaign in Yemen is led by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, and is closely coordinated with the Central Intelligence Agency. Teams of American military and intelligence operatives have a command post in Sana, the Yemeni capital, to track intelligence about militants in Yemen and plot future strikes.
Concerned that support for the campaign could wane if the government of Yemen’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, were to fall, the United States ambassador in Yemen has met recently with leaders of the opposition, partly to make the case for continuing American operations. Officials in Washington said that opposition leaders have told the ambassador, Gerald M. Feierstein, that operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula should continue regardless of who wins the power struggle in Sana.
The extent of America’s war in Yemen has been among the Obama administration’s most closely guarded secrets, as officials worried that news of unilateral American operations could undermine Mr. Saleh’s tenuous grip on power. Mr. Saleh authorized American missions in Yemen in 2009, but placed limits on their scope and has said publicly that all military operations had been conducted by his own troops.
Several bloggers, including Polipundit and Jeff Dunetz, have expressed doubt about the legality of these actions and questioned whether the Obama Administration should be required to seek Congressional approval before taking these actions in Yemen. While I am loath to endorse yet another war in the Middle East, and I’m not sure that we’re engaging in the right strategy at this point given conditions on the ground, it seems fairly clear to me that the President has the legal authority to authorize these drone strikes against terrorist targets.
First of all, in October 2001 the House passed by a vote of 420-1, and the Senate passed by a vote of 98–0, the Authorization For Use Of Military Force Against Terrorists, which states:
a) IN GENERAL- That the 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.
(b) War Powers Resolution Requirements-
(1) SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.
(2) APPLICABILITY OF OTHER REQUIREMENTS- Nothing in this resolution supercedes [sic] any requirement of the War Powers Resolution.
The al Qaeda offset based in Yemen is closely affiliated with the group originally formed by Osama bin Laden, for that reason alone I think the AUMF clearly provides sufficient legal authorization for these strikes.
Additionally, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group is known, is believe to have played a role in the USS Cole bombing, the 2009 Christmas bombings, and the 2010 cargo bomb plot. Their apparent leader Anwar al-Awaki is known to have links to such persons as the Times Square Bomber and Major Nidal Hassan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings. Most controversially, he is known to be on a targeted killing list as a person who is a threat to the United States. To the extent AQIAP is a threat against the United States, I would think it’s fairly clear that the President’s authority as Commander in Chief authorizes him to take action against them, especially given the existence of the open-ended AUMF passed in October 2001.
Legally then, I don’t think there’ much question that the operation in Yemen is authorized. There are several valid points that can be made about the dangers of the type of open-ended AUMF that Congress passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but the time to have that discussion was when the resolution was being debated, not ten years later after the President has acted under its authority while Congress has essentially ceded its role completely and not even conducted the most cursory of reviews. When Congress passed that authorization, they signed us up for a “War On Terror” with no logical end point.