Are we in another "new" war in Yemen?

In recent days, the Obama administration has exploited the political chaos in Yemen to step up its attacks on the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP. In what news organizations are somewhat laughably calling a “covert war,” the US has sharply increased air strikes on suspected AQAP assets and personnel, and claim to have killed one important commander:

The United States has resumed airstrikes in Yemen and believes it killed a top al Qaeda insurgent there, a U.S. military official said on Thursday.

Abu Ali al-Harithi, “described as one of the most dangerous al Qaeda commanders in Shabwa province,” has been killed in Yemeni security operations, state-run TV reported on Thursday, citing an official military source. The New York Times reported on Thursday that American jets killed him in an airstrike last Friday.

A U.S. military official with knowledge of the Yemen campaign told CNN that U.S. military-led air operations recently resumed after a pause of some months.

CNN follows up with its analysis of the “covert war” and American “unilateral action”:

As Peter Bergen says, this is hardly a surprise, or even a big deal. We have conducted air strikes on AQAP targets in Yemen in the past, and protecting AQAP isn’t exactly the highest priority for Yemenis. They have “three civil wars simultaneously,” so they have other priorities at the moment. Besides, even under Saleh’s government, the US had some leeway in conducting covert operations against AQAP, which Saleh feared as much as the US does.

But the reporting on the supposedly new “covert war” has some wondering why Barack Obama failed to get Congressional approval for launching a new war, such as my friend Jeff Dunetz:

Under the War Powers Act of 1973, if a President authorizes military action without approval from Congress, they must terminate the action within 60 days unless they get specific approval from Congress, or unless there is a national emergency due to an attack on the U.S. In the case of Libya, the 60-day period has come and gone without any action from Congress, yet, in a direct violation of the law, U.S. military involvement in Libya continues. In fact, it has now been extended for another 90 days.

Based on the account of the actions in Yemen, the President is somewhere in the middle of the 60 days he has for the Yemen action.

There is little dispute that today Yemen is a major source of al Qaeda activity in the world. But it is the President’s job to make a case to the American people before going after those terrorists.

The question American’s have to ask themselves is “Are you comfortable with the President taking it upon himself to wage an undeclared war on a foreign country?” This is not like the action against Bin Laden, that was a “one-shot.” Make no mistake about it, the bombings in Libya and Yemen are acts of war. What is our plan? Are we splitting up our military resources to an extent were they cannot be effective? And why aren’t we being told about our activities in Yemen.

That argument certainly applied to Libya, but we’re not attacking the government of Yemen in this supposedly “new” war. We are conducting a war against AQAP as an arm of al-Qaeda, and a particularly virulent one at that. This network produced the Underwear Bomber attack that fizzled on Christmas Day 2009, as well as the attempt to blow up cargo flights through explosives disguised as printer cartridges last year. We responded militarily after both occasions, much in the same way we are now.

Did Obama need to seek Congressional authorization to do so? No, because Congress already authorized military action against al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) of September 18, 2001:

(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.

That authorization remains in effect to this date. It authorizes the President to conduct military operations against AQ and any nation that harbors the terrorist network and its affiliates. This doesn’t apply to Libya, not unless Obama can make a case that Moammar Gaddafi had some involvement in supporting the 9/11 attack — but it does apply to AQ, AQAP, and any other affiliates of the terrorist network.

Of course, as Doug Mataconis said on Twitter, one can make an argument that the AUMF is far too broad if it allows for such actions without Congressional approval, but that’s an entirely different argument — and I suspect that few people are really unhappy to see us bombing AQ terrorists wherever they may be.