Can Obama End the 'Forever War'?

Ahead of Thursday's speech, the president is trying to narrow the use of drones.
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Workers prepare an MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle for static display at Michael Army Airfield, Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on September 15, 2011. (Reuters)

In what is being billed as a major speech Thursday, President Obama is expected to lay out the "next phase" in America's nearly 12-year-old war against al-Qaida, possibly including a plan to clear out the Guantanamo Bay prison by trying or repatriating detainees there. What Obama is less likely to spell out is exactly how he's going to end what the State Department's former legal counsel, Harold Koh, recently called "the forever war."

Nonetheless, the administration is actively seeking to narrow its criteria for enemy combatants, all in an effort to bring America closer to the end of its longest war, according to sources inside and outside the administration who are privy to the discussions about its "targeted killing" and detention programs.

The issue of defining down the enemy has become a topic of intense discussion inside the Obama administration as critics in Congress and elsewhere have been increasingly questioning how long U.S. presidents can continue to use the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Act, which was passed one week after 9/11 and set no temporal or geographic boundaries for killing terrorists.

Administration officials admit that the blowback from Obama's intensive use of drone strikes--including new waves of anti-Americanism in Pakistan and the Arab world--have caught them somewhat by surprise, galvanizing the president's desire to restrain the program and rein in his successors in the White House. Beyond that, the Obama administration genuinely believes it has removed most of "core al-Qaida" from its central home in Pakistan, and at the same time it's no longer quite as clear that "associated" groups or individuals will seek to target the U.S. homeland or U.S. interests the way Osama bin Laden did. Therefore they do not fall under the AUMF as military enemies. "We're really entering a new phase because al-Qaida in Pakistan is basically gone," said a former administration official intimately involved in formulating the policy. "The guys on the list are mostly lower-level guys in places such as North Africa, and there is the continuing threat of the lone wolf."

In a series of speeches dating back to last fall, administration officials have sought to lay the groundwork by distinguishing "core al-Qaida" or "associated groups" that are "organized" and specifically target Americans--the true enemy in the "war," in other words--from other threats. Among the latter are "lone wolves" along the lines of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers or new extremist elements emerging in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which may be locally or regionally focused in their aims, rather than organized to target America.

Koh, in a speech at the Oxford Union earlier this month, sketched out a course that specifically excluded lone terrorists. "To be clear, the United States is not at war with any idea or religion, with mere propagandists or journalists, or even with sad individuals--like the recent Boston bombers--who may become radicalized, inspired by al-Qaida's ideology, but never actually join or become part of al-Qaida," Koh said. "As we have seen, such persons may be exceedingly dangerous, but they should be dealt with through tools of civilian law enforcement, not military action."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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