Did the United States recently engage in an illegal act of war?
On February 19, “The New York Times” placed on its front page a story headlined, “In a Shift, U.S. Uses Airstrikes To Help Kabul.” As reporter John Burns wrote, “American forces appear to have opened a new phase in the war in Afghanistan with two bombing raids over the weekend that Afghan commanders in the area said were aimed at clashing militia forces rather than the Taliban or Al Qaeda.” The article noted that the U.S. Central Command had issued a statement declaring that U.S. aircraft had dropped precision-guided bombs when “enemy troops” struck forces loyal to the government of Hamid Karzai near Khost. The Pentagon said the pro-government forces had requested the U.S. airstrikes after being attacked by rival troops. Local Afghan commanders reported that the clash involved two tribal militias–but details were murky. Burns noted, “the bombing raids seemed to have placed the United States for the first time in a position of using American air power in defense of the [Karzai] government.”
In other words, the U.S. is taking sides in a civil war within Afghanistan. Perhaps that is not bad policy. Perhaps it is in the interest of the United States and good for Afghans for the U.S. military to come to the rescue of the secular, coalition government of Hamid Karzai, which has recently been shaken by the assassination of a Cabinet member and non-stop factionalism. Still, there’s a problem. Who gave George W. Bush and the Pentagon permission to wage this sort of war in Afghanistan? Not Congress.
On September 14, Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing Bush to go to war in response to the horrific events of September 11. The resolution did not identify a specific target for Bush. Instead, Congress agreed to a broad but specific definition:
“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.”
Nothing in the resolution allows the United States to use force to protect one militia (be it pro-Karzai or not) from another militia. This appears to be unconstitutional mission creep.
It’s unclear whether these bombing raids were a one-time exception or the start of a new pattern of warfare. Karzai has said he will not hesitate to ask for security assistance in order to preserve his government. It certainly looks as if he is going to need such help, and he may well deserve protection and military support. But Bush should not guide the United States into fractious fighting in Afghanistan without first consulting Congress. He is authorized to go after terrorists and their collaborators, not to blast warlords.