A few days ago I linked to a Washington Post story suggesting that the original Al Qaeda network was all but dead. It was late at night when I posted about it, so I didn't bother musing on the legal implications of this, but Robert Chesney picks up the ball and suggests that it matters. Sure, he says, the guys in Yemen might call themselves Al Qaeda, but the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force doesn't care:
The AUMF, famously, encompasses at least the original al Qaeda network and those who harbor it. Whether it applies as well to entities like AQAP is a much-debated question, raising difficult issues regarding both how one defines the organizational boundaries as al Qaeda and whether the AUMF should be read to include, implicitly, authority to use force as well against organizations that can be described as the functional equivalent to co-belligerents (and, if so, what the criteria are for defining that set). With the potential demise of the “core” al Qaeda leadership, these questions will become still more difficult....I expect that this will become an increasingly significant set of issues in the years ahead.
In theory, this sounds right. In practice, we launched a drone war against AQAP in Yemen and no one blinked. Ditto for a military operation against Libya, which had nothing even arguably to do with al-Qaeda. In that case, Congress roused itself from its torpor just enough to growl slightly, but then fell immediately back into a coma. Legalities aside, virtually no one in Congress seems much interested in deciding whether the AUMF has had its day and should no longer be considered an all-purpose excuse for military action in any country that shares a majority religion with Afghanistan.
But they should.