2001 war authority enough: U.S. leaders
WASHINGTON — Senior United States national security officials told Congress on Monday that the 2001 war authorization for combat operations against terrorist groups is legally sufficient — and warned that prematurely repealing the law could signal America is “backing away from this fight.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee three months after they informed the panel the post-Sept. 11, 2001 law gave the military ample authority to fight terrorist groups and a new one was unnecessary.
A separate authorization for the war in Iraq approved by Congress in 2002 also remains in force.
The two men said if Congress does pursue a new authorization for foes such as Islamic State group militants, it’s imperative the existing law not be rescinded until a new one is fully in place. Tillerson and Mattis also said that any new war authorization, like the existing one, should have no geographic or time restrictions so as not to tip the enemy off.
“Though a statement of continued congressional support would be welcome, a new (war authorization) is not legally required to address the continuing threat posed by al-Qaida, the Taliban and ISIS,” Mattis said. But ending existing laws prematurely “could only signal to our enemies and our friends that we are backing away from this fight.”
Their appearance before the committee comes as the deadly ambush in Niger is igniting a push among many lawmakers to update the legal parameters for combat operations overseas.
A growing number of congressional Republicans and Democrats, many of whom were startled by the depth of the U.S. commitment in Niger and other parts of Africa, have been demanding a new authorization for the use of military force. They’ve argued that the dynamics of the battlefield have shifted over the past 16 years.
Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, noted that none of the 21 members of the committee were members of the Senate when the 2001 war authorization was approved. Flake and Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, are sponsoring legislation for a new war authority for operations against the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Flake said he understood the reluctance expressed by Mattis and Tillerson not to telegraph when U.S. troops might depart a particular war zone. But he said that concern is “overwhelmed in a big way by not having Congress buy in, and us not having skin in the game.”
“It simply allows us to criticize the administration, Republican or Democrat, if we don’t like what they’re doing because we haven’t weighed in,” Flake said.
Kaine said last week he believed most Americans would be surprised by the extent of the operations in Africa that U.S. forces are involved in.
“I don’t think Congress has necessarily been completely kept up to date — and the American public, I think, certainly has not,” Kaine said after leaving a classified briefing conducted by senior Pentagon officials on the assault in Niger.