The man who leads the Pentagon's secret war against al Qaeda and its allies believes it is likely to last another decade or two, and that the current legal basis for it provided by Congress in 2001 continues to be sound, despite the changing character of the enemy.
"As of right now, it suits us very well," Michael A. Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, referring to the "Authorization to Use Military Force," passed by Congress in 2001.
"It serves its purpose," he said of the statute, which authorized war against the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda, and those who harbored them, the Taliban.
The hearing was reported by the new York Times and the Washington Post.
There has been discussion recently among some lawmakers about whether to renew and rewrite the authorization, which is the legal basis for, among other things, the U.S. military's controversial use of remotely piloted drone aircraft to kill suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia.
According to a U.N. official investigating the U.S. targeted killing program, the authorization is also the widely disputed basis for the U.S. government's assertion that the strikes — and those carried out by the CIA under different legal authorities — are lawful under the U.N. charter and other international law.
Although the authorization was enacted during the early days of the conflict, before al Qaeda metastasized and its affiliates spread to places like Iraq, Yemen Somalia and now Syria, it nonetheless effectively gives the military the authority to pursue the war wherever al Qaeda is to be found.
Recently, new concern about the drone program has highlighted this aspect of the authorization — that it effectively renders the whole of the planet a battlefield for U.S. forces forever more.
Those concerns were not quieted by Mr. Sheehan's testimony Thursday.
"In my judgment, this is going to go on for quite a while," he said of the war. "Beyond the second term of the president. ... I think it's at least 10 to 20 years."
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